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Speak Up, and Say Unpopular Things

Big Think spoke to The New York Times chief theater critic, Ben Brantley, about the present and future state of journalism and online criticism. 

Big Think spoke to The New York Times chief theater critic, Ben Brantley, about the present and future state of journalism and online criticism. 

Big Think: Generally speaking, what do think the state of journalism is right now?

Ben Brantley:  Journalism is frontier land right now. I don’t think we’ve seen how it’s all going to shake out. It’s very exciting, but in terms of how journalism can make money on the web I don’t think that has been successfully determined, how information can be vetted when anyone can sit down and blog and say I saw X on the street handing money to Y.  It’s a wild and wooly time.  It’s an exciting time, but I’ve noticed that people who make predictions in this way are almost invariably wrong, so I will refrain from prophecy, but I do think it’s a terrifically exciting time for journalism. 

BT: Do you have any advise for journalists, especially critics?

Ben Brantley:  Critics have a luxury I didn’t when I was starting off, which is they can just set up their own site, write their own blog and get their voices out there and if they’re eloquent enough, if they’re strong enough, I do think people will listen. There is a lot of gossip on the Internet, a lot of ‘hey have you seen this going on,’ so speak up, I say.  Speak up on the Internet and you want to get attention, say unpopular things.  It’s dangerous, but it certainly gets you publicity.  

BT: How do you feel about people building a personal brand?

Ben Brantley: Yeah, unfortunately I don’t think self-branding necessarily goes hand-in-hand with genuine talent. I mean who is the more successful brand in the past year other than Bethany? Do you know? I mean these people from reality shows, and in England it’s even worse. I mean there is poor Jade Goody who died on camera. She couldn’t exist without being a brand name. When she was sick she invited the cameras into her house. She had been a contestant on Big Brother and I think it’s partly an addiction to fame. That is another way in which it’s a frontier land.  I mean the old Andy Warhol thing about everyone eventually being famous has come true to the extent that if you want to I think you can be, if you’re shameless enough, if you’re willing to put yourself out there, but no one really knows how to navigate it and I think instant fame can really screw up your mind.  

It’s plain to see that I’m an optimist, sometimes more than is socially comfortable. The ease with which I dismiss the disastrous economic decline above serves as one example of that. I wrote that the recession will benefit our political system, and, before I cut this line, as having “rewarded our company for methodical execution and ruthless efficiency by removing competitors from the landscape.” I make no mention of the disastrous effects on millions of people, and the great uncertainty that grips any well-briefed mind, because it truly doesn’t stand in the foreground of my mind (despite suffering personal loss of wealth). Our species is running towards a precipice with looming dangers like economic decline, political unrest, climate crisis, and more threatening to grip us as we jump off the edge, but my optimism is stronger now than ever before. On the other side of that looming gap are extraordinary breakthroughs in healthcare, communications technology, access to space, human productivity, artistic creation and literally hundreds of fields. With the right execution and a little bit of luck we’ll all live to see these breakthroughs — and members of my generation will live to see dramatically lengthened life-spans, exploration and colonization of space, and more opportunity than ever to work for passion instead of simply working for pay. Instead of taking this space to regale you with the many personal and focused changes I intend to make in 2009, let me rather encourage you to spend time this year thinking, as I’m going to, more about what we can do in 2009 to positively affect the future our culture will face in 2020, 2050, 3000 and beyond.

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