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Are they still relevant? Everyone's a critic.

April 08, 2008|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | THE BIG PICTURE

I was pondering the sad plight of critics in America the other day when I saw a review in our Calendar section of two new baseball video games. Knowing this was a subject of great interest to my 9-year-old son -- and always eager to demonstrate to him how relevant our newspaper is to his life -- I showed him the review. Its conclusions were clear: One of the games, MLB 2K8, was a dog, so poorly designed and hard to play that our reviewer dubbed it "the Devil Rays of video games," after the perennial last place team from the AL East.

So guess which game my son wants for his birthday?

When I asked him why he wasn't put off by our critic's D grade for the game, my son explained: "My friend Jimmy has it and he really likes it. We played it once and it feels like real baseball, except you're just using buttons to play."

Whether you're talking to a 9-year-old Little Leaguer, a 19-year-old college kid or a 29-year-old music fan, when you ask why he or she no longer relies on critics for entertainment choices, the answer boils down to the same thing: "I trust my friends more than I trust that guy writing the review."

There was a time when critics were our arbiters of culture, the ultimate interpreters of intellectual discourse. When I was growing up, eager to write about the arts, it was just as important to read Pauline Kael, Frank Rich and Lester Bangs as it was to see a Robert Altman film, a David Mamet play or listen to the latest Elvis Costello album. Critics gave art its context, explained its meaning and guided us to new discoveries.

As a flood of stories in recent weeks has shown, those days are going, going, gone. Critics today are viewed as cultural dinosaurs on the verge of extinction. Most of the attention lately has focused on the demise of film critics. The Salt Lake Tribune's Sean P. Means actually posted a list Wednesday of film critics, now totaling 28, who have lost or decided to leave their jobs in the last two years, including such notables as Newsweek's David Ansen, the New York Daily News' Jack Mathews and the Chicago Tribune's Michael Wilmington.

Critics are being downsized all over the place, whether it's in classical music, dance, theater or other areas in the arts. While economics are clearly at work here -- seeing their business model crumble, many newspapers simply have decided they can't afford a full range of critics anymore -- it seems clear that we're in an age with a very different approach to the role of criticism.

Obviously the Internet has played a big role in this shift. It has promoted a democratization of opinion in which solo bloggers -- most famously Matt Drudge -- can outstrip mammoth news organizations. Whenever I spend time with young students, I see an even more intriguing concept at work. Although they are heavily influenced by peer group reaction to films or music, they do listen to critics, but largely as a group, not as individual brands. The age of the singular critical voice is ending -- people prefer the wisdom of a community.

Having just spent an evening with students studying entertainment reporting at the USC School of Journalism, I asked them Friday for their take on critics. Nearly everyone said that when they want to read up on a film, they often go to metacritic.com or rottentomatoes.com, websites that offer a healthy sample of critical consensus. As student Victor Farfan put it: "They put all the reviews in one easy, convenient, conglomerated source that gives you a breadth of opinions from trusted sources and some less familiar ones."

Other students acknowledge that they put little stock in critical opinion, lumping it in with the cascade of hype that accompanies today's entertainment. "We tend to be wary of anything that seems over-hyped, whether it's by critics or over-advertising," said Courtney Lear. "Personally, I trust certain actors, artists or directors from previous experiences. The Arcade Fire is playing in Hollywood? Their last album rocked my socks off. When do tickets go on sale? They've already gained my trust."

For a generation that lives on the Web, even the most eloquent critics are distant thunder, rarely promoted well on newspaper websites and often reluctant to use blogs as a platform to spread their gospel. Even among savvy journalism students, it's hard to find anyone who knows any critics by name.

Of course, it's not only the Web that is putting nails in the coffin. When it comes to film, no one has done a better job of robbing critics of credibility than the movie studios themselves, whose blurb ads are a thoroughly corrupt and cynical invention that has done more to devalue critics than any incursion from the Internet. The ads attempt to lull the filmgoer into briefly putting one thought into their head: "Maybe that piece of junk isn't really that bad."

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