Mike Hale, movie and television critic for the New York Times Culture Desk, spoke to a crowded Fulton 511 on his experiences within the world of media criticism and recounted the changes he has witnessed within the industry.
A graduate of Stanford University, Hale grew up in both America and Asia, moving between various countries including Pakistan and Indonesia, and eventually arrived at the Times in 1995 as a copy editor on the sports desk. Since 2009, he has been writing about television and film, joking that his greatest qualification for his job is his ability to sit in one place for a long period of time.
It was in The New Yorker that Hale read his first movie review. He admitted that he’d never seen the magazine before his freshman year in college. Once he picked it up for the first time, though, he was hooked. He admired the New Yorker critics’ plain yet vibrant style of writing and the way they made everything they wrote seem interesting.
“I don’t think there’s any better criticism today than there was back then,” Hale said.
Hale discussed how much critics’ job descriptions have changed from the past, the most obvious of those chances being the result of the explosion of the Internet and technology. There was a time when critics were only required to write criticism.
Now, critics must multitask and rapidly churn out material, including television show recaps the day after the show airs, detailed critical blog posts under time pressures, and clever tweets.
“It wasn’t the same kind of rushed-to-be-the-first to get your word in on something [like it is now],” Hale said.
Throughout the past 15 to 20 years, the Times has experimented with various multimedia platforms. During the mid to late ’90s, the Times was a large proponent of blogs.
Around the mid-2000s, blogs quietly started to disappear, and suddenly it was all about interactive graphics and slideshows. This trend lasted three or four years, and what’s coming in now at the Times is video.
“The next step is to more directly compete with television by doing video ourselves,” Hale said.
Hale went on to discuss how readers and people in the television business often combine journalism with media criticism, especially in the case of television criticism. There tends to be a lack of distinction between being a critic and being a reporter.
Hale believes, however, that there actually is a distinction, and if you combine the two functions, there’s an effect on the criticism.
“When people whose work you’re judging [who] you may need to write harshly about are the same people you depend on for news tips and quotes, there’s a problematic situation, potentially a conflict,” he said.
Additionally, Hale stated that television has completely changed in the last 15 years, and critics frequently examine whether or not today is the Golden Age of television. The bulk of those changes in TV are largely a result of the rise of cable.
Hale referenced The Sopranos as the television show that solidified cable’s dominance over broadcast. Once channels like Discovery Channel and the History Channel were added as well, cable’s presence continued to grow.
“Basically, the answer to the question of are we in a Golden Age of television is simply that of course there’s more good TV, [because] there’s so much more TV,” Hale said.
“I have criticized a lot of the shows that are critically acclaimed,” he said. “I don’t see a lot of shows that really make me care about the characters or plotlines. The average for TV is much higher than it’s been in the past, but I don’t see the highs as being the highest they’ve ever been.”
Hale claims there are limitations on how good TV can be because there are too many people-committees of writers, directors, and people in offices hundreds of thousands of miles away-working on the same project.
“It doesn’t mean you can’t make great TV, but it means you can’t do the same thing that a really good movie director can do,” Hale said. “You can’t have the same amount of control. You can’t make the same kind of unified work that a great movie director can put on.”
Another problem Hale has with television is its lack of emotion. In shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, for example, Hale sees coldness.
“[They’re] missing a kind of emotional element, a kind of playfulness in TV,” he said.
He said he prefers shows like Louie that express one male’s honest worldview in a credible, genuine way.