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What Is "Bad Faith" Media Criticism?

I have an intense passion for movies, and I believe that film critics help people think better about the media they consume.

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Lately on YouTube, I've noticed a lot of commentary criticizing popular channel CinemaSins very negatively. While the point of CinemaSins is comedy and satire, not serious movie criticism, they are often responded to as if they were trying to do serious criticism and failing. Some people say that calling oneself satire or saying that one is "only joking" is a flimsy excuse for shoddy criticism.

My belief is that CinemaSins is not doing anything bad. They're poking fun at movies to make their audience laugh. They're making jokes about movies. That should never be confused with actual criticism, and they themselves make fun of themselves by saying, "We're not reviewers. We're assholes." Or in other words, they're just comedians. If you take them too seriously, the joke is on you. I don't know why but it seems that recently, people have simply lost all their taste for this style of comedy. It comes across as overly mean and nit-picky. People seem to have gotten a lot more angry at humorists lately, a lot more sensitive to humor they feel is attacking someone. Maybe people just like to be righteously outraged at someone, and humorists, with their nonchalant attitudes and lack of concern for the harm their work might do, are easy targets for said righteous outrage.

What I think really happened though is what I like to call 'popularity fatigue', which is explained well (but not called that) in the book, The Creativity Curve by Allan Gannett. This book says that the popularity of a creative work is driven by the conflicting factors of novelty and familiarity. CinemaSins has simply exhausted its novelty and passed what that book calls the "point of cliché". They're no longer interesting and cool, because they're perceived as always doing the same thing over and over again. Thus, a hate-fandom has sprung up mocking and criticizing them.

What Really Is, "Bad Faith" Media Criticism?

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What's missing from the finger-wagging at CinemaSins is a good definition of what they actually mean by "bad faith criticism", and a discussion of why such a definition is important to have. Wikipedia's "bad faith" article doesn't include a section on the term in relation to media criticism. The term means being deceitful in some way, usually in economic or legal agreements. One party is acting in "bad faith" when they say they will do one thing in an agreement, but have the true intention of doing something else. For example, someone agrees to pay a certain amount in bail and show up to court on a certain date, but flees the country instead.

But being hostile and mocking something is not being deceitful or duplicitous in the way that a "bad faith" loan agreement is fraudulent.

Or is it?

The deceit here is when people pretend to be critics and journalists, pretend to be writing the truth as objectively as possible, and yet what's really happening is that they're just bashing fictional works with pure hatred. They may misrepresent the works in question, and they typically target whatever is popular and/or recently released, and they cannot be pleased or satisfied. Indeed, since their only intention is to angrily bash and mock everything, being satisfied by anything is simply not compatible with their way of thinking.

So, when a YouTube channel like CinemaSins or the Nostalgia Critic is bashed for being "bad faith criticism", what people should consider is whether or not these channels and others like them are actually claiming to be serious and objective or not. If they admit what they do is just for shits and giggles, for entertainment value, with no real concern for the actual art of media journalism, criticism, and discussion, that's fine. The internet is big enough for both of us. The problem is when it seems like those channels also want to make serious statements about film criticism. You can't have it both ways. You're either a clown or a journalist - pick one. Bad faith criticism is caused by people claiming to be clowns when it suits them, yet claiming to be journalists or critics at the same time.

How to Find Good Critics: Look For Principles

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The main difference between a good critic and a bad critic is that a good critic has a "win condition". That is, they have criteria that a work of fiction could meet that would meet or exceed their standards. Negative critics just want to sh*t on everything, either because they hate everything, or because they think doing that will be funny or entertaining for their audience. They get a lot of attention on the internet, which is why that approach is so often seen, while more benevolent and rational critics are often overlooked.

When evaluating whether a critic is worth attention, simply try to figure out the principles he or she believes in. A good critic has a set of principles that will always inform their judgment. Among these principles should always be that they value fairness and objective journalism. (As objective as you can get in something as inherently subjective and emotion-driven as film response.)

For example, one of my favorite film critics, Lindsay Ellis (check out her channel on YouTube), grounds her criticism of many aspects of commercialized pop culture in principles. She's very critical of art that exists just to make money, but she also understands that great art can't exist without financial backing.

So instead of condemning every instance of product placement for example, she talks about whether the product placement cheapens the art, or makes scenes feel more realistic, because we do live in a world populated by images associated with different brand names. I like this nuanced approach to media criticism that attempts to understand a phenomenon by exploring multiple viewpoints and evaluating many possible interpretations and arguments - not simply choosing one point of view and then verbally assaulting and shaming everyone who holds alternative points of view.

The best thing you can do when you see bad faith criticism is look away. These people have monetized YouTube channels or blogs they're probably making ad revenue from. In pursuit of views, they don't care about accuracy, truth, reliability, fairness, or any other principle that should be the foundation of all journalism. Art and media criticism isn't the only area of journalism with this problem, almost all journalism has suffered from the need to compete with, and be, click bait. But as consumers of not only media products but also of media related journalism, we need to be cautious about who we're giving our support to.

As a critic myself, I try to always hold myself to principles, even if not doing so might make a bigger splash, getting me more attention. And I'm always trying to improve my craft. I don't want to just become a tabloid.

Thanks for reading!

© 2019 Rachael Lefler