The Politics of Movie Shills

by Armond White

A few years back, as chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle, I hosted a criticism panel at Columbia University and was bemused when one participant from a national weekly entertainment magazine, insisted that his “reviews are not political!” It’s demonstrable that most movie critics, like most journalists, work under an unacknowledged left bias. I was reminded of this again yesterday when a conglomerate of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle, Boston Society of Film Critics, and the National Society of Film Critics all rounded their wagons, moving to disqualify Disney films from the groups’ upcoming awards consideration, subsequent to a feud — over a news article the L.A. Times wrote about Disneyland — in which the corporation refused to invite the paper’s critic to a movie screening.

Reviewers who normally resist writing political analyses of films, even when praising movies that are blatantly partisan, now presume to form a united front by issuing the quasi-political statement that Disney’s interdiction was “antithetical to the principles of a free press and set a dangerous precedent in a time of already heightened hostility towards journalists. . . . [This] should gravely concern all who believe in the importance of a free press, artists included.”

But this is delusional. It is the typical liberal “free press” blather followed by punitive action. Involvement in an individual business dispute diminishes the idea of journalistic solidarity unless there’s recognition that Disney exercised a legitimate right to choose its audience for film previews—even to withhold advertising to whatever media outlet it chooses. Ignoring the business facts of the matter to pretend this is a First Amendment issue exposes the critics’ hypocrisy. At the same time, the mainstream media stay silent about secretly orchestrated, left-funded advertising boycotts and corporate pressure campaigns intended to silence conservative commentary on talk radio and television. A veteran journalist told me that before the letter was drafted the entire action should have been reconsidered. The protest letter is an example of dishonest journalism and narrow thinking: Shill Politics — a species of journalistic corruption peculiar to the reviewing trade, which regularly promotes Hollywood product while mistaking that privilege for “independence.” It is the entertainment section version of pay-for-play lobbying.

The ad hoc critics council ignores the press’s own unremitting political hostility — today’s “resistance” journalism — that has discredited the profession and offended everyone but themselves. They forsake their ethical duty toward independence and fair-mindedness.

Shill critics forget about journalists’ gentlemen’s agreement with film producers (we cooperate in movie publicity while remaining intellectually separate) perhaps because it is no longer taught in journalism schools, press rooms, or the Internet. They don’t understand the two-way license that must pertain within that agreement. But now they petulantly withhold awards consideration as a reprimand. (Although this ban against a ban—which includes not reviewing Disney releases—is unlikely to last long once the critics’ own corporate bosses insist on covering Disney’s next Star Wars release.)

In the parlance of Obama-era dissent, the critics have “weaponized” their awards as a stunt to continue free viewings of studio product, rather than courageously maintaining distance from Hollywood business by seeing the films without studio assistance and then demonstrating unbiased judgment. These critics reveal an incapacity for real political thought and action.

It was my often-frustrated experience as three-times chairman in the film-critic community to withstand a common ignorance of the profession’s history and its journalistic principles. I witnessed an inability to reason and a tendency toward easily swayed group-think. (That joint-letter surely wasn’t made spontaneously but was the result of concerted, behind-the-scenes collusion—thus, an ultimate, dread confirmation of group-think.)

This bears relevance outside the film world because it parallels the behavior of “resistance” journalists who think their personal political preferences are more important than preserving truth, reason, analysis, fairness.

Little did I suspect, when I was expelled from the New York Film Critics Circle, in spite of its bylaws and without fair hearing, that this form of unreasoned vengeance and misguided zealotry would soon become the standard that we now see in bad-mannered press briefings, dishonest headlines, hysterical social-media memes and the distribution of puerile public statements.

At last count there were almost three dozen awards-giving organizations among the nation’s media, so this joint awards boycott won’t mean much; it simply mimics a general decline in journalistic ethics.
So the degradation of film criticism and the retribution of shill journalists is an ongoing crisis and a bottomless pit.

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