Editor’s Fanfare Vol. V, No. 6

Dealing with Bias in Supposedly Objective Criticism

In days of yore, during the circus’ heyday, its press agents would visit the city room of every newspaper of every city it played, passing out eagerly anticipated free passes and boundless bonhomie, making him an eagerly anticipated visitor and assuring the show a bountiful display of free coverage during its stay in each city. My, how things have changed.  These days it seems to be fashionable for people who review any circus to turn their reports into political statements regarding their opinion on animal performers.  Of course, reviews are intended to be an expression of one’s opinion.  No one argues otherwise.  Unfortunately, however, some of these opinions, especially those of a political nature have nothing to do with evaluating a show’s artistic merit or ability to entertain.  Everyone is entitled to an opinion, of course, but when that opinion is already formed and a forgone conclusion before a critic even sits down to consider the performance in front of him or her any evaluation of the art form under consideration is, therefore, bound to be biased, either politically or culturally, in which case the reviewer should be disqualified.

Most editors who assign reporters the job of reviewing a circus try to find someone who, if not schooled or experienced in the niceties of the art form in question, at least have an affection, if not actual love, of the art in question. Of course, editors are as subject to bias as their reporters, and they may in fact seek out a reporter on their staff who is similarly biased, in which case the circus hasn’t got a chance of being favorably reviewed.   However that bias should be called out by the readers of whatever publication such reviews appear.

Let’s look at an example of what I would label as biased reporting. It appeared in a recent edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. It as written by Lily Janiak.  The headline on the review, which as per journalistic custom, was not written by the reporter but by some editor and probably not the one who assigned the reporter to the review.  The headline read “The tritest show on earth.”

The so-called review begins:

If only the circus were just demented, not also nefarious. If it insulted your intelligence only with a barrage of seizure-inducing stimuli.”

Judging from that lead do you think the circus stands even the slightest chance of being favorably reviewed regardless of its content and manner of presentation?

What follows in Janiak’s review is an attack on every aspect and everyone associated with the production, in this case Ringling’s new edition Out of This World, and then after begrudgingly admitting to some sense of excitement Janiak drops the following bomb:

Giddy as those moments are, it’s impossible not to feel that, by buying a ticket, you’re complicit in the endangerment of your fellow humans.

Janiak then proceeds to expose her bias nakedly, noting the ban on animals within the city limits of San Francisco until the company ceases what’s widely regarded as animal cruelty. As of May, the company no longer uses elephants in any shows, but lions, tigers, kangaroos and llamas still appear in “Out of This World,” which means PETA still appears outside the circus’ venue, brandishing “Ringling Beats Animals” signs and handing out flyers.

You don’t have to read the flyers to sense the mistreatment, though; the tiny black box that carts the kangaroo onstage imparts plenty on its own, as do the vacant looks and subdued bearing of the animals themselves.

 Not only is any competing opinion about animal performers totally ignored as if non-existent, the statement is a bit far afield from evaluating the artistic merit or entertainment value of what the reporter is supposed to be reviewing. Instead she has made herself a shill for PETA and exposed her obvious bias, which should disqualify her from this assignment.

 Lily Janiak is The San Francisco Chronicle’s theater critic. Email: ljaniak@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @LilyJaniak

In contrast consider a review by Leslie Katz in the San Francisco Examiner, which begins by acknowledging a bias:

The 146th edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus doesn’t have any elephants, and, guess what? They weren’t missed on Thursday’s opening night at Oracle Arena in Oakland. Even though the pachyderms had a long, often controversial, history with the organization, it’s fitting they’re retired at a conservation center in Florida. The indignities to which they were subjected — including wearing ridiculous skirts and headbands — were quite beneath the majestic creatures.

 Once that is put aside the reviewer is able to state:

Still, the best things about the spectacle are what have always been best: the thrilling stunts, powerful performers, and amazing animal acts.

 No matter what one might think about captive animals in show biz, and the concerns are real, the big cats — 10 tigers and two gorgeous male lions under the command of Alexander Lacey — were mesmerizing.

 Katz ends with what actually sounds like an artistic judgement:

 All in all, it was another fine example of family entertainment from the venerable circus troupe. Even without the elephants, it’s the greatest show on earth.

 Would that all reviewers were as aware of their biases as this reporter, and were similarly able to rise above them.