Many reviewers are drawn to the pleasures of playing with toys they love - audio gear. Indeed we all are. But you won't get to play for very long if you don't turn in some serious writing at the end of the day. Writing something is hard enough; writing something worth reading is harder still. Folks who don't write much and whose efforts are largely forgettable don't survive as reviewers for very long. What they write is of so little influence and value that there is no reason to fret much over their integrity.

Beyond that, reviewers work for audio journals and magazines which have ample reasons to police their reviewers and to insure their honesty and integrity. At the same time, the magazines cannot survive without advertising dollars. There is no doubt that some of the recent concerns about the review process rest on what critics perceive as the unholy alliance between advertising dollars and the number and character of reviews. It is difficult for magazines and journals to strike the correct balance between reliance and independence, but they have plenty of reasons to try. And the reviewers who work for them do as well.

The easiest way to have one's own reputation stained is by association. The best way to avoid this stigma is to be vigilant about the behavior of one's superiors. Nothing could be worse for a magazine than to be labeled the organ of this or that manufacturer. Nothing could be worse for a reviewer than to be associated with such a journal. Just as magazines have incentive to police their writers, so too do reviewers have incentive to monitor the behavior of the magazines for which they work.

Reputational effects take up where internal and structural monitoring stops or fails.

If a reviewer feels compelled to begin his columns by engaging with various letter writers and the inmates of the audio asylum who have questioned his integrity, his penchant for particular products or his travel itinerary and gastronomical preferences, the game is really already up. It's too late for him whether or not he has a perfectly plausible explanation of his practices. A good lawyer will tell you that you are sunk the moment you litigate your own case.

In the integrity business, for better or worse, perception is fact - and often for the worse, I fear.

Nowadays, it seems that writing a series of positive reviews, let alone raves, has been converted into convincing evidence of a writer's incapacity for independent judgment. A segment of the readership wants blood. They won't trust you as a reviewer until you've spilled some. It's as though you couldn't earn these readers' trust until you kicked around a manufacturer or two; better for you even if you go out on a limb and take on the big fish, the controlling interests. I guess that shows that you are fearless, that you've got guts. Not in my book. The impulse to bash as if doing so proved independence and fearlessness should never be indulged.

I'd just as soon leave such commentary to the zealots who post in forums that the latest product they or their friends have made or found beats the daylights out of the best designs of the best designers. No reviewer should ever feel that he has to establish his bona fides by damning the efforts of a manufacturer, high profile or otherwise. Writing a rave review of a product, even of products from the same manufacturer or designer does not make you a shill or an advocate; and the fear of being perceived as such is not a reason to avoid such products or to shy away from writing rave reviews.

The reviewer must be in a position to back up his claims by demonstrating that the approach he has taken to the products he raves about is the same as the one he has taken and is committed to taking to others - that he has a platform for constructing reviews that is defensible and consistently applied and so on. People, even reviewers, fall in love with products designed by particular folks. Everyone recognizes that.

So while reputational effects can help monitor compliance with norms of integrity in the review process, some of the pressures imposed by external monitors are counterproductive. They would encourage us to bash and criticize unconstructively on the theory that doing so adds credibility to the positive reviews we pen. Nonsense. This is a form of monitoring we need to avoid and when we see the integrity of our colleagues impugned for these kinds of reasons, we should band together to resist it.

We don't need negative reviews to establish ourselves as independent observers or as trustworthy credible reviewers. Here again, the expert witness analogy is helpful. Part of what goes on in the courtroom is cross examination of witnesses. In the review process, we have a right to expect that reviewers have adopted an internal process of cross examination; that their reviews reflect an internal dialogue in which they have responded to various questions and challenges. We should hope that all reviewers -- ideally all the time -- write reviews only after satisfying themselves that the claims they make, both technical and observational, could withstand sustained scrutiny - not whether they sprung from an impartial attitude towards the outcome. Integrity does not follow from neutrality which is little more than a formal ideal. It springs from self-reflection, self-criticism, maintaining an internal dialogue, a demand for internal consistency and the various mechanisms we have within the community for insuring that these ideals are being realized to varying degrees.

Most of all, the trustworthiness and integrity of the process depends on reviewer modesty about our own abilities and capacities to influence others. Stories are legion of reviewers claiming a power to determine the fate of products - reviewers, who, at the end of the day, overplayed their hands.

There is no doubt that I am an optimist about the long-term honesty and integrity of the review process. Only a practice of fair, trustworthy and reliable reviewing can survive long-term. We have in place several internal and informal mechanisms within persons, journals and the community itself to promote fairness and integrity. If the mechanisms fail in general, the community will collapse for it cannot stand on a foundation of false consciousness.

If we claim that our integrity and reliability rest on the twin foundations of impartiality and neutrality, we increase our vulnerability, invite misleading metaphors and do nothing to strengthen the case for trusting us and our reviews. If instead, we think of ourselves as expert witnesses, we can identify several mechanisms for insuring the integrity of the evidence we provide while recognizing that our work need not spring from disinterest or that we have the kind of arm's length distance from the people whose products we review that might well be appropriate were we judging claims against them in a court of law. What is often offered as proof of our corruption is little more than a red herring.

The real threat to our integrity is not our absence of neutrality but our capacity to provide real expertise and to make the effort to do so in the course of the review process. For me then, the pertinent issues are whether we can identify the singular virtues that constitute audio expertise; the ways we might cultivate those virtues in ourselves and others; and our capacity to demonstrate these virtues in the review process and in the reviews we author. Are we really experts? What does our expertise consists of? How can it be cultivated and demonstrated? If we are not experts in any meaningful sense and if we make no claim to impartiality or neutrality, why should anyone give a damn about what we've got to say?

Fair question if you ask me.