Everybody is a critic now - and we should welcome that

The forces of reaction are mounting their fiercest pushback yet against citizen media.

The forces of reaction are mounting their fiercest pushback yet against citizen media.

But while there are plenty of issues worth raising about quality, responsibility, and value, the arguments from the reactionaries are getting weaker, not stronger.

One of the most bizarre yet came about a week ago from Time's Richard Schickel. He's frequently incisive as a film critic, but riffing off a recent New York Times story about literary bloggers - defined here as bloggers who focus on literature - he used the LA Times' Op-Ed page to launch an unguided missile. The result, entitled "Not everybody's a critic," was a screed remarkable for both colorful prose and closed-mindedness.

Schickel wrote: "Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: Criticism - and its humble cousin, reviewing - is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge, and a fairly deep sense of the author's (or filmmaker's or painter's) body of work, among other qualities."

Whew. Oh, it's possible for a blogger to write a serious review, he conceded, adding, "I do think, however, that a simple 'love' of reading (or movie-going or whatever) is an insufficient qualification for the job."

Loving something may not be the only qualification for being a critic. I'd call it a heck of a start, though.

But Schickel wants more. He insists on credentials. Only the anointed are invited or can be taken seriously.

Who issues these credentials? The executives who run Time, which has gone so famously down-market of late - reflecting the coarsening of cultural and civic life that Schickel correctly denounced in his piece?

Maybe all of us will decide in that famous marketplace of ideas, one that is messy, messier now that anyone - not just the anointed or well-paid - can create media. But it's already having an impact: elevating new voices and, by virtue of the medium's conversational nature, allowing the loathed hoi polloi to observe - and be heard - that some of the professionals aren't doing a very good job in the first place.

The Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum writes a notable blog. The New York Times story that sparked Schickel's ire was, Drum noted, nothing close to blogger triumphalism. In fact, he wrote, the bloggers aren't comparing themselves with newspaper reviewers (fewer and fewer of whom are staff employees or, in many cases, even paid beyond getting a free copy of the book). They're doing something different. Schickel doesn't notice, or he doesn't care.

I can't read Schickel's mind. But his elitism makes me wonder if he's more worried that he and other well-paid critics are losing their oligopoly on publicly available wisdom. Let's find the good work - from all sources.

Dan Gillmor is the author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People. He's also director of the Center for Citizen Media (www.citmedia.org).

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