Plain Dealer’s silencing of music critic shows it’s plain gutless

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Last week it was revealed that Cleveland’s leading newspaper, The Plain Dealer, had banned its music critic, Donald Rosenberg, from covering the Cleveland Orchestra due to what his editors viewed as excessively negative reviews of music director Franz Welser-Most. A younger colleague, Zachary Lewis, has been appointed music critic and will now cover all Cleveland Orchestra events.

Though he has lost his title as music critic, Rosenberg, above, will be allowed to review other classical music and dance organizations in Cleveland as he did previously —-just not the Cleveland Orchestra, which, of course, is the leading artistic organization in the region and one of the finest orchestras in the world. Daniel J. Wakin’s story in The New York Times lays out the astounding details.

This is a dismal era for the newspaper industry, with many media companies foundering due to plummeting advertising and subscriptions, and therefore profits. Several leading media companies think the route to survival is to make massive staff cuts, gutting arts coverage, metro news and investigative reporting, usually in that order.

Uninspiring as that ongoing spectacle is, a case can be made that companies that are hemorrhaging money need to take drastic actions to survive. One can still debate the wisdom of what remains, with too many dailies sacrificing hard news, edge and testosterone in favor of suburban-mom “issues,” celebrity fluff and inane youth-oriented, where-to-have-a-cool-drink piffle.

Yet, even the desperation of the accelerated dumbing-down of content pales besides The Plain Dealer’s action last week. Profiles in courage are few and far between these days, but never has any newspaper in the U.S. or abroad ever demonstrated such complete capitulation to outside pressure or abject spinelessness as the Plain Dealer by silencing its own music critic’s voice.

Don is a friend, but he’s also a fine writer and superb and dedicated critic. No living music journalist knows the Cleveland Orchestra better or has covered them longer—for 28 years, the last 16 at The Plain Dealer— and Don has written the orchestra’s official history as well.

His editors should be proud and honored to have such a scrupulous professional on staff—instead they throw Rosenberg under the train and kow-tow to an outside organization that has every reason in the world not to want honest independent coverage.

Rosenberg has been critical, at times scathing, about the limitations of the orchestra’s music director Franz Welser-Most. Yet, like all honest critics, he’s also given the Austrian conductor credit when his performances have earned it.

If Welser-Most’s conducting were lionized elsewhere and Rosenberg were the only naysayer, perhaps the orchestra management and its supporters would have a point. But the fact is Welser-Most receives mixed to negative reviews by critics everywhere he is heard regularly—whether it be Rosenberg in Cleveland, me in Miami, or Tony Tommasini in New York. He still is branded with the nickname bestowed by a skeptical London orchestra player, “Frankly Worse than Most.”

In their Miami residency concerts, I’ve felt that Welser-Most’s appearances have been largely disappointing, often lacking intensity and energy, the orchestra performing with customary polish but a kind of dutiful, airless quality. (The performance of Dvorak’s New World symphony at the Arsht Center last January is a prime example.) Perhaps its significant that in 2009, for the first time in its Miami residency, Welser-Most is only conducting one week of concerts rather than two as in previous seasons.

The orchestra’s executive director, Gary Hanson, has been upfront and straightforward in his dealings with me. But in the Times and other articles, he has given careful, lawyerly answers denying that there has been pressure brought to bear by him or board officials to have Rosenberg removed. Nonetheless, everyone in the music business is well aware that the orchestra has been overtly and covertly lobbying against Rosenberg with his editors for years. (Hanson was not available to comment this week, said a Cleveland Orchestra spokeswoman.)

The real question that should be asked—in the light of uninspiring performances, critical reviews and, even Cleveland Orchestra musicians speaking out against their conductor at the risk of endangering their own careers—why in God’s name would Cleveland Orchestra management extend Welser-Most’s contract to 2018? Nothing succeeds like mediocrity.

Honest and passionate reviews are always the enemy of entrenched cultural stagnation and untalented or overrated musicians. When an arts organization is criticized, they first go into denial mode and then attack the critic. This is nothing unusual and classic shoot-the-messenger tactics.

In a more courageous era, when newspapers were less economically threatened, independence and integrity were held up as guiding principles. Now the very people who should be in charge of upholding those principles are the first to trash them—notably The Plain Dealer’s dingbat editor Susan Goldberg, who is responsible for Rosenberg’s reassignment. It’s also become increasingly apparent in the blogosphere that Goldberg wrought similar havoc at the San Jose Mercury News during her tenure there.

With this single move, editor Goldberg—who has been on the job all of 18 months— has done more to damage the reputation of the once-respected Plain Dealer than anything else in the paper’s century-plus history. For a related depressing example of ethical equivocation, check out the column last Sunday by the Plain Dealer’s ombudsman in which he twists himself into a pretzel trying to reconcile an earlier column defending Rosenberg’s integrity and professionalism with his current snap-to support of Goldberg’s decision.

For Cleveland Orchestra’s management this is a Pyrrhic victory and a classic case of be careful what you wish for. Because of the heavy-handed tactics of the orchestra’s leaders, board and supporters, the collateral backlash is now damaging the reputation of one of the nation’s top orchestras and its innocent musicians are suffering for it.

When many institutions age and become irrelevant, they grow weaker and ever more corrupt before they die. As craven managers like the editors of The Plain Dealer make themselves ethical eunuchs by whoring themselves to the highest outside bidder of influence for advertising dollars, their actions will only accelerate the rapid flight from old-media outlets.

Arts journalism will survive online but most newspapers will not. Sadly, The Plain Dealer’s actions are a harbinger of similar events to come. The good news is that all previous existing monopolies on public debate that have grown corrupt and antiquated—regional, national and global— are being dealt a death blow by the internet and blogosphere and the electronic democratization of the public square.

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2 Responses to “Plain Dealer’s silencing of music critic shows it’s plain gutless”

  1. Posted Oct 04, 2008 at 10:02 pm by Jorge 176

    Right on Larry. Great piece. This is one reason we refused to renew the Cleveland Orchestra series in Miami. Not only cultural carpetbagging, but boring performances.

  2. Posted Oct 05, 2008 at 5:17 pm by Dave R

    Absolutely. I remember sitting there as the audience at the Carnival Center gave the Cleveland’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth a standing ovation. I turned to my wife and said, “Really?” Same with Mahler 1: All the notes were in place, but absolutely no passion. Then, about a month later, we saw the Chicago at the Broward Center. All the notes were in place, plus the passion. The contrast was startling. It’s amazing. Critic gets demoted for telling the truth.

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Thu Oct 2, 2008
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