Friday, August 6, 2010

In defense of critics: The Donald Rosenberg case

By Barry Johnson

Franz Welser-Most leads the Cleveland Orchestra in 2006.
Arts Dispatch closes the week on a sad note. Today Cleveland Plain Dealer music critic Donald Rosenberg lost his suit against his newspaper and the Cleveland Orchestra, which had lobbied vigorously and successfully to have him replaced as the reviewer of orchestra concerts. The New York Times has the story.

I wrote about this case last month, when the trial began, mostly because I think his case is symptomatic of a bigger problem at major newspapers: They don't really trust the judgments of their writers. They don't believe those judgments help their readers understand complex issues. Worse, they think the judgments actually compromise their coverage of those complex issues. Here's what I wrote:

Most of the culture critics I know are following the case of Donald Rosenberg, the Cleveland Plain Dealer classical music writer, but really all reporters should. 

Unfortunately, the law suit he has filed against the Plain Dealer is an age-discrimination suit -- Rosenberg is 58. But the real issue is this: If a critic develops a critical position in opposition to many of the artistic decisions of a prominent conductor (or director or curator) over a number of years, is that grounds for reassigning the critic to another beat? That was the case at the Plain Dealer, and it's symptomatic of a deeper problem, a metaphysical problem even, at the core of contemporary journalism practice.

Rosenberg's reviews of the Cleveland Orchestra under the baton of maestro Franz Welser-Möst weren't uniformly negative, but they tended to be highly critical, more critical than music critics in other cities were when the Cleveland Orchestra was on tour. Now, the Cleveland Orchestra is a big deal -- a top five American symphony by nearly all measures and considered by many to be the very best. For the daily newspaper critic in Cleveland to be in a state of constant "opposition" to the conductor of the orchestra is a big deal, big enough to become political. Complaints by the orchestra and its board were registered, and eventually, the editor of the Plain Dealer, Susan Goldberg, reassigned Rosenberg to other duties.  That's a very short version. For the long version, Cleveland Magazine's Andy Netzel gets at the details of the controversy.

I have some sympathy for the Plain Dealer. A regular beat-down of the symphony by your music critic can get monotonous, especially a symphony that most music people, in Cleveland and out, regard as the city's cultural crown jewel.  I've read some of Rosenberg's reviews, and while they aren't nasty or inflammatory, they do argue against the aesthetic of Welser-Most and his approach to a broad range of composers. After many concerts and many reviews, it's difficult for descriptions of that sort to remain useful to readers. We get the idea, already. Time to move on.

The integrity of a newspaper, though, both its news reports and its commentaries, hinges on one rule: Thou shalt not allow powerful people or powerful institutions dictate what is written about them and by whom. The Cleveland Orchestra and its board, which included former publishers of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, campaigned to have Rosenberg removed from his position because they didn't like what he wrote. That's exactly what the Plain Dealer did. Editor Goldberg argues that Rosenberg's removal wasn't the result of that campaign, but having read the Cleveland Magazine article, it's hard to imagine that Goldberg would have removed Rosenberg in the absence of that campaign.

That's not the metaphysical problem with the Plain Dealer's actions, though.

In Rosenberg we have a reporter/critic who has developed an informed position about someone on his beat. And if we unpack "informed," we find what non-journalists might call obsessive attention to detail -- to the music as its played, to the conductor as he conducts, to the history of the institution and the performance history of particular musical works, to the current state of musical performance as broadly as the critic can reach. I could be describing an environmental reporter here, too, except we'd be substituting scientific issues and the soundness of scientific judgments for musical ones. And it happens in American journalism, frequently enough from what I've seen and been able to tell, that once a reporter begins to make judgments about her subject, she starts to become suspect to her editors. And she starts to disqualify herself from continuing to cover the beat she has learned well enough to begin to make distinctions about the degree of reliability of the various actors on the stage before her.

That's too bad, because that's also the moment she becomes most useful to her readers.

In Rosenberg's case, a more enlightened Plain Dealer might have taken advantage of his dispute to the benefit of its readers, used it to get past the shallow, superficial experience of music and its accounts to the substantial ones that really matter and are rarely addressed. Because if Rosenberg has concluded that Welser-Most's interpretation of a Strauss waltz is "overly weighty" and "joyless," then he is obliged to demonstrate what he means, to point to other better interpretations. And having pushed into that territory,  readers start to encounter music at a different level, start to question thing they usually do not consider -- how "joy" is conveyed, maybe, and what it even means, this musical joy, how important it really is, how music can "feel" at all, and how language, music and human feeling collide, entangle, make sense of each other.

Now, the pages of a newspaper aren't the best place for this sort of investigation, but fortunately, the average website is.

You can post audio clips and comment on them. You can conduct and moderate online forums. You can publicize actual forums, discussions and lectures. The Plain Dealer might have leveraged Rosenberg's dispute with Welser-Most into something engaging and important to the cultural life of Cleveland and to individual readers and listeners. In the process, Rosenberg's position would have moved, his own understanding of music and Welser-Most would have evolved, under the pressure of different opinions and new information. That's what happens in a good debate we enter with an open mind: It changes us, one way or another, even if it just strengthens our initial argument.

Change is crucial to a critic. Maybe the best definition of a critic I've ever heard: Someone whose education is conducted in public. This runs counter to our prevailing sense of critics as know-it-alls. Plenty of critics write that way -- enough to confirm the prevailing sense of them -- but I don't think Rosenberg is one of them, just from reading him. His account of a public process that examined his judgments of the music of the Cleveland Orchestra and Welser-Most would have been fascinating to read, too. The examined life, the examined opinion -- these aren't just central to the writer.

It's even possible that Welser-Most might have felt some obligation to talk to Cleveland about the music he was making (he once called the city "an inflated farm-village" in an interview with a Swiss magazine), and in talking, he might have learned something important about what they needed from him and the orchestra. And knowing that is central to any arts organization anywhere: How can you serve your community best? It's not impossible to imagine that the orchestra and its conductor, under a different sort of scrutiny, creative scrutiny, would have changed for the better, too.

And in the process of all this, the Plain Dealer could have hosted something unprecedented in American newspapering, so far as I know. Simone Weil called culture the "formation of attention" -- and that's exactly what the Plain Dealer had close to hand, the ability to create a platform for the formation of attention. I'm sorry, but that's exactly how you sell papers, drive eyeballs to your website, and more importantly, play a positive role in your city. The message: don't cringe when your critic opens fire on your conductor; use the conflict creatively.

Back to our mythical environmental reporter.  She's in the same boat. At the moment she begins to understand a particular issue well enough to start making judgments about the relative strengths of various positions about habitat restoration or a toxic clean-up process or a reforestation plan, that opens up new possibilities for the newspaper (so long as her judgments are subject to change from new information or better descriptions). Because as she learns, so do we, the readers. Her descriptions become better; her arguments become more airtight; the possibility that something important gets past her is reduced. And through her, we start to create a common sense of whatever problem she's addressing, the crucial precursor to any effective attempt to improve things.

That isn't the time to remove her from the beat. It's possible to have an opinion and remain open-minded. And the explanation of that opinion and  then the defense of it can be crucial steps for the reader trying to understand the issue at hand. Again, this is how we move forward.

American newspapers are best when they are pragmatic. The rule about refusing to bow to the pressure of the powerful is pragmatic (as long as the object is the production of descriptions and opinions useful to readers). So is the fair testing of observations, arguments and conclusions. One opinion is NOT necessarily as good as another one. All arguments aren't equal. Your observation may very well be better than mine, more useful to  our shared concerns. Working through the bramble of conflicting opinions, "facts" and predictions is a great subject for newspapers. Attempting to stifle a debate that could be illuminating because it involves your own writer? I guess I call that a self-inflicted wound.


Carmen Hill said...

Really insightful post, as usual, Barry. Too bad this situation couldn't have been resolved in a different way. Enhancing and expanding the coverage in a way that created opportunities for readers, critics and artists alike to reach a deeper understanding of the art and each other is a great suggestion. Too often "fair" coverage is interpreted to mean presenting "both sides" as equally valid even when they're not.

Barry Johnson said...

Thanks, Carmen. I often forget that conflict is a sign of passion, which is a good thing in the arts especially, and that it can be resolved creatively, if all concerned are prepared to consider alternatives beyond win-lose. In the Cleveland case, I think it was lose-lose-lose. And the biggest losers were 1) the reputation of the Plain Dealer, and 2) the Plain Dealer's readers.

Janice Harayda said...

You're right about that bigger problem at major newspapers, Barry: "They don't really trust the judgments of their writers."

Law professor Peter Friedman and critic Tim Smith will be discussing the Donald Rosenberg case in a Twitter chat I'll moderate at 9 p.m. ET on Monday, Aug. 9. Would love to have comments from you and any others who care about this issue. Add the hashtag #DonR to tweets to take part. And thanks for a fine post.
Jan Harayda

Barry Johnson said...

Jan, thanks for the invitation -- I'll be there tomorrow and let people now about it via Twitter/Facebook/Arts Dispatch.

Janice Harayda said...

A thousand thanks for helping to spread the word, Barry. I know that many music lovers and others feel passionately about this case, but as a literary critic, I'm not sure how best to find them.

You've articulated vital issues in this post, and I look forward to chatting with you about some of them tomorrow night. Thanks again!

Peter Friedman said...

Barry, thanks for spreading the word, thanks for participating in the twitter chat, and thanks most of all for this thoughtful commentary on the topic. I think you better than anyone have recognized that there were many who did legitimately tire of Donald Rosenberg's criticism of Franz Welser-Most, a view that many shared with Mr. Rosenberg but that many didn't. But, as you recognize, the entire affair is a profoundly complicated and troubling one.

Barry Johnson said...

Thanks, Peter. It IS complicated. At most newspapers I know about, it's easy for critics to slip into immovable positions/approaches/styles to the detriment of their readers. They can stop listening, learning, growing. No one knows enough about what they do to help them get over this (and they tend to be pretty stubborn folk!). I edited critics for something like 20 years at various papers (dailies and weeklies), to I've had some experience with the problem.

In this case, the debate with Welser-Most and his fans might have been a good lever to push Rosenberg's thinking, and watching it play out for the un- or barely committed could have been an amazing educational experience, played out in their newspaper or its website every few days: "Interpreting Mahler 101." Except the people involved really care, there are real consequences, and we can listen to actual passages of music and decide for ourselves.

I only suggest this course here, because from what I know of Rosenberg, all second or third hand admittedly, he might have played his part in this really well.

Anyway, I really enjoyed the Tweet Up last night and your comment today. Thanks!

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