Comics, Journalism, and Ethics

by

So, Valerie D’Orazio recently asked the question:

“Do you think the comic book industry, and its principal players, should be subject to the sort of public scrutiny and (at times) gossip that others in the entertainment field are subject to?”

Today, I read my esteemed coworker, Rachel Edidin’s, response. I think she’s right on about a lot of it, but I also think there’s an element many are missing.

D’Orazio’s question is a good one, except for two things: it’s really several questions, and it takes too much for granted. Let me try to separate out some of the issues:

  • Look at film and music. Name me some actors. Easy, right? How about directors? Yeah, you can do that. Cinematographers? That’s fewer hands, but still some. Key Grips? Naw, I’m just kidding. Studio execs? Yeah, me neither. No one really knows who makes the decisions at those places, just like most corporations. In comics, the people that run the major companies are public figures on the same level as writers and artists—actually, more visible than many of them. We need to distinguish between the people who set policy and the people who carry it out.
  • Second, when I say “public figures,” what do I mean? We know the names of the people who make our comics, but they aren’t really public figures, not like Brad Pitt is. Brad Pitt has decided that it’s worth it to him for his personal life to be public, in exchange for being a celebrity. Hell, it probably helps his celebrity. Let’s not kid ourselves, people like that are complicit in the way they are portrayed in the media. No one really believes that all those young women in the film and music industries all started forgetting both to wear underwear and cross their legs all at the same time, do we? Comics professionals aren’t really comparable.
  • Third, does the fact that something deserves scrutiny mean it deserves gossip? Of course not. As Rachel points out, accountability is important, but being accountable for treatment of talent has little to do with discussion of one’s personal life. That’s why the business moves of the corporations that own film studios appear in a different section of the newspaper than celebrity gossip.

That third point is the main one for me. That, and the fact that we should stop pretending we’re not talking about one specific person, because we are. We’re talking about Rich Johnston, recently of Comic Book Resources’ “Lying in the Gutters” and currently of his own “Bleeding Cool.” It’s a little early to see how “Bleeding Cool” will develop, but “Lying in the Gutters” was an important column for several reasons. I can’t agree with D’Orazio that it is “the quintessential . . . comic book column, period,” because I’d put something with more serious formal and critical chops there, but, but, when it was running I read it every week on Monday, because it was entertaining, and because it was one of a kind. And that’s the problem.

Because “Lying in the Gutters” was the only column doing what it was doing, the things it was doing have come to be lumped together. It was the place to go for gossip, much of it completely wrong, but it was also the place to go for comics journalism, by which I mean the only place. In the tradition of Wizard magazine, the major comics news sites are generally content to rewrite press releases and throw high-selling talent softball questions. Rich Johnston actually does the work, doing research and making calls, with a network that has its ear to the ground, and he doesn’t hesitate to pursue a story, and when he’s on to something he’s alone in breaking important news. He’s shone a light on publishers acting in bad faith, scams perpetrated on publishers and fans alike, and a wide variety of stories that have allowed comics readers a window into the same kind of production issues and corporate accountability that consumers in any other industry would expect.

Unfortunately, “Lying in the Gutters” combined this work with many, many stories that bring serious question to Johnston’s ethics, such as the notion that revealing upcoming plot points in comics series constituted news; that Johnston’s own comics projects should be plugged not at the end of the column or in his byline, but as stories within the column itself; his frequent backpeddling on the implications of his reports (including his recent claim on The V that his recurring “Swipe File” feature is not meant to imply that one image included is “swiped” from the other); and his use of the “traffic light” ranking system in “Lying in the Gutters.” A disclaimer told readers that stories running with a red light were probably not true, which begs the question: why did they run anyway? This is part of a pattern of avoiding accountability for the accuracy of the stories “Lying in the Gutters” ran.

This is not to single out “Lying in the Gutters”—except that, well, actually it is, but not through any fault of Johnston’s. He’s alone out there, meaning that the things he gets right are important, but the things he does wrong are just as important. When the premiere comics gossip column is also the only real comics journalism, it becomes difficult to separate the two and the otherwise off-base question

“Do you think the comic book industry, and its principal players, should be subject to the sort of public scrutiny and (at times) gossip that others in the entertainment field are subject to?”

becomes sadly relevant. If we want to have a serious comics press, it needs to be staffed by people who practice journalism, not hype. There is a place for hype, and because of the First Amendment, there will always be a place for gossip, but the place of those things is separate from the place of journalism, and once there is actually a steady base of real journalism in place, then Johnston’s decision of which side he falls on, or whether or not he picks a side, won’t hold nearly the relevance it does now. And then we can get around to discussing

“Do you think the comic book industry, and its principal players, should be subject to the sort of public scrutiny and (at times) gossip that others in the entertainment field are subject to?”

without it being a total sideshow, like it is now.

Advertisements

Tags: ,

6 Responses to “Comics, Journalism, and Ethics”

  1. Rich Johnston Says:

    Interesting column, nicely written.

    Is it okay if I take you up on a couple of things? (Yes.) Thank you. (My pleasure.)

    “Unfortunately, “Lying in the Gutters” combined this work with many, many stories that bring serious question to Johnston’s ethics, such as the notion that revealing upcoming plot points in comics series constituted news”

    You know I tried to stay away from this, whiting out stuff if necessary, but this was very rare. But journalists in mainstream press write spoiler stories for all sorts of TV shows and films. And it does seem to constitute news. I cite the casting of Matt Smith as The Doctor.

    It’s true I tried to keep LITG as a wide reaching column. But you don’t castigate a newspaper for running entertainment news, a gossip column, feaurtures and interviews AS WELL as hard hitting pieces of investigative journalism. My favourite example of the latter is a British magazine called Private Eye, but it also runs Onion-style stories, parodies and cartoons. I really think something can do all these.

    “that Johnston’s own comics projects should be plugged not at the end of the column or in his byline, but as stories within the column itself”

    Yeah I did that. It wasn’t like I was hiding it though, like the way the Murdoch press plugs its other enterprises. I hope I was blatant.

    “his frequent backpeddling on the implications of his reports (including his recent claim on The V that his recurring “Swipe File” feature is not meant to imply that one image included is “swiped” from the other)”

    It isn’t, it’s meant to suggest a similarity and ask the viewer to make a judgement. Sometimes they are blatant swipes, sometimes coincidences, sometimes a bizarre mismatch of images. “Swipe File” is an advertising term, that’s where the Journal got it from, and I’m basically continuing that feature (and that of Swipe Of The Week – which also published homages and coincidences). I recently ran a poll to see if its name should be changed and a large majority voted to keep it. This is not backpedalling. This is original intent.

    “and his use of the “traffic light” ranking system in “Lying in the Gutters.” A disclaimer told readers that stories running with a red light were probably not true, which begs the question: why did they run anyway?”

    Because they were rumours runninga round the industry and I was reporting on them. This feels like asking Snopes why they are running a piece on an email meme saying it’s not true. LITG reported on rumours, and considered their “truthiness” (thank you Stephen.)

    “This is part of a pattern of avoiding accountability for the accuracy of the stories “Lying in the Gutters” ran.”

    I really don’t believe I did avoid that. I believed I faced up to it.

    “This is not to single out “Lying in the Gutters”—except that, well, actually it is, but not through any fault of Johnston’s. He’s alone out there,”

    I’m not you know. Heidi MacDonald is MY favourite comics gossip columnist.

    “meaning that the things he gets right are important, but the things he does wrong are just as important.”

    I agree wholeheartedly. But I don’t think I avoided those.

    “When the premiere comics gossip column is also the only real comics journalism, it becomes difficult to separate the two and the otherwise off-base question”

    Hopefully Bleeding Cool, by dint of seperating pieces into their own sections, might help solve that.

  2. Brendan Wright Says:

    Hi, Rich. Glad to have you.

    I also hope that separating things out will help, as my main concern was these things running in one column. As you note, newspapers run a wide variety of material, but I made as one of my original points the fact that reporting on things like film business and film stars take place in separate sections of the paper.

    On plot points in the column, I just fail to see their place in the same column as actual news. (And I wouldn’t include casting choices as plot points.) Similarly, I wouldn’t have a problem with self plugs running at the end of the column, in the byline, or on a separate page, but I think that in “Lying in the Gutters,” they were listed among the items within in the column, with a green stoplight and everything. Transparent, yes, but still unseemly.

    As for those red lights, I get that they mean “this probably isn’t true,” but they seemed to often run without any sort of debunking, and they were almost always the first place I saw rumors, whether or not they turned out to be false. It’s a fine line between reporting on a rumor and being the one that makes the rumor go viral. Also, Snopes’s entire purpose is the debunking of urban legends. It says right at the top that false stories are false, and the purpose of the article following is to explain why they’re untrue and attempt to explain where they came from, not simply to report that the legend exists.

    On the swipe file, I don’t know what to tell you. Your title comes from a pretty Inside Baseball definition of “swipe” and the majority of readers could certainly be forgiven for being unfamiliar with it. As Rebecca Pidgeon says in “State and Main” when Philip Seymour Hoffman asks, “How do I make a movie called ‘The Old Mill’ when I don’t have an old mill?”: “Well, first you gotta change the title.”

    Accountability: See, I don’t know. Saying “I was only reporting on a rumor, even though I was the only one reporting on it and most people probably wouldn’t have heard it otherwise” just doesn’t seem to fit a normal journalistic definition of accountability. And I certainly know, based on many of the important stories you’ve broken, and my own limited knowledge of some stories that never saw publication because you did due diligence and didn’t run with them after getting evidence to the contrary, that you quite often have journalistic motives and quite often let those motives lead you to behave in a way that I’d consider more ethically sound than the cheerleading of most of the comics press.

    I like Heidi’s blog, too, but I do think “Lying in the Gutters” was alone in containing all the things it did in one column, many of which I’m glad were there. Consumers and industry pros should know a lot of the things that only you were reporting, and I definitely want to make it clear that I applaud that aspect of your work. I’m glad the investigative journalism will continue to have a home, and even more glad that it’s now easier read it while skipping the sections that don’t interest me or strike me as ethically dubious.

  3. Brendan Wright Says:

    More importantly, I hope more sources for investigative journalism in comics open up. It’s too big a job for one source to handle, and when multiple people are doing it, the whole muckraking endeavor won’t live or die by the day-to-day credibility of a single column.

  4. Rich Johnston Says:

    In Doctor Who, the casting of the lead is always a plot point – but papers have also run plot spoilers for months ahead for soap operas, Doctor Who, even the results of the first of the new batch of reality TV pop-star shows, before conveniently forgetting the story they’d run and joining in with the public guessing who would win. It is something I rarely do though, and I try to only do it if I think it’s justified with wider implications – and even then I try to avoid spoiling as much as I can. If a publisher spoils it themselves, that’s absolute news, and even then I try to hide aspects of said spoiler. Has there been anything like that in recent years?

    Snopes also confirms urban legends as well. And you know what? I think the Swipe File is labelled as well these days as Snopes is.

    I do take your points, and I keep trying to do better. I hope you continue to enjoy BleedingCool – and hold my feet to the fire when I bugger up. Which I will.

  5. Rich Johnston Says:

    Brendan,

    One nice things is that BC is now my day job. I used to send half an hour a day. Now I’m spending 6-7 hours. That’s got to help.

  6. Brendan Wright Says:

    Rich,

    Your points are also well taken, and I emphatically do look forward to seeing how Bleeding Cool shapes up.

    I have no interest in the parts of the paper that talk about celebrities, movie casting, and the like, and certainly wouldn’t mind seeing those sections vanish, and I similarly don’t care about them in blogs and Internet news sites, so I’m happy to see that Bleeding Cool will allow me to more easily filter out that stuff.

    As for Snopes, yes it confirms as well as debunks urban legends, but each entry is framed around doing one or the other, rather than “Here it is, what do you think?” which many of the red lights and swipe files seem to be saying. That’s Fox News stuff.

    So, I’ll keep reading, keep commenting and feet-fire-holding, and keep looking forward to the investigative journalism that I expect from you. Good luck with Bleeding Cool—I’m glad to see that you’ve found a way to make a day job of it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: