Saturday, September 27, 2008

Reassigning Don Rosenberg

When Don Rosenberg, the music critic of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, was reassigned this month, many took note. Tim Smith first posted the news and the background on his blog: “The Plain Dealer has clearly caved into pressure from a faction representing the orchestra and the man on its podium. By silencing Don, those myopic folks must think they've achieved a great victory. They haven't. They've made a venerable newspaper look cheap and act cowardly. They've made a sterling orchestra look a little less so.”

Vociferous response from many quarters impelled the New York Times to report the story in its print edition of September 25, 2008.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Greg Sandow raises pertinent objections, and proposes honorable solutions.

A Sour Note
Not long ago I was asked if music critics have a code of conduct. They don't, as far as I know, but there are strict rules about conflicts of interest. If a critic appears to have some connection to a group he or she reviews, then those reviews aren't legitimate. And note the word "appears." As all critics know, the appearance of conflict of interest is what matters most. A critic might be objective, but if there appears to be some reason to think otherwise -- if, let's say, a critic has been paid to do something by the group being reviewed, or, in an extreme case, serves on its board -- then the reviews shouldn't be written.

Bear this in mind as we look at an explosion that happened in Cleveland. The Cleveland Plain Dealer had a classical-music critic, Donald Rosenberg, who served at the paper for 16 years. He's admired by colleagues at other publications, and respected by Cleveland musicians. But he ran into a problem. In 2003, a new music director, Franz Welser-Möst, came to the Cleveland Orchestra, and for the most part Mr. Rosenberg didn't like the way Mr. Welser-Möst conducts.

So Mr. Rosenberg and the orchestra were locked in an uncomfortable dance. Mr. Rosenberg of course wrote negative reviews (though not always; sometimes he liked what he heard). The orchestra had to put up with them. For six years this went on. And then, on Sept. 18, the Plain Dealer's editor, Susan Goldberg, told Mr. Rosenberg that he was no longer the paper's classical critic. He was now just an arts reporter, and while he still could write music reviews, the orchestra was off-limits. A new classical critic, Zachary Lewis, had been appointed, and he'd write the orchestra reviews.

An uproar followed. The Baltimore Sun's classical-music critic, Tim Smith, broke the news on his blog, and protests broke out. Other critics were scandalized. The heat got so great that the New York Times took note of it, in a long story that ran Thursday on the front page of its Arts section. A storm of comments appeared on Mr. Smith's blog, many coming from Cleveland, some even from members of the Cleveland Orchestra, who (without necessarily taking sides on their music director) supported Mr. Rosenberg's right to say whatever he liked.

And here we come to a conflict of interest, or at least the appearance of one. The Plain Dealer's publisher, Terrance Egger, serves on the orchestra's board. So did his predecessor, Alex Machaskee. Which has led people to ask -- on Tim Smith's blog and elsewhere -- if the paper really can cover the orchestra objectively.

Ms. Goldberg, the Plain Dealer's editor, said she won't comment -- properly, perhaps -- on what she calls an "internal personnel matter." And the orchestra denies all involvement. Its executive director, Gary Hanson, and the chairman of its board, Richard Bogomolny, both posted comments on Tim Smith's blog. "I have never met with [the newspaper's editors] to protest Donald Rosenberg's opinions," Mr. Hanson wrote. "To those who practice the fine art of 'ready, fire, aim,'" wrote Mr. Bogomolny, "it might be useful for you to contact us before making accusations. For the record: No one from the management and board leadership of the Cleveland Orchestra has ever asked the Plain Dealer management to remove Don Rosenberg as critic of The Cleveland Orchestra."
Both men said they admired Mr. Rosenberg, whether or not they agreed with his views. But wait! These dignitaries are commenting on a blog. Mr. Hanson also posted a comment -- the same one -- on a blog written by Steve Smith (no relation to Tim Smith), who writes classical-music reviews for the New York Times. Why do they seem so defensive?

The appearance of a conflict of interest, it seems, really does create problems. But before I go on, I should declare my own relationships. I'm friendly with Mr. Rosenberg, Mr. Hanson and Mr. Welser-Möst. I like and admire them. And I've interviewed Mr. Bogomolny, as well as Alex Machaskee, the Plain Dealer's former publisher, and liked and admired them, too. Plus, I've been hired to work on projects with the Cleveland Orchestra. So it's with sadness that I write what follows.

I think that the Plain Dealer and, above all, the orchestra are in a rocky position. Maybe all this will blow over. Maybe Mr. Lewis, as he reviews the orchestra, will be seen as objective, and no one will think that his paper demanded favorable reviews. His first piece, which ran Thursday, was a profile of Mr. Welser-Möst, which raised eyebrows from some observers. But the profile seemed balanced, and it acknowledged -- as certainly it should have -- that Mr. Welser-Möst has gotten negative reviews from critics who aren't Mr. Rosenberg, among them Anthony Tommasini, chief classical critic of the New York Times.

But remember the rule -- it's the appearance of conflict of interest that counts. The Plain Dealer's publisher, once again, sits on the orchestra's board.

As for the orchestra, how can anyone be absolutely sure that it didn't play some role in what happened? The mere fact that Mr. Hanson and Mr. Bogomolny felt that they had to deny this (on blogs!) shows that they're on the defensive. What happens if their denials aren't believed? Which, to judge from comments on Tim Smith's blog, is exactly what seems to be happening.

And what kind of newspaper coverage will the Cleveland Orchestra now get? In Cleveland, the coverage now might look tainted. If Mr. Lewis writes friendly reviews, he might have been told to write them. If he writes unfavorably, he might be bending that way to prove that he's independent. How can anyone know?

Nationally, things might look even worse. This whole affair highlights something the orchestra surely doesn't want widely publicized -- that Mr. Welser-Möst has detractors. Who now won't know that? And what will critics write? The orchestra tours every year. Won't critics listen with even more critical ears? They're primed, now, to listen for trouble. And, if only unconsciously, they might want to support Mr. Rosenberg.

What should the orchestra do? It needs, in my view, to restore its integrity, or rather the perception of it, which has been damaged, whatever the reality might be. Mr. Hanson and Mr. Bogomolny, joined, ideally, by Mr. Welser-Möst (hard as this could be for him), might consider publicly asking the paper to reinstate Mr. Rosenberg.

And they might ask Mr. Eggers, the Plain Dealer's publisher, to resign from their board. In his defense, I might note that serving on important community boards is natural for someone in his position. He's also on the board of the Cleveland Clinic, a world-famous hospital. And it's not unknown for newspaper publishers to serve on arts boards. To cite just one example: Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the former publisher of the New York Times (and father of the present one), was board chairman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which of course the Times covers.

Was that, in practice, a bad thing? Maybe not. But every veteran critic knows cases where, in similar situations, executives with arts connections have meddled, or tried to, with newspaper arts coverage. And -- to state the principle one last time -- the appearance is troubling. Top executives of newspapers appear to engage in conflicts of interest they'd forbid their critics to have.

Should they be doing this?

Mr. Sandow is a composer, critic and consultant who writes about classical music for the Journal. (accessed September 27, 2008)

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