Who Needs Critics, Anyway?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 12, 2010; 9:14 AM

In the broad sweep of media history, the cancellation of "At the Movies" may simply mark the end of a program that had passed its sell-by date.

Or the demise of the old Siskel & Ebert vehicle may, in the words of current co-host A.O. Scott, reflect the triumph of "self-credentialed commenters," who "snark and snipe" online, over "a remnant of over-entitled old-media graybeards."

Scott is a full-service film critic for the New York Times. But are he and his colleagues -- who opine on cinema, theater, television, books, music, art, restaurants and the like -- now dinosaurs?

As a reader, I love some critics and love to hate others. They conduct a running conversation with their followers, who may take their advice or defy it. And maybe that marks me as a relic of the Paleozoic era as well.

The explosion of online opinions -- amateur filmgoers on Rotten Tomatoes, ordinary readers on Amazon, casual diners on Yelp -- is fun and entertaining. It can be revealing to find out what people like you, uncredentialed as they may be, think about the new Meryl Streep movie, Philip Roth novel or noodle joint down the street. But why does that supplant the need for full-time reviewers?

"We're all critics," says blogger, veteran editor and onetime critic Jeff Jarvis. "If I were starting Entertainment Weekly today, it wouldn't be a magazine, and it likely wouldn't hire critics."

Jarvis, who was the magazine's founding editor in 1990, says publications insist on employing their own critics for one reason: "Ego. Is the 87th critic writing the 87th review in Topeka going to be better than A.O. Scott? Probably not. We can't afford repetition in journalism anymore."

Terry Teachout, a Wall Street Journal drama critic, lauds the way the Web is "enabling new voices." But, he says, "there will always be a place for literate, well-informed drama criticism about performances taking place in Chicago or L.A. or St. Louis. You can't outsource that function."

With the newspaper industry shrinking, Teachout says, "I fear that generation of critics is not going to be replaced. It's not enough to have a reporter who says the local museum has bought a new Picasso. It's also necessary to have someone on your staff who knows whether it's museum-quality and is worth $5 million."

The debate was rekindled last month when longtime Journal restaurant critic Raymond Sokolov resigned after the paper asked him to write about food trends instead. As blogger Josh Ozersky observed on Time.com: "When you like a critic, you trust his judgment not because he has a doctorate in food letters, although such things do apparently exist. He's proved himself over a long period. You know what he likes or dislikes. You get him. . . . When you're looking at getting a babysitter and maybe dropping three bills on dinner, you need to minimize risk."

A few short decades ago, critics ruled. Whether it was Craig Claiborne at the Times or Pauline Kael at the New Yorker, they were part of an elite corps of tastemakers. The culture has changed, the five-star reviewers are less influential, and the masses have stormed the gates.

Some of the coveted print jobs have simply vanished. The shuttering or shrinking of newspaper book sections has meant fewer reviewers. Variety stunned the industry by laying off its chief film critic and its theater critic. Ruth Reichl was one of the last towering food critics, but Conde Nast closed her magazine, Gourmet, last fall.

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