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June 23, 2010


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Bruhaha! Melee!

George Hunka

I don't think whether or not the anonymous blogger should have held back for fear of "hurting 'the community's' feelings" has anything to do with it, nor does it have anything to do with critique or review or the Voice's status as a newspaper "which positions itself as one of the last bastions of support for off and off-off-broadway theatre," as Melanie Joseph says. It's irresponsible sensation- and scandal-mongering, pure and simple, and the Voice's motives in posting the email were questionable at the very least, unethical at most.

If we're going to judge every one of these issues and approve of these miscarriages according to their publicity or amusement value ... well, it's up to you. But that's not a community -- a theatre community or a broader community -- to which I would care to belong. "Suck it up and deal" is not an adequate response -- it's your own privacy, too, that's at issue. If you don't want it, fine. But that gives no one any right to take it from somebody else.


Like I said, the privacy issue is an actual one, though a sticky, complicated one in the modern, internet world. I'm all for a discussion of if and when that e-mail ceased to be a private communication. And I would love to hear the story of how the Village Voice got a hold of it. If the actor in question sent it to a reporter, or to someone he could reasonably think would forward it to a reporter...it's kind of on him. He wrote it down. He said those things and meant them. He should stand by them.

As for the Voice as "a bastion of support," that's exactly my point. It's a newspaper. It covers stories. It may touch on advocacy, and it may shine a spotlight on events that other newspapers don't, but it's NOT a non-profit arts organization. It sells newspapers. The motive in publishing the e-mail? Drive up traffic. Let's also not forget the paper had just printed an article about this play and about the change in directors. This was, in essence, a follow-up to that. I don't understand questioning their motives as though there's something shady going on here. It's not like they want to tank this show so their production of The Octoroon will sell tickets. We all know what their motives are. And it's folly to assume that the motives of the newspaper or the reporter are aligned with "our" motives because they have coincided in the past.

Also it's not an either/or proposition. This may be small potatoes or whatever, but it's theatre news: a director left a show right before opening, an actor vented his frustration unwisely. It may be gossip, but that doesn't make it news. The only conceivable reason for the Voice not to print it is to save the actor's face and protect the production. That's simply not their job. No matter how much coverage they give to the community.


Just to play Devil's Advocate though... is it the Voice's job to publish the personal gripes of actors? What is the story about? What's the angle? What is the reason we're all reading this except that it's fun to read about arguments?

I think there's a real difference between the very real problem of the community self-censoring discussion about the work because there's social pressure to be "supportive" and what the Voice did...which is to publish something that strikes me as less than newsworthy just because someone got off script.

Aaron Riccio

With so many generic shows out there, theater should be so lucky as to be sensation-mongering, no?

As I said on your site, too, George, this isn't about amusement value. It's about peeling back the iron curtain of a production and being more honest--not just amongst practitioners, but amongst the audience.

Say that I'm involved in an awful show. I warn my friends that it's bad, and that they should come at their own risk (which is already sort of a taboo), but I do so because I want them to respect my choices, and not to simply dismiss future invitations. Isn't that a bit unfair, though, to the wider public? The one that's subjected to PR sugarcoating so often that they wind up with a sour stomach and a reluctance to take a chance on things that haven't been highly praised?

In a perfect world, the cast and crew would be able to twitter, blog, release press statements, &c. explaining how they feel about the show. Karl (if it was he who wrote the letter) should be able to disparage the play; if there's nobody in the cast willing to respond with praise, he's probably right. And if Person B steps up to counter Karl's claims--and that convinces me to see the show--and I then realize that I've been lied to, I'm liable to distrust the liar (either Karl or Person B) in the future.

On my own site, I ask shows to contact me directly with releases and invitations, especially if they can't afford PR, but make it clear to them that they should do so ONLY IF THEY THINK THEIR SHOW IS GREAT--not just because they want coverage. What I've learned from that is that people often think too highly of themselves; every show is fantastic, period. And that's NOT true--sadly, it can't be.

And that's the illusion that needs to be broken. If it takes gossip-mongering and legally obtained correspondences (i.e., not hacked) to have people take ownership of their commitment to quality, so be it. I know that this post is long and full of exaggerations, and I know that I'm not an in-the-trenches artist, but I've felt the personal sting of heartbreak, and honesty has always been both the best cure and the best motivator for me to do more. It's tempting to settle for the passable; I'm so glad there are companies out there that continue to challenge themselves and that see misses as opportunities for growth. (Flux and The Debate Society immediately come to mind: if I can get there, I would pay to see anything they do.)

George Hunka

If the only conceivable reason for the Voice to print it is to drive up their Web stats -- that's not their job either. That's the most shameless kind of rumormongering. It certainly doesn't sell their (free) newspaper.

If there was a story here, they should have reported it. If not, then they blithely traipsed over the writer's assumption of privacy.


freeman- They had just written a piece on the play and the production and the fact that the director had just left over creative differences, a situation that none of the principles had addressed directly. Here, though, was one of the participants addressing it very, very directly. It's gossip-y, sure, but it's not really rumor-mongering, at least I don't see it that way. I'm with Aaron on this: it pulls back the skin and shows us what's really going on. Or at least a version of it. And that has news value.

George- Again, the Village Voice isn't a non-profit, do-gooder institution. Essentially, increasing their web traffic is precisely their job. Their newspaper and website are free because of ad revenue gained by increased web traffic. It's precisely their job. Sometimes they do their job by providing great, supportive journalism. Sometimes they do their job by stoking a little controversy and scandal. But that's their job. Not being a supportive organ for the Off-Broadway community. You don't have to like it.

As for the writer's assumption of privacy...again, it's an e-mail. They didn't hack into his computer to get it. He sent it out, presumably to more than one person. Who then forwarded it to a reporter. He took that risk when he sent it and should have known better.

George Hunka

So am I then to assume in stoking this controversy and scandal, anything goes? If as you admit privacy is an "actual" (if "sticky") issue, then certainly it can't end there. And as I originally said, I don't believe this has anything to do with the Voice's perceived status (and it is indeed mere perception) as "a supportive organ for the Off-Broadway community." For what it's worth, I don't believe it is, nor should it be.


I'm confused about your concerns here, George. On one hand, you have the privacy concern: the Voice shouldn't have published a private e-mail no matter the circumstances. That's one discussion and, as I said, an issue I do find sticky. This wasn't just a chatty letter to a friend that got forwarded; it was an announcement about a show. He wrote for dissemination. Apparently not for the press, but it wasn't exactly a personal e-mail. I do think that puts this in a grey area.

On the other hand, though, in this thread, in your post, at Freeman's place, you seem to be taking the tack that by printing this particular e-mail, the Village Voice has crossed a line with the community. You agree with Melanie Joseph and the other theatre professionals in their condemnation that has more to do with feeling betrayed by a perceived friend. If you want to leave that off the table and discuss the privacy question solely, that's fine. But let's leave the motives of the Voice out of it. Whether they published it out of spite or because they believed it had genuine news value, it doesn't matter, does it? It's the publishing that you have an issue with, right?

George Hunka

They didn't cross a line with the theatre community, J., but violated a social contract that assumes privacy of personal communication. (I may be in the minority in believing that such a social contract still exists, I admit -- and fear.) If the Voice violated anything else, it was perhaps their own standards as journalists, whether they cover City Hall, the theatre, or auto racing.

But yes, that's right, it's the publishing I have an issue with and not those ancillary issues, which as I've tried to make clear I believe are irrelevant.

George Hunka

I should also add that when I wrote "It causes quite real grief not only to the writer, but to the personnel involved in The Octoroon besides" at Matt's blog, I didn't intend to suggest that this was a reason for the email to remain unpublished; this is an ancillary result of the original posting and has little to do with the original decision to publish it.


If we're talking social contract, who's the violator here? If we assume that the actor didn't include anyone at the Village Voice staff on his original distribution list, then someone forwarded it to them. Let's say that the e-mail they got was already stripped of identifying details, but came from a source they trusted. They believed it to be an actual e-mail, but hadn't gotten it directly and got it with the intention of having it published. Does that change the social contract? Or should they take the tack that under no circumstances a personal e-mail should be published? Or is it just that this is gossip and that doesn't have news value?


I think when J. was saying that something was "an issue"he meant not that what The Voice did was wrong, but that the privacy concerns are a lot more worth discussing than whether it was wrong for the voice to, as you put it, "gossip monger".

So let's leave the gossip mongering/unsupportive charge aside for a just a moment and ask what expectation of privacy someone sending out a provocative and humorously worded mass e-mail about a show that newspapers are reporting on has. It's an interesting question. I don't mean this legally or anything, but just social norms.

To me... I don't think a mass e-mail has much of a cone of silence around it. It's an interesting (if talmudic) question as to how many people need to receive it, but I also think that we know *nothing* about how the Voice received the e-mail.


Let me also reprint (with permission) an e-mail from a friend that sums up how I feel about the gossip-mongering part of it:

"everyone is behaving rather shittily. [The actor] shouldn't have sent out that email, various people probably shouldn't have forwarded it, the Voice should have done more reporting rather than just point and laugh, and the comments are all out of control. (even if some are very funny) But the Voice is under no obligation to NOT spread the gossip."

That's how I feel. I don't think the Voice is acting like the pinnacle of journalism here, but that's different than saying they did something wrong or unethical. Just because we don't like something doesn't make it wrong. The rush to claim a moral high ground in this case doesn't really add anything.

George Hunka

Well, I don't have much time to engage in speculation, as delightful as that may be. But if we accept this posting (and the decisions and actions that led to it) as justifiable, legitimate journalism about an art form or anything else, we have no right to complain about the current quality of journalism, let alone arts journalism, in the age of blogs and the Internet.


I'm glad you're so busy, George! As to your point... I'm sympathetic about the declining quality of arts journalism but the ship you're worried about has already sailed. It sailed years ago. It's name is the USS Michael Riedel.

I want better arts journalism than this, but that doesn't mean that the Voice story should be taken down (which is what multiple commenters, several of them powerful people in the theatrical industry, demanded). Nor do I think the Voice did anything unethical. And getting on your high horse and inventing privacy protections that don't exist-- there's a reason why companies have e-mail signatures that stake privacy claims over their communications-- doesn't really accomplish much either.


George- I know you don't have time, but who's talking speculation? About what? Unless you're saying, categorically, printing a private e-mail is bad journalism, context does matter. If you are indeed saying that...that seems like a pretty narrow position to take. I'm certainly on the "more internet" end of the bandwidth here, I know that, but I think there are a lot of issues to discuss along the spectrum. I do think this is defensible as journalism, even given what we know. And I do have complaints about the state of journalism, but many of those are separate from the idea of posting an e-mail. I'm not giving up that right.

I agree with Isaac: if you're sending out a mass e-mail, to multiple recipients, inviting them to a show, you lose some of your claim to privacy. It's not posting a flyer...but it's not far off. This wasn't hacked out of someone's computer by the Voice, or read off an unattended laptop at Starbucks. Someone forwarded it to them, someone who either got it or was forwarded it from the sender. That person broached the confidentiality. I've watched enough Law & Order to know that when a third person gets involved, confidentiality goes out the window.

Regardless of that, in a way, I absolutely do think that a newspaper has the right to publish an e-mail it gets, if it deems it to have news value. Provided the e-mail wasn't obtained by illegal means. A few weeks ago, that Harvard law student had her racist views aired in exactly the same manner and I don't remember all of this handwringing then.

George Hunka

As Isaac pointed out, "we know *nothing* about how the Voice received the e-mail," so I'm sorry if I misread your original comment, 99; but your terms like "if we assume ..." and "let's say ..." led me to believe that you were speculating; if I was wrong, please forgive. And context matters, surely; a shame that the Voice contributor failed to provide any.

The fact is we don't know what we don't know. But the fact is also that we do know what we do. While Isaac says that "multiple commenters, several of them powerful people in the theatrical industry, demanded" to have the post removed, this is not a matter of speaking truth to power on the part of the Voice (in any event, the post remains where it is, so perhaps these people aren't so powerful after all).

All right; your definition of news value and mine (and the Village Voice's) may differ. And I know nothing about the Harvard law student incident. I'm not sure just how Talmudic the question of "mass e-mail" is, either; and since no crime was committed (privacy being what is called a penumbral, not an explicit, Constitutional right in the U.S.), it's a bit beyond even the good men and women of Law & Order. Although receiving stolen goods remains an offense in most jurisdictions. Nor is an email disclaimer that stakes a privacy claim to the information contained therein a legally binding agreement, to the best of my knowledge.

And my "high horse"? Forgive me -- I'd forgotten that this was all about myself. Basta, basta.


I was trying to tease out the bedrock underneath your thoughts here, George. The borders of your idea of the "social contract" of receiving an e-mail. You say the Voice "violated the social contract that assumes privacy of personal communication." Which assumes that the e-mail was sent directly to the writer of the piece who then posted it. What I'm trying to get at is the underlying question: if it wasn't sent directly to the person, does that change the social contract? If the Voice didn't violate the social contract, is there still the same issue with printing the e-mail?

Before we devolve into sniping and snark, I think this is worth discussing. If I send an e-mail to someone and they forward it on without my permission to someone else who is likely to publish it, is the last person in this chain the person at fault? You're much more abstemious (?) about this issue than I am; I think that, if I write it down and send, particularly as an e-mail, I lose some of control. You don't, but I wonder how far does that control extend? To third parties?

Leaving aside the content of the e-mail or the context of the discussion, what's the fault here? Is the same fault if the Voice received the e-mail with the express purpose of having it published?

George Hunka

The person at fault, ultimately, is the person who decided to post this information -- second-party or third-party -- publicly. Either this second party or this third could presumably trace the email back to the original sender and then request comment or permission to post. Because it is a private email, individual or "mass," and not that of a corporate entity or theatre company, I would think that the assumption of privacy attaches through the distribution.

It has happened that I have received emails addressed to me in error that contain very personal, private information. And whether I'd received it in error, or if a third party forwarded to me for my amusement or information, I have to say that the last thing I would do with it would be to post it to my blog. Only in this way is the sender's right to that privacy respected. (And what did I do with that first email? I read it quickly, recognized the mistake, and immediately deleted it.)

As I mentioned, I do have a theatre company myself, and when I send out emails about my shows I have a "forward to a friend" button, a "post this to Twitter" button -- all of those things that allow its deliberate circulation to other online entities. But I don't assume that my private emails are to be circulated similarly -- otherwise I'd include a "forward to a friend" and "post this to Twitter" button in my .sig file. I don't, because I assume whether an email is one-to-one or one-to-twenty, it will not leave that circle without my permission.

Did the actor or somebody associated with the production send it on to the Voice with the express purpose of having it published? Another thing we don't know. But in this ignorance I think the right to privacy must be assumed by the final recipient.


There's lots we don't know, so it's not worth detailing it all. I see what you're saying: however the person at the Voice received this, they had to know it wasn't meant for public consumption and shouldn't have shared it. That's a fair point. And for you, that trumps any news value at all?

For me, it's less so. It's another debatable point about the news value of this e-mail, but I think that it does have some and that value trumps the privacy issue, especially given the coverage the show had already garnered. Does one person's individual right to privacy trump the community's right to information? (I'm trying to stay away from qualitative discussions about this because that's a third debatable point: is this information that we have a right to know?)


"This wasn't just a chatty letter to a friend that got forwarded; it was an announcement about a show. He wrote for dissemination. Apparently not for the press, but it wasn't exactly a personal e-mail. I do think that puts this in a grey area."

If the actor wanted the email to remain private, then why pass along discount codes and other promotional information? Human nature is to watch a trainwreck in progress, especially if you can get in cheap. That email wouldn't have dissseminated as far as it did, to the point that the VOICE was cc'd, if those codes hadn't been included.

George Hunka

All good questions, 99, and I believe at the moment we should leave some of these unanswerable questions at that. Until it happens again, of course.

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