The Zaha Hadid lawsuit and the critic's responsibility

David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times Book Critic
British architect Zaha Hadid settles her lawsuit against reviewer Martin Filler

Normally, I’m wary of lawsuits against critics. I think back to the case of Dan Moldea, who sued the New York Times after his book “Interference: How Organized Crime Influences Professional Football” was reviewed negatively in that paper in 1989.

Moldea claimed the review “had defamed him by accusing him of being an incompetent practitioner of his chosen profession ... and by supporting that accusation with false characterizations of his book.” In 1994, the federal Circuit Court for the District of Columbia ruled in favor of the Times.

At the heart of such a legal challenge is the issue of opinion journalism -- “fair comment” is the legal term. This is the lingua franca of criticism, which is, after all, subjective and personal by its nature: one person’s take on a book or a building or a movie, argued from a particular aesthetic point-of-view.

Still, British architect Zaha Hadid’s suit against Martin Filler over a piece he wrote last June for the New York Review of Books raises some fascinating questions about what happens when a critic appears to go too far. The suit -- which was settled Tuesday morning -- claimed Filler had written “a personal attack disguised as a book review and has exposed Ms. Hadid to public ridicule and contempt, depriving her of confidence and injuring her good name and reputation.”

Sound familiar? Yes, and yet at the same time, no. According to the website Curbed, there were significant inaccuracies in Filler’s piece, including the assertion that Hadid “has unashamedly disavowed any responsibility, let alone concern, for the estimated one thousand laborers who have perished” while constructing the Al Wakrah Stadium in Qatar.

At the time the piece was published, construction had not yet started and there had been no worker deaths. After the suit was filed, Filler issued an apology, regretting the inaccuracies in his piece.

So what does this mean? On the one hand, it suggests that the standard for challenging a critic on grounds of defamation remains -- as it should -- high. One reason for the settlement, apparently, is the difficulty in proving Filler meant to be malicious. Was he trying to write a hit piece or was he simply loose with the facts?

Equally important, though, is the issue of ethics -- in terms of commission and intent. Filler’s review was not of Hadid’s work per se, but rather of a book called “Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture” by Rowan Moore, in which the architect is discussed. Is it gratuitous, then, to use the review as a platform to discuss her methods? Where does the critic draw the line?

These are complex questions, especially if you believe, as I do, that every review is an essay in its own right. Often, critics use their subjects as a jumping-off point from which to engage larger concerns. That’s the beauty of criticism when it is working, that it becomes not so much a thumbs-up or -down reaction as a response, an engagement with not only the material but also the ideas it stirs.

I want to believe this is what Filler thought he was doing, that his sin was one of negligence. At the same time, the Hadid suit and settlement leaves me pondering the uneasy question of responsibility.

Twitter: @davidulin

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