Cancer has ravaged Roger EbertÂs jawline. (Ethan Hill / Esquire )
Who's the biggest scourge of the tea party movement these days? It might be film critic Roger Ebert, who lately has been tossing brickbats at Sarah Palin and other right-wing politicians in between rendering verdicts on the latest movies.
Over the last few weeks, Ebert has used his busy Twitter page to give the tea party belittling nicknames, predict it will quickly fade and opine that "a loud movement is not the same as a mass movement."
"I write about the TeePees because it's so sad how they've been manipulated to oppose their own best interests," Ebert said in an e-mail, using his latest epithet for the tea party followers. "I am a liberal."
His thoughts have earned him scorn from conservatives who accuse him of elitism and trashing ordinary Americans. More notable than the political spat, though, is what it says about the rapidly evolving media and Ebert's place among them. Because of his decades of TV appearances, including with his late partner Gene Siskel, Ebert is perhaps the only critic in America who really has a household name.
But due to complications from cancer surgery in 2006, he has been unable to speak. The story of his recovery battle, along with a jarring portrait that revealed his surgically ravaged jawline, recently appeared in Esquire. Tuesday, he will appear on a taped piece on "Oprah" to unveil an electronic device that promises to give him back some vocal function. Given the fact that for years Ebert was never far away from a microphone, there's irony in the fact that his current battle with the tea party followers is conducted in text only, with bite-sized tweets and blog posts.
Now the 67-year-old reviewer finds himself at the center of the debate over whether and how mainstream journalists -- who have typically labored in silos of specialization and avoided anything that called into question a pose of objectivity -- should mix it up in the woolly world of social media. Many large news-gathering organizations, including the Los Angeles Times, have rules governing reporters' and editors' use of Facebook, Twitter and other applications.
Some experts say the time may be ripe to rethink such restrictions.
"In an era in which newspapers are in decline, any journalist who attracts attention in any area should be welcome," said Paul Levinson, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University who is also an active Twitter user. "Distinctions that keep reporters penned into a small area never made much sense. The greatest journalists and writers were always Renaissance men and women, able to do many tasks."
Andrew Breitbart, publisher of several influential conservative blogs including Big Hollywood, defends Ebert the new-media user while attacking Ebert the political thinker. Breitbart says that Ebert's Twitter posts reveal a patronizing view of tea party adherents that serves as a "caricature of the liberal mind-set" and that the critic brims with "raw contempt for Middle America."
What especially irked some conservatives was that Ebert used a nickname for tea party followers that has also long been slang for a sexual act. When Ebert tweeted that he was unaware of the term's pornographic connotation, Big Hollywood countered that he had referred to such a context in past movie reviews.
But Breitbart adds that the current fracas ultimately proves how much power has tilted to new media and away from mainstream outlets such as newspapers, where Ebert has reviewed movies for more than 40 years.
"I am a proponent of Roger Ebert using Twitter to express his point of view," Breitbart said. "It's a testament to the new media. Where is he having a bigger impact, in the Twitterverse or doing his reviews of movies?"
Ebert admits he was slow to appreciate Twitter but is now a fan. "It's an art form," he said in an e-mail interview with The Times. "It encourages minimalism, almost like a word game.
"Having said more than once 'I will never be a twit,' I now feel it is a splendid discipline . . . I link to great writing on the web. I also like to link to the unique, the beautiful, the weird.
"That day is a sad day," he said, "when a newspaperman fears to tweet."