Ethics for theater critics: The Craigslist critic

Does a review that no one paid for have value?

In the world of arts criticism, reviewers usually receive two complimentary tickets to a performance. It’s common practice for the reviewer, if he or she will not be bringing a companion, to let the theater know (the earlier the better) that they are free to fill that extra seat however they choose. It is definitely unusual for a reviewer to sell that ticket in the “Men Seeking Women” section of Craigslist in the hopes of both finding a date and scoring a profit.

An actress, an “actress,” and a critic: Davis, Monroe, and Sanders in “All About Eve.”

Once upon a time, the rules were clear. The critic, employed full-time at a major newspaper, attended a show on opening night with tickets paid for by the publications, then ran into a smoky, booze-soaked writing room to pound out an analysis before a 10:30pm deadline, dictating copy over the telephone to a waiting stenographer. Lines were never crossed; the booze never arrived gratis, courtesy of an anxious producer; and no one ever leapt over the footlights in search of romance. 

Which is all to say, of course, ethical lines have always been crossed, in life and certainly onscreen. Long before All About Eve’s Addison DeWitt talked Marilyn Monroe into a few dates, or Birdman’s Tabitha Dickinson used her powers for evil, the ethics of criticism occupied a gray area somewhere between what critics should do in theory and how they actually behaved in practice.

Should critics ever review a preview? No! Unless it’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which racked up nearly 70 previews while charging full price for tickets. Should theater companies pay for a review? Hell, no. Unless you’re Los Angeles’s Bitter Lemons and you’re looking for a new independent online model that pays critics for their work. Should critics tread lightly, offering only positive feedback? No way, unless you’re hoping your website will be a gathering place for theater professionals. Should you fraternize with the hired help? Of course not, unless you’re John Lahr. Can a critic work both inside and outside the theater? Never! Unless they’re George Bernard ShawKenneth Tynan; or, more recently, Terry Teachout, whose playwriting success required a new conflict-of-interest policy; and David Cote.

What’s at stake?

But the problem with selling a comped ticket is larger than blowback from a lady who realizes her date just charged her for a freebie. When newspaper employees received a written code of conduct and knew their jobs were at stake if they violated those codes, they were less likely to do so. Seattle’s Craigslist critic, L. Steven Seiden, continues to write for the Huffington Post (and receive comps). HuffPo doesn’t pay its reviewers, so neither the site nor Seiden really has anything tangible to lose if something goes awry. Even if the site cut him loose, he could start his own blog or put up a shingle on some other non-compensated writer’s clearinghouse. 

However, in the macro sense, something tangible does get lost: credibility, for the person and the profession. By literally devaluing critics’ work, or through ignorance arising out of the far-flung and isolated nature of online writing, a profession becomes a hobby. If no one is paying you for what you’re creating, whether in a knitting circle or on the Huffington Post, who’s to say you’re doing it wrong? 

I am. It’s not a hobby. If you knit your grandmother a three-armed sweater, she’ll still thank you and try to wear it before she saves it with the mothballs. If you review a preview (for free), get names and facts wrong, sell your comp on Craigslist, proposition the actors, and trash their physiques because one turned you down, you might lose your goodwill at that theater, but you might also make it harder for other reviewers — whose pay has been reduced because you’re giving it away for free — to gain entry. You will contribute to the idea that critics have no ethics, that ethics no longer matter, and that therefore arts criticism can’t be taken seriously. Your error-filled, mean-spirited, and unethical review will live on in the SEO ether, popping up on every search of the company, because Huffington Post pays someone to bring them traffic — just not you. 

Clarifying expectations

At the recent American Theatre Critics Association meeting in New York City, its Executive Committee wrestled with an update of the group’s code of conduct, which was originally adopted in 1997, just when everything was about to change. (Full disclosure: I am a member of both ATCA and the committee.) But even back then, the first condition listed was this: “I will respect the intent of complimentary items (tickets, merchandise) given to me in the course of my job and not use them for financial gain.” Other critics and organizations have crafted their own set of rules, and just as there are many approaches to theater criticism, the variety of perspectives evident in these lists shows the difficulty in governing an ungovernable profession. 

The Canadian Theatre Critics Association asks for critical objectivity, which many would argue is an impossible ideal, and says, “The critic should give full consideration and attention to all elements of a production. The work of supporting players, designers, musicians, and technicians is important, as well as that of leading players, director and author.” Good luck with stuffing all that consideration and attention into 400 words or less. The International Association of Theatre Critics’ code of practice created a more realistic list, although anyone who has spent time in the social company of critics knows the difficulty of maintaining this standard: “Theater critics should not do anything that would bring into disrepute their profession or practice, their own integrity or that of the art of the theater.” It sure would have been tricky for Tynan.

Here’s the thing: These codes aren’t dealing in absolutes. They’re guidelines, which means guidelines exist. If you write about theater and don’t belong to one of these organizations (several, including ATCA, now accept non-paid reviewers), you may continue writing about theater, but thanks to their efforts on behalf of the profession, you can’t claim ignorance, not even if it might get you a date.

 

Editor’s note: Broad Street Review pays its writers for their work — including this essay.

 

For a response by Christopher Munden, whose website, Phindie, generally does not pay its critics, click here.

For Dan Rottenberg's commentary on this debate, click here.

Our readers respond

Gary L. Day

of Philadelphia, PA on November 27, 2015

I pretty much agree with Wendy's astute assessment of the ethics of theater criticism — except for one point. I do not feel that critics of theater should be proscribed from participating in theater. However, that would bring a whole other set of ethical issues to bear — primarily involving the appearance of conflict of interest. A critic really should not review shows that include one's friends or colleagues. It's a clear conflict of interest (though I know first-hand that certain Inquirer critics ignore this constraint when it suits them).

Mark Cofta

of Ridley Park, PA on November 28, 2015

Gary's rule — about critics not reviewing their friends in shows — makes sense until we try to define "friend." Most human beings make people's acquaintance at their places of work. So who draws the friend line, and where do we draw it? Should an editor be checking Wendy's Facebook friend list for theater professionals, and not allow her to review their shows? (Leading to the larger question: Are Facebook friends really friends?) As soon as we try to implement such rules, they get tricky.

Gary's right, though, about "the appearance of conflict of interest." If an action might even appear wrong or unfair, it warrants careful consideration. As professionals, we should be able to manage ourselves — especially knowing that when one of our vanishing number screws up, like Seiden, we all pay for it. As a critic, as a professional, and even as a human being (if I may be so presumptuous), I know I need to self-monitor vigilantly. One case of boneheaded behavior shouldn't brand us all — but for many people, it does.

Jeffrey E. Salzberg

of Essex Junction, VT on November 30, 2015

All good points, but I'd point out that the conflict of interest that happens when a critic is also a participant long predates Terry Teachout. The great George S. Kaufman was simultaneously a critic, a playwright, a director… and a noted seducer of young actresses.

Leonard Jacobs

of Long Island City, NY on December 01, 2015

I agree with everything here, but harping on paid vs. unpaid is out of hand. Paid critics make mistakes all the time, and their compensation is no guarantee of accuracy. You can say this of any journalist in general. After all, what was Judith Miller, a candy striper? What was Jayson Blair?

But back to critics: the paid and the unpaid have been caught before selling comps (including one famous case here in New York), and have been rightly punished. Paid critics have had inappropriate and/or questionable relationships and friendships with artists since Inkblot, Roman God of Journalism, decreed that the word "By" should come before a writer's name. If you think paid critics never trash an actor's physique, ask John Simon for his 1040 tax returns for the years he was theater critic for New York magazine. I suspect his paycheck was quite nice for comparing Liza Minnelli once to a beagle.

When you write "whose pay has been reduced because you’re giving it away for free," you reduce another macro journalism issue to unfortunate and adversarial terms. No publisher or editor is going to cut your rate just because Joe Schmo is paid zip to write the same thing at the Huffington Post. If a publisher or editor is really so influenced by Joe Schmo getting paid nothing, they will fire you and hire Morty, Joe Schmo's cousin, to write for free instead. That’s 21st-century journalism. Ask any journalist who’s been laid off. I would know.

You also write: “If no one is paying you for what you’re creating, whether in a knitting circle or on the Huffington Post, who’s to say you’re doing it wrong?” I’ll tell you who: you. And me. And anyone who cares for ethics, paid or not. Enough of this elitist white privilege idea that free is always tantamount to unprofessional. Matthew Murray has toiled away as the main New York critic for TalkinBroadway.com for 15 years. He’s widely read and widely quoted and widely debated and, to my knowledge, he’s either unpaid or paid very modestly. You don’t know him, perhaps, but to judge by your words, he’s some kind of journalistic leper. You think he doesn’t want to be paid? You think he gets off on giving it away for free? You think he enjoys knowing there are people out there gleefully snickering at his free-ness? What’s your solution? That everybody pull some journalistic Lysistrata and withhold stories until they’re paid? And, having done so, that it will somehow, out of thin air, magically recreate the cushy, three-martini-filled world of Mad Men-era journalism?

Oh, that word, that word — hobby. Drips with condescension. For some it is a hobby, and so what? If a producer gives the hobbyist free tickets — or not — they’re bound by the same ethics. Paid or not, ethics are ethics. Did Aristotle write a whole disclaimer that not being paid means ethical boundaries vanish? No one said you have to write for free. I respect that you don't. Until I found myself a victim of the recession, I’d never written for free. For 20 years, my byline ran in more than 40 publications, projects, newspapers and magazines, journals and websites. I've been paid $2 a word to write for a major magazine and a quarter of bupkis to cover Broadway, and everything in between. Any time someone trots out a version of that canard that writers writing for free caused the fiscal collapse of journalistic Jericho, I wonder how those condominiums up on Masada worked out.

We don’t all benefit from the cosseted luck of the draw. I choose to write for free if I feel it’s worth it to me for some reason. But generally, I don’t — I like to be paid and expect to be paid. But I’m bound by the same ethics whether I’m paid or not. And I expect ethical behavior from all, whether there’s a transaction or not. Have you ever thought that maybe people unable to get paid to write look at you — and me — with envy, wondering why they can’t be paid to do what they love?

You can’t know what's in every person’s aspirational mind and heart, or what their personal or professional ambitions are or were or will be tomorrow. But you can still expect them, paid or not, to exhibit good ethics. Money is not a fair or suitable distinction. Money is a bitter sideshow.

Eva Heinemann

of NYC, NY on December 02, 2015

I'm with Leonard on the paid vs. non paid issue. Do you know how awful it is to work very hard at something and not get paid? To have the income tax label your work as a hobby because you don't get paid?

My pay is seeing a play for free. It is well known that you never ever ask someone to pay for your plus-one ticket. In my case, I use it for my other reviewer so we can have a SIskel and Ebert exchange, as one person talking is boring (I have a TV show). It's also not nice to just show up and let that ticket go to waste. I was in labor and made sure someone used my ticket to review the show.

I take reviewing very seriously, even though I don't get paid, and it is important to review off-off-Broadway shows or small companies that bigger publications ignore. It is important to mention as many aspects of the production as one can. I even compliment the casting agents sometimes. I am so sick of people giving us decent critics a bad name and we are worse than lawyers the way people carry on against us. Do you think we want to give you a bad review? No. We want to enjoy and encourage theater as much as possible.

I try to avoid reviewing colleagues' shows, but sometimes it is unavoidable. I say in the review this is a friend and colleague and try to be truthfully diplomatic. The irony is that some of us aren't paid, and our job is basically to save people money by telling them if a show is worth spending a small dowry on.

Mark Lord

of Bryn Mawr, PA on December 02, 2015

A similar argument was made by advocates for the full-time critics (of which there were three when I started making work in Philadelphia) against those who were being paid (poorly) by the review. At the time, I found that argument specious, in particular because much of the the work of the poorly paid and the part time (including Wendy Rosenfield) seemed to me to be of very high quality. There are of course, now no full-time theater critics in Philadelphia.

Julius Ferraro

of Philadelphia, PA on December 02, 2015

Wendy, I'm not sure why it's depressing to you. We're having a conversation — not scrapping — about the economics of writing, particularly theater reviewing. What first spurred my own response is what feels to me to be an irresponsible connection you made between the ethics of a single man's behavior and all writers who write for free. It oversimplifies what is actually a complex judgment call. I do agree that people should be paid for their work when possible. But I also think it is important to take into account the reality of the situation today.

I'm glad you brought up Actors' Equity. It's a wonderful organization, but I'd love to hear the stories of actors in Philadelphia who have joined or tried to join, or even have decided against joining (most Philly actors are not members). It's a rigorous process, and expensive, and it can actually make it difficult for actors to find work. I have no problem with any actor who looks at Equity and its requirements and decides not to join, either because of the cost, or the work involved, or the fact that they then could not work with certain companies or create certain kinds of work.

What seems problematic to me is gauging the value of theater reviewing, or any writing, or any work, on one single issue. Whether or not a person is paid does not alone determine whether the piece is worthwhile, whether the writer or editor or publisher is being predatory or unethical, or whether the author is unethical for writing it. For example, I think it would probably be unethical for a Broadway theater to pay actors less than what Equity requires; a Philly company that performs in a basement and is in the red until the cash box is counted up at the end of the night, and slaps a hundred bucks into the hands of its actors, is probably not unethical for paying such low rates. This does not look like exploitation to me.

I love the ability of criticism to contribute to a conversation over time, and as you say, provide a historical record. Is that record incorrect, though, if the major publications — the ones that do have the economics in place that allow them to pay without bankrupting the editors and therefore cutting off the publication at its source — only cover or are only able to cover certain types of work? After all, isn't Phindie actually doing more theatrical record-keeping in Philly than anyone else? I personally believe the issue of ethics in criticism is more complicated than your article seems to suggest. This is why I don't feel like a "dick." I'm not sure how not paying people, when I actually am making no money off the work, makes me a dick. And I think Curate This adds value.

I don't have any problem with your writing, with Broad Street Review, with the Inquirer, or anyone else who chooses to publish theater criticism. We're all necessary; more writing and funding of writing is necessary; and we're all filling different aspects of a market.

Wendy Rosenfield

of Meadowbrook, PA on December 02, 2015

Jason Zinoman made a great point about this on FB: look at the Upright Citizens Brigade. Their slippery slope began with a "Hey, you're just starting out, do it for the exposure and we'll see what we can do for you down the road," and ended with an industry standard that says, "You're lucky we gave you a platform."

When I started out, I used to say that some day I wanted Cliff Ridley's job (then-full-time critic for the Inquirer). I got lucky and enough editors liked my work that I came awfully close, until the job ceased to exist. I look at writers such as Peter Marks or Jesse Green, who I believe represent some of the best in the field — and who, along with Brantley, Isherwood, Terry Teachout, and each of the publishers expecting writers to write for free, share at least one obvious trait — and think, "Who will be the next great contemporary critics? Who will energize the next generation of critic aspirants and ensure that they reflect the changing face of theater in the U.S.?" The answer: Nobody.

Nothing will ensure the irrelevance of theater criticism more than removing money from the equation. What you are then left with is Yelp (see Eva Heinemann's comment). I guess, Len, that's why it's not okay with me for theater criticism to be considered a hobby, and why I take it personally when I'm expected to tiptoe around the feelings of writers who have nothing at stake, but are expected to be treated as though they are writing at the same level of skill and knowledge as Marks or Green. Maybe some are. I'll have to check out Matthew Murray's work, but I'm sorry to hear he's writing for free; however, I guess he can afford to do that.

To me, writing for free is the epitome of "elitist (probably) white (probably male) privilege." Who's gonna pay the babysitter? Certainly not you or Julius or Chris. Not right now, anyway. That cuts out a whole lot of potential critics. I don't have the answers, but I think one of them is, yes, asking writers to hold out, Lysistrata-style (or, as I said somewhere, maybe on Chris's rebuttal to this piece, get the job done on their own terms), until they find an outlet that values their work. Ben Lloyd posted some of the moneymaking methods he's used for his theater company over on the rebuttal. Maybe use university partnerships, grants, fundraising drives, partner with restaurants.

There has to be a better way, and if you refuse to accept that volunteer content providers are OK, you might come up with an alternative.

Christopher Munden

of Philadelphia, PA on December 02, 2015

I am 100% OK with writers holding out Lysistrata-style for pay. Phindie would still exist; I would be the only one writing on it. But I have not seen a single example of someone choosing not to write for Phindie for monetary reasons, and then finding a paid forum elsewhere. It's all very well saying writers should be paid, but that's telling them not to be theater critics. If I too held out for pay, where would you suggest I write? If that place didn't want reviews of independent theater in a basement, what would you suggest?

Writing for free is not the epitome of white male privilege. Don't stoop to that. I clearly hit a nerve calling you privileged, but I backed it up. Most of the reviewers on Phindie are female. The site is way more diverse in its writers than Philly.com's reviewers, or than the cadre of critics from any publication I know about. We've published reviews in the last few months by people from different countries, of different sexual orientation, of different races, of varied age. By suggesting that people boycott writing for Phindie, or telling me to stop letting people write for free, you are trying to make criticism less diverse and less open, not more. You would cut out a whole lot more potential critics.

In general, I don't write for free. Maybe for a friend's publication or business; certainly for a cause in which I believe. But I am the only breadwinner in my house. I can't afford not to work, but I can afford to write poetry and songs and theater reviews. I can afford to coach soccer and volunteer on a non-profit board. I don't think of any of that as just a hobby. I write for free and edit Phindie for free because I love theater and I love writing about it. Don't you understand that? How little would the Inquirer have to pay you before you quit?

In a recent Philadelphia Mag article (yep, "the death of criticism") you dismissed people who wrote reviews for $5. How much would they have to be paid before you took them and their work seriously? When I was starting out, I didn't say I wanted anyone's job. I read the criticism of John Updike and others and thought: I want to be that good at writing. I don't expect to be taken as seriously as you for any other reason than that I'm as good a reviewer. I'm not asking you to tiptoe around my feelings, I'm asking that your writing is logical, respectful, and accurate and you are able to stand by what you write. In this case it was not, and you seem unable to.

This has clarified my thoughts. I should make efforts to pay writers, but I do not want anyone reviewing for Phindie who would not do so for free. Those are the people who deserve more pay. To them, there's so much more at stake than money. .

Leonard Jacobs

of Long Island City, NY on December 04, 2015

One of the issues here is evident but plainly unspoken: paid critics, especially full-time critics, have a vested fiduciary and emotional interest in maintaining whatever status quo is left for them as tastemakers, influencers and gate-keepers, and they (and their adherents) will haul out any argument, no matter how specious or transparently self-serving, to justify dangling the “Who will be the next great contemporary critics?” question as if that actually sets theatrical minds and souls a-racing. Which it doesn’t, of course, because the general public doesn’t care about “great critics” and rarely, if ever, has. Neither have artists, by the way — usually to their own detriment.

So who does care about the answer to the “Who will be the next great contemporary critics?” question? Critics! And so the circle is complete.

We can cling to whatever canards we want about how money makes all the difference. After all, this dialogue began with the "money = ethics" canard, and now it has grown to encompass the "money = writing standards" and the "money = relevance” canard, despite both of those being entirely subjective values. I certainly won't ask you to tip-toe around anyone’s feelings — by all means, take mortar and pestle and grind up the feelings of whatever writers you want to. But when you write that writers who write for free, for whatever reason, “have nothing at stake,” that’s another canard as well. In truth, you’re not so much refusing to tiptoe around their feelings as squeezing every last drop of value from such a white-privilege-driven and elitist presumption about who these people are, what these people do, why these people do what they do, what their motivations, ideals, goals and aspirations might be or could be, and in response to all that, all I can say is: “Happy New Year, 1985.”

I want and I expect all of us to aspire to a level of skill and knowledge of a Marks or a Green. And, by the way, we actually agree: any monetary compensation affirms and encourages that expectation. But your point is an unproven twist — that if someone goes uncompensated, then they will go out of their way to write badly, or less well, or they won't aspire or push toward a higher level of skill. This is a version of the discredited conservative argument that welfare encourages people not to work. We can do better than that.

In the same way that my earlier comment gives no quarter to the idea that expectations of ethical standards may differ between paid and unpaid writers, I give no quarter to the idea that expectations of writing standards may differ between paid and unpaid writers. If, in your heart of hearts, you believe that paid writers, by mere dint of being paid, always offer higher quality work than the unpaid, then we must reasonably assume this is an equation provable across the board. With all due apologies for offering a New York example, writers at the New York Times and the New York Post are all paid. I would respectfully submit that differences in the writing quality at those publications are obvious. This is to say nothing of Web-only sites with paid staff, such as the Huffington Post. If you honestly feel that HuffPo staffers turn in better quality copy than some unpaid writers we all know, then I’m out. That means money is the only thing for you that confers quality. And I simply disagree.

Yes, money offers a critical, lusted-for, validating quality. Like you, I don’t write for free, unless I choose to, for the simple reason that I believe I have earned and thus I expect that validation. But I will not turn this matter into a war on class, which is very nearly is. Have we not enough us-versus-them in our society that we must drag theater criticism, of all things, to the heart of it? It serves no one and it serves nothing. Well, as noted at the top of this comment, perhaps what it really serves is the ever-shrinking pool of paid critics operating under an existential threat.

I never said, and I will never say, that people writing for free is ideal. My whole team at the Clyde Fitch Report crowdfunded nearly $20,000, in part, to compensate our 25 writers for their talent, time and skill. And, like Christopher Munden, I bear a special burden toward my writers, knowing how many of them wrote for free, and I stood behind the quality of their unpaid writing then as much as I stand behind their (modestly) paid writing now. This notion that everyone just hold out until someone, somewhere, somehow devises a fiscal model to justify paying them like it's 1985 (or 1965) is a misread of the terrible moment journalism is in.

If 50 percent of the people writing theater criticism should go the Lysistrata route, will that raise the value of their content in our current marketplace? Not at all. What it will do, though, is snuff out many voices, thus making more important the voices of the paid critics. And that, with respect, strikes me as awfully convenient and self-serving for those very same paid critics. If you feel so strongly and passionately about Lysistrata for current journalism, how about you lay down your pen first?

Editor's Response

Note: Huffington Post doesn't pay its writers, though it does have paid employees on its staff.

Lew Whittington

of Center City/ Philadephia, PA on December 04, 2015

Thank you Wendy, Christopher et. al. A most spirited debate with almost everyone staying on topic and stating their views and defending their positions with passion, integrity and intelligence. The two main contenders executing clean jabs and in the end slapping each other with lilies and shaking hands respectfully. Now, if only politicians would take a lesson from these writers and examine their own professional ethics, maybe things would get....well, a pipe dream, I know. I hear Addison DeWitt from All About Eve telling me, "You have a point— an idiotic one, but a point."

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