Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Rosenberg-Plain Dealer mismatch: Who won?

WHEN MUSIC CRITIC Donald Rosenberg went to court two years ago against two of Cleveland's most powerful institutions - the Plain Dealer and the Cleveland Orchestra - to preserve his honor, he was faced with the impossible task of pushing a couple of huge boulders off a cliff. But after 16 years of covering the orchestra and winning respect as one of the nation's leading musical scholars, he had been demoted by his paper on grounds that he was much too critical of the orchestra's conductor, Franz Welser-Most. Don believed he had no choice but to challenge the decision. Having known him as a friend and colleague blessed with professional integrity, I could understand why he did it.

Well, he lost his case before a jury in Cleveland. The esteemed orchestra will move on. On the other hand, the paper will have a much harder time explaining its retreat into the fading professional judgments of newspapers today.

As you might expect, the story has become a cause celebre in classical music circles as critics from other major papers have come forward to defend the writer who was once chosen to write the definitive history of the Cleveland Orchestra - and didn't disappoint. But that was another time, when the orchestra's front office wasn't complaining about Rosenberg's work. (Will his wonderful book now be removed from the library at Severance Hall and there will now be no mention of him again by his detractors? Worse yet, will he now be barred from making passing references to his own book by name? You can see how messy this could get!)

Did the newspaper have a right to demote him? Of course it did. Did it have the right to go farther and fire him? Of course it did. (He's still on the staff covering things musical that are separated from the orchestral scene. But in Cleveland, the orchestra's the thing, rightfully enthroned above all other enterprises where music is played.)

Still, one can easily wonder how much effect the complaints from the orchestra's executive offices had on prompting the decision by the PD editors, who have naturally denied any dark collusion between the two.

The sobering reaction continues nationally. Martin Bernheimer, the music critic of the Financial Times who won a Pulitizer Prize while at the Lost Angeles Times, wasn't persuaded by the newspaper's denials. Writing in the FT this week, he referred to Rosenberg's report of Welser-Most's comments in a Swiss magazine in which the maestro demeaned the city of Cleveland - a column that served as the breaking point:
"...the establishment in Cleveland was embarrassed, and Rosenberg became persona emphatically non grata in crucially influential circles. The orchestra registered official complaints and withdrew customary press courtesies. In a move that shook journalistic and critical establishments throughout the U.S., Rosenberg's editor Susan Goldberg removed him from his primary beat, citing Rosenberg's 'closed mind.' He could no longer write about the Cleveland Orchestra."

Nor about any smaller groups - say, a string quartet - that included a member of the orchestra. Nor ever interview a member of the orchestra. Etc. Etc. Etc.

It was not only a harsh setback for a gifted critic, but also for all journalists as the newspapers of today stumble about frantically in a world of shrinking readership. As the papers' managers try to stop the bleeding, they also have become far more attentive to the institutions and advertisers who now stake a stronger, if nuanced, claim on what is, and what isn't news and what can be suffered and what can't.

At the same time, the arts are becoming the easier targets for cost-cutting. The Akron Beacon Journal, which once placed the highest standards on its succession of music critics, Rosenberg among them, today operates blithely without a critic. So the Akron Symphony Orchestra, as well as other music venues, must now perform without any hope off critical recognition. (Costs, I believe, are only part of the problem: the editors exhibit little sensitivity to the importance of the performing arts in the community the paper serves. Otherwise they would give priority to finding an inexpensive way to offer reviews.)

In Rosenberg's case, although the PD would never concede its dented reputation as an unflinching voice of modern American journalism - even the J-word has less currency today - I believe that it lost more than Rosenberg ever will.

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