It is a long held belief of mine that time spent on hobbies isn’t wasted. What you do as a hobby informs what you do at work, and what you do at work informs your hobbies. Professionally, I do cybersecurity at a Federally Funded Research and Development Center. My hobbies include highways and live theatre. Today over lunch I kept thinking about this cross-fertilization in relation to the debate raging over Bitter Lemon’s decision to solicit payment from theatres for reviews, which was recently highlighted in the LA Times, and has been excoriated across the board (from the LA Weekly (Steven Leigh Morris) to Howard Sherman (former head of the Theatre Wing) to ACTA to many others). I’ve even discussed it here.
Let me give you an example of this flow. As I noted, one of my hobbies is highways. A number of years ago, I took a day off and went to a Caltrans presentation on making safer highways. The goal was to reduce traffic deaths — reduce the number of times a CHP officer has to go to a door and say, “I’m sorry to inform you…”. They talked about a program from Minnesota DOT called “Toward Zero Death“: a program with the goal of reducing fatalities on the highways to zero. They realized they couldn’t just engineer safer highways, and as a result emphasized the Four “E”s: Education, Enforcement, Emergency Services, Engineering. Each contributed a piece. I heard that and went “Wow! That works perfectly for cybersecurity.” I ordered it differently: Engineering, Education, Enforcement, and Emergency Planning. Engineering means building mechanisms in your systems to provide cybersecurity and protection; Education is educating your users on how to use those mechanisms and how not to do boneheaded things; Enforcement is having policies and making sure they are followed; and Emergency Planning is what is also called Resiliency: making sure your system doesn’t die, but can continue to support the mission in a degraded mode while being repaired. The point here is that my hobby informed my work.
It works the other way around as well. As I wrote earlier, I work for an FFRDC. We provide the government with an independent voice to ensure success of the mission. We are trusted to protect proprietary information, have the highest ethics, and to focus on independently assessing solutions — and not hesitating to tell the vendor when they are wrong, or the government when they are wrong. Note carefully what I just said: even though we are government funded (the FF in FFRDC), we have the ability to tell the government when they are wrong. This is achieved through our strong focus on ethics, our commitment as a corporation to those ethics, an immediate response when an ethics violation is discovered (as in, that person does not work for us anymore and may face penalties, depending on the violation).
Our company is depended upon to conduct independent assessments on behalf of the government, including things like penetration testing. When you look at areas like cybersecurity assurance, having that independent assessor is a must. Similarly, when you look at theatrical reviews and criticism, that independent assessment is a must. The independence of the reviewer is at the heart of the Bitter Lemons debate.
Independence is important in many industries. Both of my parents were accountants. They performed audits, which is an independent financial assessment of a company. Major public corporations depend on independent accountants and independent internal oversight organizations. Yet that paradox of paying the independent arm exists: the corporations pay the auditing firms, the corporations pay their internal oversight organizations. So how is that independence achieved? Typically, there is a requirement for all assessors to sign and adhere to a specific ethical code for their industry. If the organization is internal, there is typical a distinct reporting chain with perhaps only the CEO in common (and sometimes not even then; often auditors report to the Board). The British auditing association describes it thusly: “It is characterised by integrity and an objective approach to the audit process. The concept requires the auditor to carry out his or her work freely and in an objective manner.”
I’ll note that similar processes exist in numerous other industries, such as Internal Affairs departments in law enforcement, or internal investigatory organizations.
Let’s bring this back to the concern at hand: the “Bitter Lemons Imperative” and the perception of pay for play reviews. Certainly, strong ethics rules would preclude a theatre giving money (or providing anything above a nominal value, such as an information packet) to an individual reviewing their show. Yet, if we look at the financial arena, there are ways to address the concern. Let’s learn from what industry does, and insist that:
- Anyone who writes up a show must subscribe to a code of ethics that prohibits direct payments from the theatre to the reviewer (ideally, it would prohibit providing anything other than a comp ticket or an information package (and I don’t personally support comp tickets, although that is industry practice)).
- Anyone who writes up a show must disclose any past, present, or future relationships with the theatre or any cast or crew members, and must agree to not let those relationships color their assessment of the show reviewed.
- Anyone who writes up a show must agree that their assessment of the show will be based solely on the story, performance and presentation, and that their assessment will be honest, even if it is negative.
- If evidence is uncovered that their writeup was not unbiased but was influenced by a relationship, either personal or financial, then the community will be clearly informed of this so that their writeups may be skewed to take that into account.
- A list of those writing up theatre who subscribe to these rules will be published and available to the general public.
In an ideal world, journalism outlets would assign reviewers to the shows that are of interest, and the complete independence of the advertising and editorial arms would provide separation between payment and reviewer salary. But times are changing. Independent websites that accept advertising don’t have that strong separation. Papers that still employ reviewers often do not send them to the new theatres, the small theatres, the out of the way theatres. There is no way for these theatres to get independent writeups that sway the audience, either drawing them in or warning them away.
A solution is required to address the changing journalistic and dramatic criticism world. A solution is also required to address the unknown pop-up blogger whose ethics are unknown.
[Edited to Add: Another day, another lunch, and a few more thoughts: One key difference between auditing (and the work I do) and theatre reviews/criticism is that the former can be objective, while the latter is subjective. Any theatre review reflects the opinion of the reviewer, and it not necessarily capable of substantiation with facts. This prevents confirming the independent results, and opens up the aura of “taint” if a reviewer happens to like a show whose review was requested and funded by the production. The solution here, surprisingly, is what Bitter Lemons is already doing: aggregating reviews and looking at the overall consensus. If a single reviewer out of a set of reviewers is “in the pocket” of the theatre, they will show up as anomalous in a particular production’s review set. Over time, statistics might demonstrate that reviewer is a consistent outlier statistically. Of course, this mechanism is destroyed if the community simply produces consistently good theatre (oh, the horrors of consistently good theatre).
Statistical reporting can work well to identify outlier reviews and bias, when looking at an entire season. Of course, the statistics become useless unless editors assign critics to shows they know will be horrible. If people self-pick shows (as I do, and as Steven Stanley does, and I’m sure others as well), we tend to pick shows we’re likely to like. Even if the tickets are comp, we are still investing our time and we don’t want to waste that on two hours we’ll never get back (I Caligula, The Musical , I’m looking at you). This is the most likely explanation of why most reviews are positive, even if there isn’t a financial incentive involved (unless, of course, you are just writing to appear clever — Charles McNulty, I’m looking at you).
In short it boils down to trust in the integrity of the reviewer — or as one trainer put it, you either have ethics in your soul or you don’t. Ethical and honest reviewers will honestly tell you what they think of a production, irrespective of any “bribes” from the theatre, because their goal is not to make that production succeed, but to make theatre as a whole better. Unethical reviewers don’t have that mission, and unscrupulous producers will take advantage of them (Subways are for Sleeping and David Merrick, I’m looking at you).]
The approach taken by Bitter Lemons recognized the need for such a solution, but was a flawed implementation and deserves to be shut down and reconsidered from the ground up to publicly incorporate clear ethics rules and restrictions. I’m not going to attempt to propose a specific solution here; I’ve done so in the past and had it shot down. I do think a solution is needed, and that solution needs strong publicized ethics rules that participants will follow. I’m open to suggestions in the comments (anatomically possible, please — my head won’t fit up my ass).
A few PSs to address some additional points:
- There is an argument that any payments by theatres are a slippery slope: if one review organization does it, they all will. Poppycock. There will always be individuals who put ethics above all and refuse payment. Additionally, journalism in general is no longer so high and mighty — we’ve increasingly seen the mix of the editorial and the advertiser (Los Angeles Times, I’m looking at you and your special wrappers). It may be a matter of time, but it may also be that the wrong approach will fail miserably (witness the original attempt at paywalls).
- There are arguments that there is an important function of an editor in being able to decide what to review. That may be the case, but it also reflects the inherent bias of the editor. They have a concern — not of advertising dollars but of readership — and they direct the reviewers to the better known theatres, the ones that will draw the eyes of the reader. They will not care about the lesser known smaller theatres at all. Don’t believe me? How often does the LA Times review the Center Theatre Group, Pantages, Pasadena Playhouse, Wallis Annenberg, Colony, or Geffen. How does that compare with how often they review intimate theatre? There is not balanced editorial assignments. The papers that attempted to do so (LA Weekly, I’m looking at you) have drastically curtailed their reviews.