The First Amendment; Smith/Criticism
WGBH Boston in cooperation with the Institute for Democratic communications at the School of Communications at Boston University now presents the First Amendment and a free people and examination of civil liberties in the media. In the 1970s and now here is the director of the Institute for democratic communication Dr. Bernard Rubin.
My guest today is Professor Robert Rutherford Smith of Boston University who is the author of the recently published book Beyond the Wasteland which is subtitled The criticism of broadcasting which was published in 1976 through the authorizations of the speech communication Association and the clearing house and reading in communication skills. Robert Smith knows a great deal about criticism and has concentrated himself for many years as you know observing what other critics say. Robert why are there so few good critics of the mass media.
I guess the reason is the Gresham's law operates and there are so many poor critics that they've driven out the potentially good ones. Nearly everyone has something to say about television or the press less so the Prez primarily television but it's very difficult to find a football coach or a senator a congressman a governor an FCC commissioner a college professor who doesn't have something to say about television the consequence is that there is a great deal discussion of it and the quantity of discussion dilutes the content to some extent there are no credentials necessary to participate in criticism. Everyone's free to do it. And as a consequence there is relatively little reason to value those who do it well.
There's even the criticism made very recently that many newspapers are now taking the attitude that they don't want to publish really serious criticism of television in particular because it offends the listeners who love television. Love the boob tube as some people characterize it and at the same time feel that any adverse remarks about a television program goes against the grain so the editors having some of their critics to soft pedal. Is this a new trend.
Well I think to some extent editors have over the long haul been critical of the competing medium and so newspaper people have not been terribly friendly to television but the reverse holds also television has generally discouraged criticism. They've tried to manipulate critics to encourage them to act as public relations man for the broadcasters.
A number of years ago there was a cartoon in broadcasting magazine a trade press Weekly magazine and it showed a young man obviously from an Ivy League school entering the editor's office. Apparently his first day in a new job the editor was the old green eyeshade sort of editor and he said Young man we're going to start you at the bottom you're going to be the television critic. And I think that attitude on the part of broadcasters doesn't do very much to encourage good criticism.
The genre of criticism of films say by newspapers that that work is pretty good.
As a matter of fact you expect to open a newspaper and occasionally see some Serb IC attack upon a film which critic x or critic Y says is terrible or its producer or director F's worst worst piece of production.
But you don't expect to do television. Why is it that newspapers whose clients advertising clients are film people. Motion picture owner theatre owners and so on every day. Why is it that they they they don't worry about that. Well they're not competing with.
Music Hall operators or theater operators for advertiser dollars they're competing directly with broadcasters.
But I think there's also a different tradition as you suggest the 1960s was a marvelous time for film criticism I think of many new critics emerged and they moved not only the reviewing function but the theoretical analysis of film moved ahead in that period of music criticism has a long and honorable career from George Bernard Shaw to I think one of the very finest writing in the country who recently retired unfortunately from the Boston Globe. Michael Steinberg. But there is a long tradition of influential learned with the perceptive criticism in your music. We don't have that in broadcasting.
The critic essentially is the essayist. In modern dress is he not he.
Yes it's hard to think of an expert on criticism he's simply an intelligent and open fellow citizen who looks at what he sees and reacts to it as openly as possible.
Now that the press has changed as well the certainly the newspaper press has changed. Most news stories were written until 60 or 70 years ago essentially as critical reviews because they the amount of information hard information on a minute to minute basis or hour to hour was not as great as it is today. And if you go back a hundred years or more dispatches from the front or dispatches from some distant city like Berlin Germany or something of that sort were essentially interpretations almost like musical reviews are today of politics and social life. Is that what killed much criticism that we've become hard news Addicks.
I think it may be and to some extent the space that's given to the coverage of broadcasting in newspapers quite often is filled with news about the industry the economics the personalities that sort of thing there are two examples though of what could be called I guess front line reporting about television by by two of our best critics. One is the living room war by Michael Arlen that was published a few years ago and his new book The view from Highway 1 I think they have examples of. First rate criticism in a new medium and the other person who I suppose could be called a new journalist working in a new medium is Harlan Ellison working in Los Angeles.
But I think his occasionally rhapsodic occasionally slightly mad but it's a highly personalized kind of criticism and for the Los Angeles market where most programming is created it's just the right kind of thing to have said in that milieu or should the critic be detached or should be or should he or she be a message person essentially bringing their message to the product or is the critic someone who is objective in your mind and reviews something from from a position of refinement if you want to put it that way.
Well some of our best critics have been people who. Played roles in the industry that perhaps should have compromised them but don't seem to know Harlan Ellison works as a scriptwriter on the West Coast and quite often comments on the various shows for which he is written which would seem to be a conflict of interest and yet he does it so well that it seems worth taking the risk. Gilbert seld is who is one of the the granddaddies was one of the granddaddies one of the most respected people working in popular culture was employed by CBS as a network program director at one time.
And so there doesn't seem to have been the detachment on the part of the very best critics.
They seem to know the medium by having worked in it and having been concerned about us Brown who has been one of our guests on a recent program works for The New York Times as he is the television critic and was with Downbeat magazine for a number of years and has you know the the the business as it were of mass media inside and out. And his book on the subject is very valid. There are very few people though like Les Brown on the media like Walter Lippmann when he was going on politics and life in general foreign affairs. There are very few people that one looks to where they tend to become specialized that may be part of it.
And so we have for instance in The New York Times Les Brown doing the economic and public affairs criticism of broadcasting he reports on the corporations and much of his work could appear in the business page and it would be equally appropriate. And John O'Connor does the reviews of programs I think that specialization has resulted in less time paid less space devoted to the content of television and more of it to the business the regulatory aspects.
Well I heard John O'Connor as well about six seven weeks ago at a meeting and he was talking about the Fairness Doctrine as it applied to to the industry communications industry. And one of the things that I observed about John O'Connor's comments was that his.
His approach was from inside. He knew about the business and he wasn't all that much concerned about the actual programs even though he writes on programs Les Brown to a similar extent says. Often there's very little to write if we are to sit down and write criticisms of the actual programming. We would be bored to tears ourselves we must get behind the box as it were.
I think that's that's a very common reaction in fact Michael Arlen in the in the forward to his most recent book says that the major problem for the television critic is how to take television seriously. How can you look at the Mary Tyler Moore show Charlie's Angels the Bionic Woman week after week and take it seriously enough to write about it in some way. And rather than them suffer a kind of brain damage from overexposure to that sort of thing many people turn away from the programming and write about the regulatory problems public policy important but quite different kinds of questions. I'm not sure that's really the role of the critic It seems to me the critic is at his best when he's doing what Michael Arlen does and raising the question What is there to say about this. How can I take it seriously. Because that sort of I think a great deal of use to the interested viewer.
Should he also be something of a cross between Macaulay and Dickens. Well there's a room for a great variety of characters in there and it seems to be we couldn't describe one ideal role model for the critics put on it and more or less saying when I suggested Macaulay that the actual program or the actual issue before the public at any time should be less significant than the fact that Macaulay is writing about it. Charles Lamb would be a marvelous critic if he could turn away to wider issues of the day and lived in our time.
We don't know we're still really George Bernard Shaw's criticism although we don't always bother to read the things he criticized.
One of the greatest critics of course was was Thurber John Steinbeck as an immensely appealing critic. One of his last books was as I recall Travels with Charley which are among other weighty criticisms he said Beware when you get away from groups that have ethnic minorities of Germans Austrians Italians Jews and so on and so forth because the bread and rolls run out and there's division just no pastry. Get out is the real America. Now that may not be profound but it certainly is observant.
Well it's very difficult I think to find a critic who has much to say about the experience that a viewer has most of us are concerned about watching what appears on the tube or what we hear over the radio.
There are very few critics who want to deal with that and it's easier I think to talk about the celebrities to talk about perhaps the social effects of violence to talk about the effects on politics to stay away from the programming. And I think a real measure of the extent to which a critic is serious about his work is the extent to which he's willing to say I have to look at a program and respond to it honestly and openly and frame that in some kind of.
Context that will be meaningful I love it let's take a subject that you just mentioned Robert Smith the prime time violence. Now everybody decries it we have done our fair share of decrying it on this series and without belaboring that point yet I find very few critics writing about prime time violence by taking a program they talk about violence on the tube or perhaps they'll refer to violence in various series.
But they very rarely will write a classic piece saying Kojak last night was absolutely revolting and the use of such and such a technique was was just terrible and it was dirty it was cheap. Whatever you want to say about a particular program and I'm only using the name Kojak for as a reference point not for a specific point. Well you know the films they do this they do tear apart the individual film.
Well the question a question such as why answer. It's difficult for a critic to have something fresh to say to some extent the social scientists have a stall in the field and critics once they are co-opted find they have to find new territory. I suspect one thing they might do is as you suggest look at specific programs.
Perhaps another that might be more helpful is to look at the whole question. Most of the most of the charges about violence defend depend upon very tenuous connections between the Via the evidence of violent behavior and the viewing behavior. And it seems to me if a critic were to write an essay on the nature of causation it would be very helpful because there is a good deal of very tentative kind of relationships being brought before us as evidence of influence. That probably wouldn't stand up I'm certain if the Food and Drug Administration saw that kind of evidence presented for a new drug. They certainly wouldn't allow it on the market and it seems to me that television may be the victim of some very bad arguing.
Quite apart from the evidence I think simply making it hard to think of people like Robert Lewis and others who have written rather rather dutifully and beautifully about television particular. Does the critic really need a proper forum and is it a problem that the forums are drying up for example of somebody came to you and said Robert Rutherford Smith I'd like you to be the critic for The Atlantic or Harper's or The New Republic or commentary or what have you. You would probably say splendid. And once a month you would provide the the terse no much no. Well you know you may say splendid before you say how much I hope that you would.
But is it a fact that when one picks up the ordinary daily newspaper that one doesn't expect a level of objectivity about criticism or or subtlety.
Well it's difficult for the local critic to function since all across the country we see on the major networks the same programs on the same day. It means that the syndicated services of one of the best being the New York Times when they release their news stories and they release to their. Member affiliate newspapers the right to use their copy. It means that the local critic can't write about local material for a local audience rather he's competing directly with Les Brown and John O'Connor. And that's very difficult for him to do. I think the syndicated services discourage local criticism in many cases. First of all the newspaper editor may wonder why should I spend money on that if for a very low fee I can get some of the best writers in the country.
And second he may wonder are they going to be good enough. Is there enough happening in the local market around the country is there enough happening in Richmond Indiana to demand a local critic or does will say John O'Connor cover it sufficiently for Richmond as well as world or does you know this is this is popped up very very frequently at a recent dinner held by the Institute for Politics at Harvard University.
They had a number of reporters there eminent reporters discussing the White House beat. And one of them said that it was a very very sad. But so many local newspapers want a story from the White House as often as possible every week even though they're there. People just operate on the basis of the handouts. They don't want them to be critical. They just want to have something that says the White House Dubuque a blade or whatnot. Is this a real problem that that we've become so star conscious in every way that we rely upon the headquarters beat coverage.
I think we do the networks are the primary source of interest in television news and television criticism. It's very difficult for a local critic to generate interest in local programming and in the criticism of it it should be done. And I think quite often in a market like Boston there is good reason for it enough is happening locally here to justify some very interesting kinds of comments. But but by and large I think the network programs which represent the vast majority of the viewing on any weekday evening they they steal the thunder from the local broadcaster and from the local critic we have we have right here in Boston Eliot Norton.
It has been for many many years doing the criticisms on WGBH TV about new plays and he's enjoyed by a great many people especially because he is local He is by the way an adjunct professor and has been for a number of years at Boston University in the school for the Arts.
But well in the hell is nobody better than Eliot Norton when it comes to criticism seems to me that we have an Eliot Norton to buy that at least one or perhaps a dozen in every major city in the United States.
That's true there are many more in the theater around the country. We're unusually fortunate in television criticism here in Boston. Percy Shane just retired from the Boston Globe but William Henry is doing that kind of writing in Bruce McCabe does. And Tony look camera at the Herald is widely quoted widely known and compared with the average about the country we get I think as as well a superior grade of comment. I don't think we have the vigor that one might hope for if you compare radio and television criticism with theater as you just have or with music criticism in which quite often there is. A fiery exchange in public that I think works to improve the performance and to sharpen the critic and to help the public make decisions.
Our political criticism in Boston as in most other cities leaves one yawning most of the time it poses as as good reporting and comes out to be merely a repetition or re-enactment in the imprint of what has been seen almost directly.
Bob can we train people to be critics and if we can train them to be critics should we do it in English departments in schools of communication or in departments dealing with history and political science. I should think that if you are thinking of green You really should put in music music or medicine.
If we're thinking of. Of Investigative Reporting we want people who are really going to tell us what's happening to three men in New York make decisions for millions of people that kind of question. Then journalistic schools or perhaps political science departments something of that kind are appropriate if we're looking for people who are going to do program analysis then you might look for a different kind of expertise. I suggest though that what we're looking for is someone who has a fairly general background in several different areas including It's very important to have a background in the media. But I think a more general well-educated person in the traditional sense and someone who's skeptical I think skepticism may be that the primary ingredient. I'm thinking of an event that occurred recently when the ABC television network announced that it was dropping a number of programs for next season. And they announced this in the context of dropping violent programs and a number of stations or a number of newspapers rather carried the announcement that finally the word was getting to the networks about violence and they were doing something about it. The evidence was that they were dropping Tony Randall and the buy on equipment among other things and it seems to me if those editors if those writers had just been a little more skeptical they might not have fallen for it so he's not only scared to go perhaps literate in the ordinary sense being able to read the copy in front of them.
Obviously it was it was not true what the headline. Said that the networks were obviously dropping some forms of Robert. If you were to make a suggestion do you think that we ought to covet protect our critics perhaps. Should they be. Should a newspaper have a critic the way they have now an ombudsman where the editor says look you know you're going to be our critic in certain areas and criticize when you can. We're not going to tell you where you are to stop and where to go. We need someone to appear at the surgeon table with or with a scalpel because we've been hammering the patient to death. And that's not a good way to perform this job.
Well I I don't think I wouldn't think that it does very much for either the critic or the public to call him an ombudsman and put him there just near the shore usually responsible should he be should he be reviewed.
The way that your review of the copy or should you say as long as he doesn't get us into trouble let's let's go with him a bit and see if he could sharpen his blade hone his wit get on to the business of critiquing what's going on around.
I prefer the second it seems to me that you're calling for very personal judgements from a critic. He's going to tell you what he likes and dislikes and why shouldn't he and he should and it seems to me he exposes himself to and should and we should flail them disagree with them write letters of protest in short make it interesting. At the moment the problem is it's terribly bland and there isn't much interest and seems to be some excitement would do a great deal for the critic. Ultimately he is doing I think what. What literary critics do that is if they step away from the analysis of a specific item they begin to criticize the society and television doesn't allow you to look at it very long without raising questions about the society and so they'll they're bound to say is violence and a problem of American society what is it about us that makes us so concerned about violence.
Why when we were concerned about excellence in television 15 years ago have we suddenly forgotten it. No one worries about excellence anymore we worry about the effects of television but we stop worrying about how good the programs are. I think a critic ought to bring up that kind of question and say why. Why have we suddenly lost our regard for standards. And it's a personal kind of question and the person should be subject to attack criticism and should have the right to respond.
Well there are people who do it both ways for example Baker in the New York Times is very good at handling and handling stories sometimes from a humorous point of view sometimes from a deadly serious point of view. Sometimes when you read Scotty Reston you don't know whether he is the active reporter or the social observer for the for the newspaper and the same thing is true of that great critic Anthony Lewis.
Well Russell Baker I suppose could could serve as a very good example of someone who isn't a television critic but has the right temperament for doing it particularly well Hugh Trevor Roper was interviewed in The Times a couple of weeks ago and one of the things he mentioned was that historians shouldn't have a philosophy or a point of view. They can be put in the form of a telegram that you should have to read the body of their work to find out where they stand. And it seems to me a good critic should be the kind of person. It isn't so important that we know where the critic stands but rather that it may be more important that he just helps us to find our way through a problem. In fact if he doesn't know where he stands it may be even better because he has to find his way as well.
We know sometimes he is very light handed criticism I remember Robert eventually did one of the better movie shot movies on television. Excuse me short movies in the day of movie long before television late 19th early late 1930s early 40s it was called trying to read the New York Times on the top of an open air Fifth Avenue bus and it depicted the travails of this man. I also think is an essay on the sex life of the Newt remains an American classic displaying much vigorous knowledge of life and morals in the world but perhaps perhaps I'm mistaken perhaps there are many.
They would have brooms around but it seems to be drying up. We've done something to the critic he's hiding away. He's waiting.
Well he's simply not being employed I guess my dad might be closer to it. I think we it was said by someone whom I don't know but I think it's worth repeating that television criticism is like trying to report a traffic accident from the point of view of the victim. And I think it may be that we don't know quite what to say about it and so we try to find ways out and talk about all of those other issues. It does call for a great great wit or great the ability to suffer a great length a certain saintliness to keep returning to the scene of the accident and commenting and on the day after day. The English are somewhat more tolerant I think of critics who don't restrict themselves to programmes and perhaps there is a model over there I think the kind of. And say that tends to be an essay on life at that moment when life involved television is the kind of critical essay that the British do very well. We don't seem to have room for it I think it calls for a leisurely pace. But perhaps if we look at television as part of life and say it you don't need to focus on it quite is as narrowly.
It might be good for the critic I wrote about television will save the previous week or something cryptic like the great deal of sludge passed before my eyes. This week I can't say anything more than that but I've just taken a shower and feel a lot better about it instead of the criticism that says Last night I saw an exceptional programme and everybody concentrates on that. Robert Rutherford Smith it's been a pleasure. Thank you discuss this with you and let me recommend your book again. Beyond the wasteland the criticism of broadcasting which was published by Erich last year this is Brenna driven saying good night.
This transcript is machine-generated and has not been corrected. It is likely there will be errors.
- The First Amendment
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