Don’t Make Friends

Life Itself, a new documentary about the life and death of film critic Roger Ebert, features many talking head interviews with friends and admirers from throughout Ebert’s life, who expound on Ebert’s virtues—and a few of his vices—in order to contextualize his significance in the twin realms of movies and film criticism.

An obvious take-home message of the movie is that Ebert was truly one-of-a-kind—the rare critic who became as well-known (and as beloved) as many of the people he wrote about.  Indeed, perhaps the most peculiar sight in Life Itself is the number of filmmakers who reminisce about ol’ Roger as if he had been a close, personal friend.  By all outward appearances, he was.

You’ve got Martin Scorsese citing Ebert’s unerring support for saving Scorsese’s career at a point when cocaine and despair could have very easily killed it (and him).

Ramin Bahrani, a moderately successful independent director, credits Ebert with effectively putting him on the map, which he did not merely with glowing four-star reviews but through tireless advocacy and unofficial patronage.  He used his own high status to build up that of someone whose films he thought deserved to be seen, serving as a friend and mentor along the way.

(We might as well also mention that the director of Life Itself, Steve James, made a documentary in 1994, Hoop Dreams, which Ebert proclaimed the best movie of the 1990s.)

On a personal level, these and other examples of Ebert’s huge heart and sense of moral justice are admirable and a wonder to behold.  Would that more powerful people used their influence for good, not evil, and we’d be living in a far more pleasant society.  Who could possibly object?

And yet, we are left with the inconvenient fact that Ebert was, after all, a critic, and a critic is supposed to be objective—or at least aspire (and, for Pete’s sake, appear) to be as such.  For a movie reviewer to be forming bonds of friendship with movie makers—well, a term like “fraternizing with the enemy” leaps to mind, not to mention “conflict of interest.”

It’s an issue first of ethics, and second of judgment, and we are obligated to consider both.

I offer it as a three-part question:  Should any beat writer become close with those about whom he is writing?  If so, is he then bound either not to write about them at all, or to issue a clear “full disclosure” notice to readers upon doing so?  And if not, has he not then surrendered any notion of objectivity, even if he makes a strong effort to separate personal feelings from professional responsibility?

In the case of Ebert, one could argue that he never attempted to disentangle his emotions from his intellect in the first place.  Ebert himself argued as much, saying that he worked according to the sentiment by fellow critic Robert Warshow, “A man goes to the movies.  The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man.”  In other words:  Impartiality be damned.

As for the possibility of being corrupted by friendships, Life Itself argues that Ebert did not lose his perspective when appraising films by people he knew and liked, and shows (albeit with only one example) that he was capable of filing negative reviews even when, for personal reasons, he had every incentive not to.  In the end, according to the documentary, he resisted the urge to become a professional hack.  It is left to each of us to ascertain whether this assessment is true.

But what if you’re a member of a profession for which impartiality is not merely recommended and preferred, but is outright mandatory?

For instance:  What if you’re a journalist?

We assume—nay, we hope and pray—that the reporters and columnists on whom we depend to tell us what is happening in the world and to keep our leaders honest are not cavorting around with the very figures they are meant to skewer and critique.

After all, in the world of political journalism, the question isn’t whether becoming friendly with politicians might distort a journalist’s work.  The question, rather, is how could it not?

And yet we have spectacles like the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where journalists and lawmakers drink and intermingle on live television, suggesting all-too-convincingly that this is not the only night of the year in which the Fourth Estate enjoys a social relationship with its would-be targets.  The scribblers of America might think they are not being unduly influenced by this, but we have only their word on which to rely.  (Most of the time, we don’t even have that.)

America’s judicial system addresses the subject of impartiality through recusals, whereby a judge abstains from presiding over any case in which, because of the people involved, he or she has (or might have) a rooting interest.

The process of jury selection functions in the same way.  Sitting before the judge of a pending trial, the first question all prospective jurors are asked is whether they know the plaintiff, defendant or any of the witnesses personally.  Of course, there are many reasons a juror might be led to favor one side over the other, but it all begins with personal connections, be they friendly or hostile.

Would you want your vindictive ex-girlfriend in the jury box at your own trial?  Would you want the best friend of alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev among the jurors at his?

I didn’t think so.  It would be a travesty and a miscarriage of justice, and our system is all the more laudable for taking such pains to ensure it doesn’t happen.

Why shouldn’t the press be held to this same high standard?  Why are reporters allowed to so casually exchange pleasantries with the movers and shakers of government one day, and then be expected to disinterestedly grill them on TV and in newspapers the next?  Since when do any of these folks merit our benefit of the doubt?

The fact is that personal relationships are inherently corrosive to our ability to assess a person’s character and actions fairly.  That’s why friendships are so wonderful and hatreds so toxic.  The former allow us to fool ourselves into thinking certain people are more perfect than they actually are, while the latter do precisely the opposite.

Because this is how human nature works, and because we cannot pretend otherwise, we must make every effort to prevent such bonds from taking root in areas of professional life in which they do not belong.  And when they do take root, those involved should have the decency to call a spade a spade, lest they make a mockery of themselves, of us and of the eternal search for justice and truth.

Anything else would be unseemly.  Ebert would not approve.

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