Ethics for theater critics: Does an analysis by a privileged journalist have value?

A version of this article was published on Broad Street Review. Republished by kind permission of the author.

Is everybody a critic? Statler and Waldrof. (Photo via
Is everybody a critic? Statler and Waldrof. (Photo via

Wendy Rosenfield has written another entry into one of my favorite genres of unintentionally hilarious editorial thoughtpieces: the establishment critic bemoaning the death of criticism as evidenced by reviewers who write for the (spit on ground) “internet” without the remuneration supplied by a paper of record (see cf. 1, 2). Rosenfield’s piece is titled “Ethics for theater critics… Does a review that no one paid for have value?” If Betteridge’s law of headlines is any guide, she thinks the answer is no. Who’s to say her opinion is wrong?

I am. I’ve worked for fifteen years as a writer and editor; I can understand wishing publishers paid more for writing. But I’ve also dedicated years of my life to songwriting, to skiing, to publishing the work of local fiction writers, to enriching the lives of kids and special needs adults—to pursuits for which I expected no monetary payment (though I sometimes welcomed it). I can understand wanting to do something without pay, and wanting to do it well, ethically, and seriously. I feel sorry for those who can’t.

Rosenfield frames her editorial with the story of the “Craigslist critic”, a writer in Seattle who posted in “Men Seeking Women” offering to sell his +1s for plays he was reviewing. To Rosenfield this is emblematic of a widespread moral turpitude among her lesser-compensated colleagues. The very fact that he was not paid for his writing demonstrates a loss of credibility and inherent “ignorance arising out of the far-flung and isolated nature of online writing”.

According to Rosenfield, by reviewing for no compensation writers “contribute to the idea that critics have no ethics, that ethics no longer matter, and that therefore arts criticism can’t be taken seriously.” She claims “newspaper employees” are more ethical because they know “their jobs [are] at stake” if they violate a code of conduct and an unpaid critic “has nothing tangible to lose.”  This argument reeks of the religious admonition to do right or you’ll go to hell, as if our moral compasses are only moved by the threat of punishment.

It’s also a galling argument for Rosenfield to make. Critical coverage of theater in Philadelphia is at a nadir, part of a shriveling of arts journalism and professional media in general. She is paid by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the ONLY print publication in the city running frequent theater reviews. Online sites have filled some of the void, but cast-offs from the shrinking print media take most of the paid posts.

Rosenfield’s assertion that pay for criticism “has been reduced because [unpaid reviewers are] giving it away for free” does not hold water: A decline in advertising revenue precipitated by the death of the urban department store and the migration of classified postings to online sites shattered the economics of newspapers and stripped the number of paid reviewing opportunities. It’s no comment on Rosenfield’s talent to say she’s lucky to have one. For her to question the ethics and output of those who don’t is akin to Donald Trump criticizing people who deign to work for minimum wage.

An independent critic may have to be self-policing in his ethics, but there’s no reason to assume those ethics are diminished. An antithetical argument could be made: Paid journalism requests conformity to a code of conduct, but it also puts pressure on writers to consider the financial prerogatives of their employers. A reviewer might self-censor in consideration of an editor’s politics, artistic taste, or desire for clicks and subscribers. The writer might be tempted to detract from critical analysis with that oh-so-clever mean-spirited pun or give ill-considered judgments in the rush to make deadline.

A critic who writes only for the love of the theater and a desire to hold practitioners to the high standard might approach reviews from a more ethical grounding. I wouldn’t advertise on Craigslist for my extra ticket, certainly not on a dating page. It’s crass and embarrassing, and I feel bad for someone who would do that. But I can think of bigger threats to the art of criticism, and those include an aging critical establishment shunning newcomers who write on different forums, for different motivations, adhering to different ethical codes.

My first introduction to theater criticism was as a paid writer, but I am now the editor of Phindie, the website that publishes more reviews of local theater than any other venue in Philadelphia. Phindie generally does not pay its writers, providing only a small payment to a few contributors at certain times (the Fringe Festival, for example). I don’t ask critics to write for free, they ask if they can write for Phindie and I tell them it usually doesn’t pay more than free tickets (sometimes worth $100+ for two). Most still want to write; some don’t.

Phindie has its own guidelines for reviewers (my favorite is “don’t be a dick”), but as befits a site that boasts “independent coverage”, they instruct writers to “Let your personal ethics guide your writing” and conclude by saying “Ignore any guidelines you wish. Trust your opinion and find your own voice as a critic.”  I wouldn’t presume to tell them someone that my ethical code is the only one that’s valid, and I wouldn’t want a writer who was only ethical because she feared punishment.

What’s at stake?

In writing this response, I compared Rosenfield’s last ten reviews to Phindie’s reviews of the same productions. At the risk of offending Phindie reviewers, I’d acknowledge that Rosenfield’s writing often has better organization, better supported arguments, and more varied sentence structure and vocabulary. My problems with Rosenfield’s piece should not be taken as an attack on her criticism.

But for all I admire the quality of Rosenfield’s writing, I often disagree with her opinions. The pieces on Phindie were penned by seven different writers of varied gender, age, nationality, and sexual orientation. As criticism is an inherently subjective enterprise, more—and more diverse—viewpoints benefit the field as a whole. The concentration of critical opinion in a few hands is bad for criticism and it is bad for the field it covers.

I also compared my own most recent sample of ten reviews to those published on Four of the last ten works I reviewed got no consideration on that site. Three of them were not reviewed by any paid critic, and the fourth only by the now-defunct City Paper. All four were independent productions of fairly high quality and artistic integrity. In many cases, if I don’t review a play or find a volunteer reviewer for it, it won’t get any coverage. That’s a true death of criticism.

I’m not suggesting publishers stop paying their theater critics. The Broad Street Review raises over $70,000 a year from grants and gifts to pay for criticism. Perhaps other financial models exist? Academia? Crowdsourcing? Foundation support? A better administrator could certainly monetize Phindie more successfully and better compensate writers—though these would be token payments insufficient to squash a reprobate reviewer into fearful morality.

Theater criticism is an art, and artists have a right to ask for and receive payment for their work. I’d love to provide every writer with adequate reward for their valuable work. But to say unpaid or poorly compensated work has no value and to denigrate the ethics of those writers is insulting.

For theater criticism to survive it must adapt to new economic realities. The future will not be inked on broadsheets in every commuter’s hands, but perhaps there will remain a place for an independent-minded critic like me. Maybe you want to hire me or donate to my site? Or perhaps you’d like to write for me. Maybe I can even pay you a little. I’m a good guy, honestly.

Now… Does anyone know some pretty ladies who want to buy my +1s? Hell, I might even give them away for free.

Read Wendy Rosenfield’s original article. For Dan Rottenberg’s commentary on this debate, click here.

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