Not everyone agrees. In many Asian cultures, explicit criticism is taboo, especially when it’s expressed to the subject’s face. Several years ago, when I was working for a Thai magazine, I wrote a rather dismissive review of a business book, describing its content as parochial and accusing the author of a lack of intellectual curiosity. The editor was not pleased, demanding of me, “If this book is no good, why are we telling our readers about it?”
Of course, this isn’t an exclusively Asian phenomenon. In the mainstream media, it’s inevitable that the sincerely held opinion of an individual contributor will at some point come into conflict with the corporate party line, which may upset advertisers or disturb cosy relationships with political or business contacts. But there used to be ways around this. Several lifetimes ago, when I used to pen reviews for Mojo magazine, I was less than enthusiastic about an album by A Certain American Singer-Songwriter. When I filed the review, I was informed in no uncertain terms that the editor profoundly disagreed with my analysis; they subsequently ran a long interview with the artist in question, in which the album was drizzled with praise; in fact, it ended up as Mojo’s album of the year. But, to give them credit, they didn’t spike my original review, or even tone down its essential meh-ness. I was asked my opinion of the album, and I didn’t like it much, and I said so, and that was OK.
Things seem to have changed, even in the virtual world. Check out this review of the latest waxing by San Fran garage band The Fresh And Onlys, then scroll down to the response the journalist received when she submitted it to another music website: “...it was a little harsh, I can’t really post stuff that opinionated as we just won’t get anymore from the label.” (As I asked, how opinionated is stuff allowed to be these days?) And with the memory of Andrew Marr’s blogrant still fresh, we learn that the Washington Post has issued guidelines on how its journalists should and shouldn’t make use of Twitter:
Even as we encourage everyone in the newsroom to embrace social media and relevant tools, it is absolutely vital to remember that the purpose of these Post-branded accounts is to use them as a platform to promote news, bring in user generated content and increase audience engagement with Post content.Rather than using them to, you know, actually say stuff. I just wish I’d been able at the time to come up with a coherent reply to the editor who asked why we were reviewing bad books. Because if we don’t explain why the bad books are bad, we lose touch with any sense of critical dialogue or debate. If we don’t explain why the bad books or films or blogs or albums by Certain American Singer-Songwriters are bad, there is no context in which to decide why the good ones are good.