December 12, 2008

Absence of Malice

Don Rosenberg, the Cleveland Plain Dealer critic who, a few months ago, was rather infamously reassigned for being allegedly too hard on the Cleveland Orchestra and its music director, Franz Welser-Möst, has now sued both the paper and the orchestra for a legion of offenses, including defamation, age discrimination and (I love this phrase) "tortious interference."

Most of the reaction to Rosenberg's plight has taken up familiar themes: freedom of speech, journalistic independence, the value of an experienced observer, &c. (All eminently valid.) But there's one angle that I haven't really seen, which is this: from a circulation standpoint, what are the powers-that-be at the Plain Dealer thinking? A pre-packaged feud between one of the biggest cultural institutions in town and your own on-staff critic drops into your lap, and your initial instinct is to somehow make it go away? I'm not familiar enough with the specifics of Rosenberg's suit to know whether he has a legal leg to stand on or not, but I think the Newhouse family (who own the Plain Dealer via their holding company Advance Publications) might want to take a second look at a management team that seems averse to exploiting opportunities to, you know, sell newspapers.

I mean, come on, the Plain Dealer's the paper getting sued, and they themselves get scooped by The New York Times. Daniel Wakin gets hilariously impolitic quotes from the orchestra's lawyer; the Plain Dealer gets this:
The Plain Dealer declined to comment, and a spokeswoman for the Musical Arts Association could not be reached.
Declined to comment? Why would they not play this story for all it's worth? (At least their online editor can see the appeal.)

I'm not saying that critics should get out their knives solely in order to boost circulation, but newspaper criticism is equal parts information and entertainment, and I would hope that papers would still know how to parlay a little controversy into beneficial entertainment. Critic-at-Large Moe and I spent a couple of lunch hours this week reveling in the glorious pre-Code cynicism of Lewis Milestone's 1931 film version of The Front Page (mainly to enjoy how little things have changed in my old hometown); can you imagine how one of those papers would have reacted if the local orchestra had hired a PR firm to lobby for a friendlier critic? They would have laughed them out the door—and then bragged about it in print. (And, if it was a two-paper town, God help them if they didn't.) Journalism is a long way from the callous unscrupulousness that Hecht and MacArthur romanticized—even some contemporary reporters found The Front Page to be defamatory caricature—but objective doesn't have to mean cautious and boring. Rosenberg's reassignment, apart from being journalistically suspect, is, to me at least, symptomatic of the creeping corporate blandness leaving a lot of papers high and dry while digital content blooms around them. Milestone's film opens with a great joke, a title card proclaiming that
This story is laid in a mythical kingdom.
Keep playing it safe, and the newspaper industry is going to end up as its own Neverland.


Daniel Wolf said...


There has been some discussion among blogging economists about the tendency of film reviewers to have a broader range of opinions (positive and negative) than music reviewers. In part, this is because music reviewers tend to specialize in the repertoire that they like, and thus advocate the repertoire through their reviews, but also because most concerts are one-offs, in that the reviewer is not able to recommend repeat attendence, which is very different from films or theatre, in which the function of the critic is most immediately to advise attendence to an ongoing series of performances. The relative liveliness and importance of reviews for opera productions (as well as reviews of big name soloists and reviews focused on orchestral conductors) within the music review genre is probably due to this repeat engagement aspect (with no small does of the more tabloid-like affinities of the opera world, stuff which I honestly can't follow myself).

Matthew said...

I would guess that my grade-school permanent record contains the phrase "Tabloid-like affinities."

I think you're right about opera and orchestra reviews (subscription concerts are, after all, still reviewed on deadline), but I think there's a certain complementary liveliness that comes from not having to shoehorn in a thumbs-up/thumbs-down judgement, even one on a more realistic continuum. In other words, a pointed, entertaining sense of the milieu, which is what I find lacking most often.

One other possible thing about the relative positivity of music reviews: there's a lot more of it. A movie critic can still just about cover all the movies that come out, but trying to cover every concert/album? Maybe music reviewers are more inclined to spend their energy on highlighting something they might think is under-the-radar rather than weighing in on something they think most people will hear anyway. (This does correspond to my experience with rabid music fans, always insisting that you just have to hear this.)