Why Variety is Wrong (and Right) About Film Blogs

Something twisted up Variety’s panties, because not one, not two, but three articles about how shitty blogs are popped up on Sunday. Are they worth reading? Maybe. Are they worth responding to? Of course.
By  · Published on March 23rd, 2009

During the past week, I’ve had the privilege of sitting down with a host of talented filmmakers and actors to discuss the process of making movies. It’s a rush built on the already-strong fever created by the festival atmosphere, and it’s probably my favorite part of my job. Early in the week, two of the filmmakers that I interviewed told me I was intelligent, had great questions and was really insightful which of course had my ego at an all time high (as if it could get any bigger). Then, I spoke with Mark Boal, the writer for The Hurt Locker, and interviewing a journalist made me realize that I had a lot to learn and a long, long way to go before I could even be considered good at what I do. It was humbling, and it needed to happen.

All this to say that between the subtle alcohol references and the absurd analogies (Mary Poppins is a lot like The Exorcist when you think about it), I take parts of my job seriously, and I have a passion for learning and growing in what I do. Still, I wouldn’t consider most of what I do journalism. In fact, there’s a running joke amongst some of the FSR staff that started at Comic-Con when we saw the creator of a personal blog refer to himself as a “legitimate journalist.” Most days, I barely consider myself literate, let alone a bona fide journo. My proof is that I almost spelled that, “bonified.”

Yesterday, Variety launched three salvos into the depths of the internet that resonated like the answer to a question nobody asked. “How I Got Blogged Down,” by Michael Fleming; “Tempest of the ‘Touldja!’ Journalists,” by Cynthia Littleton; and “Hollywood’s Blog Smog,” by the always-charming Peter Bart. I highly suggest you read them – or you can just let me poorly characterize them and stick with that.

Despite the three blatantly aimed at Nikki Finke – who must have thrown sand at all three writers on the playground last week or something – the articles do make some honest-to-god points about the gray area between traditional journalism and whole-sale blogging. The thrust of all three pieces is that the failings of bloggers and film sites are dragging down the fine profession of news-delivery. Fleming celebrates the speed of the internet but laments the existence of the undisciplined who are giving journalism a new bad name. Littleton’s piece laments the bickering between bloggers while pointlessly chronicling one such scuffle – an ad hominem attack that doesn’t even deserve to be responded to. Bart’s piece basically uses ideas that Andrew Sullivan from the Atlantic espoused to frame an argument that blogging is frantic, pathetically desperate, and not financially viable.

The core argument of all three is that bloggers are so quick to post stories, they are often wrong. Despite this being true, it’s not the whole story. Just like Tylenol chose the slogan, “Nothing’s Stronger” even though nothing was weaker than it either, characterizing bloggers as the sole cause behind the construction of the rumor mill is about as outlandish as claiming Mary Poppins is a lot like The Exorcist. A quick survey in journalistic history will show a massive amount of misinformation, especially because the idea of being first had more pull than triple-checking with sources.

Still, I’ll admit that being first is a moniker most film sites and blogs want attached to their name. It’s a sign of being on the inside. Of knowing something before everyone else. Of being legitimate, in a way. And bloggers almost never run retractions when they are wrong.

However, it’s not exactly the presence of blogs that has created the instant news world. It’s the internet itself. At the root of the problem is the mechanical bias inherent in dealing with the internet. It’s also more of a double-edged sword than the article lets on. For example, FSR reminded its readers of a year-old story regarding the Coen Brothers adapting “True Grit” last week with the usual sort of fanfare. Today, Variety wrote the same story up and is blazing a trail through the internet to claim tacit credit for what’s actually a year-old story. Even when you’re slow, you’re fast. Secondly, the fatally sharp edge of that sword is that film sites garner a reputation as rumor-mongerers. Yes, there’s a problem with bloggers and sites not retracting or ever admitting they’re wrong – but audiences aren’t stupid. They know when a site has screwed up, and that site gets a big Scarlet Letter for it.

There’s also the question of whether the things posted on blogs are actually news. Specifically, should a meeting between a director and an actor make the front page of the blog when a development deal might still be years in the making? The answer is yes, because the audience deems it so. I realize the slippery slope, I do, but there are two parties at work dictating what is and isn’t news, and I traditional journalism has a major problem with allowing the audience (a completely unpredictable, uncontrollable group (except you guys who we control through subliminal messages)) to help decide what stories are important. This ties in to the previous point about posting things with speed – sometimes you’re a news-maker, and other times – when the audience proves apathetic – you’re just shouting into the void.

The only other semblance of a point that the pieces make is that there is a ton of cattiness amongst the entertainment blog world – site runners sharping at other bloggers in order to create manufactured dramatics. Unfortunately, the questions raised by Variety’s writers yesterday are completely neutered by their willingness to belly-flop right into the mud with the rest of the pigs. It’s tough to maintain even an iota of respectability when the pieces shake their fist at the endless name-calling while sniping at Nikki Finke and others childishly from the other side of the internet.

The good news is that this discussion should be an on-going one. In the same way that I hope I’m learning and growing, getting better at what I do, we all still live in a gray area that resides somewhere between classic print journalism and the Valhalla of quick, expert, professional journalism that the internet’s potential can represent. In the mean time, we need to ask ourselves and ask our audiences what we could be doing better. What do you want from us? What can we do to better serve both our readers and retain objectivity and integrity? I understand that the Variety pieces aren’t really even aimed at sites like FSR – we don’t even pretend to consider ourselves a news site. We’re an opinion site. The news we report comes with a side of opinion. Even the posters and trailers we present – which might as well be wordless posts – come with whatever snarky or celebratory language we can muster up. But we still have a stake in what should be a very worthwhile conversation.

It’s important to recognize that the line of journalistic ethics is fuzzier than ever. The new world of journalism and non-fiction reporting is inhabited by a huge swath of people that haven’t taken a journalism course. Variety is right to raise these questions, and they are right to be concerned while we’re still in this nebulous area of ethics, quality, and mean-spiritedness. But they are wrong to claim that blogs and websites are the only ones causing the problems, wrong to claim that they already see where the future is headed, and wrong to believe that they will survive in a world of new media without getting their hands a little dirty. Luckily, it seems like they don’t have a problem with doing that.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.