The Future of Online Film “Journalism”?

It has been a couple months now since I completed my masters program in arts journalism at Syracuse University. And since coming back to Pittsburgh, I’ve been on a constant slide of second guessing thanks to the soul-sucking job search that has as yet yielded no real prospects: Should I have gone to Syracuse? Should I have concentrated on arts journalism? Should I continue pressing to be an arts journalist, or should I pack it up now while it’s still early and find another line?

These questions, and others, rattle around my head as I read articles, like one published in the American Journalism Review, about the degrading state of newspaper film critics in the United States, which make me seriously question the logic of attending an arts journalism program. But more than that, I’ve become increasingly agitated by the writers in the kind of job I’ve been trained for. From local critics to national ones, in print and online, I see and read garbage writing done by well-meaning people who think it’s easy and routine to pump out surface level reviews of movies, music, and other art forms. The arts journalism in this country, in print and online, is truly in a discouraging state of affairs, especially for younger writers trying to break in.

A major problem contributing to the declining fortunes of arts journalism is the Internet, blogs in particular. I know, it’s ironic that I am writing on a blog that blogs are destroying the very fabric of arts journalism. But it’s true. Unedited, sometimes-uneducated, poor writers who think that they are the target audience for every movie and album have flooded the Web with blogs that offer little to the discourse on the arts beyond vertical pronoun infested statements that place them above the art and artists. Movie blogs are particularly horrendous because so many people think they can write about movies, and everyone thinks their opinions are relevant. Too bad for me and my hope to one day be a film journalist. As print jobs die away, a cacophony of “flick blogs” grows.

Please don’t mistake this for whining. I’m not, honest. If I was truly committed to being a paid blogger, writing about movies, I have no doubt I could do it and put a lot of phonies out of business. But that’s not my aim. Bloggers have a bad reputation, mostly because of their bad writing and unfiltered gobbledygook clogging the Intertubes. I certainly don’t want to be mistaken for one of them—especially when people like Jeff Wells are lurking out there, covering the Web in a slugtrail of sleaze.

Wells writes the blog Hollywood Elsewhere, essentially a gossip site masquerading as a critic site. He is chummy with some filmmakers and perverts his “reviewing” into tabloid-style nonsense. I tend to stay away from writing like this because of how insidious it is, but I was drawn to a link posted on Facebook by one of my Facebook friends, Patrick Felton. The link wasn’t too a Hollywood Elsewhere post, but rather one on Deadline Hollywood Daily, another movie blog, this time one written by Nikki Finke. The headline in the link read, “Creepy Email From A Hollywood Blogger; and Jeff Wells Responds And Ex…”

When I clicked on the link, I was face-to-face with one of the truly disgusting moments in the annals of whatever kind of “journalism” this Jeff Wells purports to practice. The set-up is he e-mailed James Mangold, director of “Walk the Line” and the remake of “3:10 to Yuma,” to tell Mangold that he wasn’t all that keen on the movie, but in respect to his like of “Walk the Line” and Mangold generally he would hold the review until as close to opening day as possible. That in itself is disgusting, conceding journalistic integrity to score points with a Hollywood director. But it’s one section of the e-mail, and Wells’ e-mail to Finke, that is truly disturbing. Read the e-mail here, take a shower, and come back for the rest of this column.

* Elevator Music Interlude *

To borrow the names of a couple other movie blogs, bloody disgusting ain't it? I don’t care how Wells twists his initial e-mail around, it’s one thing to like looking at a naked woman and something entirely different to solicit masturbatory materials from a director. And let’s be frank here, this guy isn’t interested in naked images of Vinessa Shaw for his scrapbook of great scenes in American cinema. He freely admits he wants them, and if he doesn’t get them from Mangold or someone who worked on the set then he’ll get them from Mr. Skin when they inevitably show up there. For those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Skin, it’s a website that chronicles nude scenes in movies. And its purpose is to titillate and arouse and we all know what comes after that.

What Wells did here isn’t some innocent guy-to-guy thing, the way he claims in his offensive, condescending, sexist e-mail to Finke. It’s pathetic, plain and simple. Not only does he degrade himself, Mangold and Shaw, he degrades the essence of writing about movies. He can say what he wants about this being a private e-mail, the fact is that it is out and it reveals the seedy underbelly of this Blogosphere everyone is so keen on using to replace print journalists. It happens occasionally that a print journalist gets a little overzealous and oversteps his bounds. But I seriously doubt any self-respecting journalist would do what Wells did. Why? Because he knows that the systems of checks and balances that exist in the newsroom would catch up with him so fast, he’d wake up on the floor of the unemployment line faster than he could say “boobies.”

I have wrestled with writing this kind of column, decrying the blogs that are making real journalists obsolete, for some time now. The Blogosphere, especially when it comes to movies, is a petty, petty place. Recently, for example, a panel of online movie bloggers convened at the Sand Diego Comic Con. The organizer, Robert Sanchez of the website/blog IESB, didn’t invite Cinematical, the AOL-owned movie blog, then proceeded to bash them while on the panel. That never amounted to more than a fracas, but there is a lot of backstabbing and in-fighting when it comes to blogs and I certainly don’t want to subject myself or my work to that. But Wells’ e-mails proved just the repugnant catalyst to get this out of my headspace and into cyberspace.

I don’t know what will come of this, if anything. People might look at it and think, “Oh, typical blog bullshit.” Perhaps people with actual jobs in the arts, especially Hollywood, will reconsider their allegiances to the instant-gratification these bloggers offer in terms of getting news to the public. Ideally, Wells will be run out of town and this will spur the movie industry to deal with only reputable Web-based publications — e-zines, blogs, websites, whatever — and ignore the rest of the nonsense. The only thing I’m certain of is that this is one more black eye for people who do good work online. And for what? A few nudie pictures? Shameful.

There is a place online for movie coverage, and indeed coverage of all the arts. But not the way Jeff Wells practices it. He’s a disgrace to the institution of journalism, in all its forms, and should do the decent thing and shut himself down — at least until he grows up.