Kurt Sutter vs. Journalistic Ethics
February 11th, 2011
In choosing to occasionally cover emerging stories within the television industry, responding immediately rather than waiting a few months for the dust to settle, it’s never clear where that story will go. When I sat down to discuss the controversy swirling around Chloe Sevigny’s critical comments about Big Love’s fourth season in an interview with The A.V. Club, and the degree to which the journalist’s integrity was unfairly dragged through the mud by those involved, I had no idea that the story would still be making news ten months later. My piece about that issue is very much an artifact of the initial event, but the continued misrepresentation of the interview has given it continued relevance, which surprises (and saddens) me.
By comparison, I sort of knew that my multiple pieces on Kurt Sutter’s engagement with online communities would continue to be relevant. For better or for worse, Sutter enjoys the outlet afforded by his blog and his Twitter account, and will continue to use them in the years ahead. The facts are simple: Sutter admits to having a fairly quick temper, people on the internet will continue to criticize his show, and he’ll continue to become emotionally affected by it.
What I couldn’t have (but perhaps should have) imagined, though, was that these two particular lines would converge. Yes, through the powers of fate, another film festival interview shifted gears towards an actor’s television program, and another actor made some off-the-cuff remarks about the show which have been twisted into some sort of controversy in the news media. And because that actor happens to be Charlie Hunnam, and the show in question happens to be Sons of Anarchy, Sutter’s personality has taken center stage in yet another largely unprovoked attack on journalistic ethics.
Unless a slightly botched interview has become a more vicious threat to journalism than I previously realized.
In truth, I was disappointed when I actually read Charlie Hunnam’s comments, perhaps because I first read Sutter’s vicious attack against the journalist (Screen Junkies’ Fred Topel) who actually performed the interview. In that column, Sutter notes the following:
“[Charlie] is too intelligent and too decent to spout off the way the article insinuates he did. Charlie called me, when someone told him about it, and he informed me of what I had expected — it’s a ridiculous bullshit blog, where the cunt reporter baited him with antagonistic questions, ultimately getting an angry reply — pointed at the cunt, not the show.”
At this point, I was imagining some sort of attack on the quality or direction of the show, in line with Sevigny’s comments about Big Love. While I would ultimately argue that Sevigny was pretty clear in her comments that her criticism was less of the writers themselves as it was the circumstances which necessitated some unfortunate shortcuts, there was a clear comment that the fourth season of that show was “awful.” When I went to actually read Hunnam’s interview, however, I discovered that he had said no such thing. Instead, he was asked a question about his character’s direction, and he offered a rambling answer which lacks any clear sense of intent or purpose:
Q: Where does Jax need to go in Season Four?
CH: I think that he needs to assert himself and needs to control his psychotic mother who has no place trying to run a motorcycle club. If I was in charge of the writing, I would really, really pull back on that because that’s just a device that doesn’t ever ring true to me. So it’s very frustrating to me sometimes to be put in a position as an actor to have to play out scenes where I don’t believe the dynamic and I don’t believe that Jax would ever be taking orders from his mother, you know. So I hope that that is something that can be remedied a little bit.
The only scenario wherein these comments could be considered on par with Sevigny’s is if having an opinion about a character’s direction which differs from that of the creators is considered some sort of crime. It seems as if this picked up steam as an example of insubordination, as Hunnam raises the hypothetical scenario wherein he wrestles control away from Sutter, but in truth this isn’t actually a critical statement. Hunnam lays out what he thinks the character would do, in his own eyes, and talks about how there are times when he sees things differently. Basically, he wants Jax to stop being a Mama’s boy, which is hardly an indepth critique of the show’s sense of direction and is certainly not on the level of Sevigny’s fairly substantial breakdown of Big Love’s creative failures.
However, Sutter’s response is unquestionably vicious, which seems to be extreme given that the comments are so innocuous. After being informed that the site had posted an audio file which shed further light on the issue, Sutter clarified his stance:
“Charlie’s answer is measured, as he is clearly trying to restrain himself. My beef with the blog is not what Charlie said, but how it was presented. It painted Charlie as a disgruntled actor who has no respect for the writing. That was the intent, that was how the blogosphere interpreted it. The cunt knew that. He knew he was publishing spun bullshit that was going to start trouble.”
At this point, we are getting to the root of the problem: the problem is not that Sutter is actually offended by what Hunnam said, it’s that he’s offended by the culture which demands controversy (of the likes of Sevigny’s comments) and which feeds off of them at every turn. It’s more or less the same accusation which was leveled against The A.V. Club last March, except this time it’s very clearly labeled an attack on journalistic ethics rather than a back door attack within a “public apology.”
Personally, I think that the Screen Junkies interview is a misfire more than anything else. It seems as though the interviewer never quite recovers from the difference of opinion in regards to a character in the film being homophobic, and the kind of frustration that Hunnam (through Sutter) claims was present is evident in his answer to that question. And so when you actually hear the audio of the answer that has created such controversy, Hunnam sounds bored and disinterested. He’s giving an off-the-cuff response to a vague question, desperate to move onto the next in what was likely a very long line of interviews.
That, of course, was one of the excuses which Sevigny used to explain her comments, but by comparison her interview was actually quite good-natured, and her comments clearly formed and volunteered. However, the other part of this explanation is a suggestion in both instances that the interviewer purposefully antagonized and baited these actors into making negative comments about their shows. In the case of Sevigny, that was a gross misreading of the interview, to the point where the audio very clearly outlines that Sevigny was in no way, shape or form provoked. In this case, though, there is a bit more tension apparent in the interview, to the point that Sutter’s argument is not entirely without merit.
The problem is that Sutter is fighting the wrong fight. Attacking the interviewer here isn’t a question of journalistic ethics: while the interview is not particularly insightful, and one can see why the questions would frustrate an actor, the choice to run the story as “Charlie Hunnam has strong thoughts on Sons of Anarchy and The Ledge” is not exactly malicious behavior. Sutter seems particularly frustrated with the use of “strong thoughts,” believing that this frames his comments in a negative light, but I guess I don’t consider that half as leading as E! Online’s choice to pullquote “If I was in charge of writing the show…” in their reporting of the interview.
Sutter does call out E! for their reporting, suggesting that “they should be ashamed of themselves for reprinting it,” but they didn’t just reprint it. By emphasizing the “I” (which isn’t in italics in the original interview), they are going far beyond the interview’s contextualization of the event in order to frame it in a controversial light. In the case of the initial interview, you’ve got a relatively obscure film site (I, at least, had never heard of them) which is following industry rules about search engine optimization: they want to get their material read, and therefore create a title which offers a pretty accurate if slightly exaggerated read on the interview. Hunnam talks about Sons of Anarchy and The Ledge, and speaks in a frank and honest manner which seems to objectively constitute “strong thoughts” (which does not, I feel, read as solely negative), so the initial story is only guilty of some industry-standard embellishing in an effort to differentiate their cattle call interview from the others online.
Taken on its own, Sutter’s overarching concern about entertainment journalism is not an entirely unfair point (even if his math is, as always, a bit fuzzy):
“There are a lot of good reporters out there, generating important content, but for every legitimate one, there’s an unscrupulous one, who will do just about anything for a juicy headline or a tawdry twist.”
Is there any evidence, though, that this headline was anything more than an embellishment? And that this tawdry twist wasn’t just a consequence of some awkward questions rather than a malicious attempt to appeal to the fairly insular group of people who would particularly care about such a development? If anything, I would argue that E! Online goes considerably further, actually defining emphasis and portraying Hunnam’s content in a more critical light. One could argue that they simply bought into the story that they were being sold, but I don’t feel as though one can blame a site for accurately describing the content featured in the interview using slightly value-laden terms.
I also think that E! deserves greater blame in this scenario given that they’re in a position to define journalistic standards. They’re “real media,” and compared to a site like Screen Junkies they have considerable readership and considerable industrial reach. If Sutter wants to talk about “greed and advancement,” then I don’t really think that small sites are the problem: they are simply acting out what the “big sites” have long adopted as their chosen method of reporting, a nasty framework which takes a larger story and boils it down to its most noteworthy quality. I think that there needs to be certain allowances for sites promoting their interviews in order for them to be read: this remains a business, and if you have some candid thoughts from someone like Chloe Sevigny or Charlie Hunnam regarding the shows they star on then you should be allowed to sell those comments (whether in a title or, in the case of The A.V. Club, within part of a larger opening summary).
However, is there an excuse for then twisting that initial interview even further just to try to turn a small controversy into a larger one to draw readers to your website? While I think that Sutter could criticize the interviewer for pissing off his star, even if that still might seem a tad bit overblown, to then position this smaller site as the cause rather than the symptom of his larger problem is highly unrepresentative. Sutter’s kneejerk responses are rarely particularly nuanced, often lumping together large swaths of individuals (often critics) when only a small subsection are actually at fault, and this seems another example where the real story gets buried beneath a larger crusade.
There are problems with this interview. There are problems in entertainment journalism. However, the problems with this interview are not necessarily the problems which exist in entertainment journalism, and they are not grounds on which to suggest any sort of malicious intent on the part of the individual in question. This is a situation of “Don’t hate the Player, hate the Game” – while it may mean picking on considerably larger sites in the process, it seems silly to tear apart an individual writer given the degree to which these trends have become institutionalized.
If Sutter wants to take on E! Online and its gossip monger brethren, though, we’re on the same page.