On April 2, on his theater-discussion site, bitter-lemons.com, local blogger Colin Mitchell announced the death of L.A. critic and wit Harvey Perr. The only problem was that Perr was, and is, alive and well. Mitchell had come to his startling conclusion, as he pointed out in his post, because he had been unable to find any of Perr's writings for the past several months and therefore decided — bypassing the possibility that the guy was on vacation or sabbatical to, say, write a book — that Perr must have died. Mitchell even offered his condolences to Perr's family.
Don Shirley, the former L.A. Times theater critic and arts reporter, and current columnist for L.A. Stage Blog, was first to comment on bitter-lemons.com that he'd seen a Facebook post by Perr the day before. After doing a bit more research, Mitchell found a recent Perr review, then explained that a computer malfunction had been the problem. “Ah, but it's so BORING fact-checking,” he quipped in self-mockery. He promptly posted a new item correcting his mistake, and changed the headline on the original post to read: “Harvey Perr R.I.P. — Update: Uh, Not!” His tone changed from panic to his characteristic ebullience, and he insisted, despite Shirley's advice to the contrary, that he was going to keep the original post up for “entertainment purposes,” because “that's the way we roll.”
Furthermore, he and his blog partner Enci argued, the item had already been picked up by search engines, and removing a now-corrected version would simply allow the uncorrected, erroneous news to float in cyberspace.
“This is a blog,” Mitchell wrote in a comment excusing the mistake. “It may sometimes appear to be a publication of some sort, or even a news outlet, but it's not. It's a blog.”
Fair enough, yet there is no clearer example of the responsibilities that come with freedom of speech now that so much of our information is received from blogs and Web sites, while fact-checking in print media is a shadow of its former self. Earlier this year, Mitchell launched a local TV news–style “investigation” on theater publicist Leigh Fortier of Plays411.
The Weekly obtained e-mail correspondence between Fortier and Mitchell, where Mitchell demanded an interview in which she defend herself in person.
At 7:32 p.m. on March 3, Fortier wrote: “I would very much love the opportunity to set the record straight. I'd ask again that you please send any questions to me by e-mail so that I can address them.”
At 8:58 p.m. that same day, Mitchell replied: “The only way you could do that would be to agree to a face-to-face interview. I plan on publishing the first part of this article tomorrow. So you basically have until midnight to agree or not agree.”
“I told her she could pick the spot,” Mitchell explained in an e-mail to the Weekly, “and she could tell me what would and wouldn't be on the record She didn't want to do that.”
On the record? Off the record? Sounds like the divide between a blog and a news outlet is getting fuzzy.
This bring us to the issue of the distinctions between freedom of speech that offends, and mistakes and lies. The first is an entitlement. The second carries with it the responsibility of retraction. And the third carries with it the threat of litigation.
Earlier this year, local stage producer Rick Culbertson wrote on his Web site, rickculbertson.com, an accusation that the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle was ensnared by conflict of interest. According to Critics Circle member Les Spindle, Culbertson hadn't bothered to check the facts with the organization, or even to contact its people before making the accusation. Culbertson has since backed down from that charge. But the mere accusation carries its own lingering, unanswerable virtual reality. (Full disclosure: I'm a new member of LADCC.)
After his post accusing the LADCC, and after protests by its members, Culbertson further taunted the organization by demanding on his site that its members show their qualifications to be critics. (In subsequent posts, Culbertson has made efforts to contact the organizations he continues to write about.)
One option for the accused is to ignore the accusation, which sails around the blogosphere in perpetuity. A second option is to publicly refute the allegation, thereby entering the kangaroo court. The accused then must assess whether the offense is merely an annoyance or grounds for a lawsuit.
But who now is a journalist? How is legitimacy conferred? Culbertson says he doesn't have to adhere to journalistic professional standards because he's not a professional journalist or critic. With that, he argues, he has the license to post commentary, as any private citizen does.
Writes Culbertson on his blog, “I don't have any issues with bloggers writing anything they want. I am saying that unless you understand the role of a critic and are willing to abide by the ethical standards of a critic, you should not call yourself a critic.”
Since writing that post, Culbertson made the following clarification to the Weekly: “I am not suggesting that a blogger should in fact say anything they want. I believe that when bloggers do not uphold themselves to a standard of ethics equal to that of a journalist at a reputable publication, it degrades everyone.”
The crisis of journalism and the ascendancy of blogs are not only about the collapse of coverage and the printed page but the removal of editors who understand codes of ethics and the balance between getting a scoop and ensuring that said scoop is actually true. It's the editor who legitimizes the writer and the press outlet. And that's really the core of our crisis.
To misquote the Book of John: “In the beginning was the word; then came the editor.”
In the middle of writing this, I discovered (on April 5) a new post by Enci at bitter-lemons, with the headline “L.A. Weekly Recognizes Deaf Theater Community, Then Snubs Them.” An actress from Deaf West Theatre reported to Enci that the Weekly had provided no interpreters for the hearing-impaired nominees at its theater-awards ceremony on March 29. In fact, the Weekly had been in touch with Deaf West Theatre about this very issue. In a conversation before the awards, DWT representative Laura Hill had offered to provide interpreters, which the Weekly would pay for. And that was the last we heard from anybody at Deaf West Theatre. Though the paper neglected to follow up, a dropped ball is not a “snub,” which Mitchell and Enci — and the actress who contacted them — might have discovered had they made any attempt to get the Weekly's side of the story.
As of this article's press deadline, L.A. Weekly has received no letter of complaint from Deaf West Theatre or any of its members, which calls into question not only the validity of the blog post but also its veracity.
So it goes. …