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August 3, 2010

Update on case of Cleveland Plain Dealer music critic who sued newspaper, orchestra

The trial in Cleveland being watched closely by those of us in the business of writing opinions about artistic activity is heading toward a conclusion. Final arguments were expected to be made Tuesday. My guess is the jury will have a verdict in short order.

One of the two complaints in the suit brought by longtime music critic Don Rosenberg against his employer, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, was thrown out by the judge. That involved a claim of retaliation, when the paper, having taken Rosenberg off the Cleveland Orchestra beat, prohibited from ever using the words "Cleveland Orchestra" in another story. The paper argued that Rosenberg's suit made that necessary. The writer's age discrimination charge remains.

An interesting passage from the latest news report by Plain Dealer staffer Michael Scott (I've learned that his coverage has been in print as well as online) involves testimony of editors of the paper, past and present. They all admitted

"they had nearly no expertise in classical music. The three current newspaper editors, however, each responded that the decision to reassign Rosenberg was a journalism decision, not a music decision."

Former executive editor Doug Clifton, who also testified that Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Most "wasn't getting a fair break from The Plain Dealer," was asked "why he hadn't consulted other classical music critics or experts regarding Rosenberg's opinions about Welser-Most. "This wasn't a judgment about music, but a judgment about journalism -- and about what constitutes fair journalism," Clifton said.

Sounds to me like the editors didn't care whether Rosenberg's artistic judgment might be valid, only that a lot of people were tired of reading it. A journalistic decision?

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:21 PM | | Comments (7)


Boy, oh boy, does THIS sound like a bunch of bull being shoveled around by the Plain Dealer brass...

So "fair journalism" apparently consists of turning a blind eye to reality and giving a "fair break" (read: "free pass") - I wonder, does the Plain Dealer give EVERYBODY in EVERY STORY a "fair break?" Do the editors lose sleep at night because they fear people may be slighted by what the paper publishes?

Heaven forfend that someone says something with the slightest hint of negativity (honestly, mind you!) for the hometown orchestra's music director. "Pan me once, shame on me - pan me twice, shame on you," or something to that effect...

Maybe they should just cease publication altogether, just so they don't have to worry about "fair breaks" anymore.

"Artistic judgment" is the core tool of a critic's trade -- if a good critic can't apply a keen intellect to observations of performers and performances, then ALL of us should just slap on the rosy glasses and dance off a cliff.

Cleveland deserves better than the Plain Dealer, if this is the kind of "journalistic integrity" to which they pay lip-service. Utter bosh!

Now tell us how you REALLY feel. TIM

Don't I always? ;^)

Seriously, though, if one critic is being _consistently_ negative about something, then hire another critic to "add some balance." And if the new hire turns the situation into a "harmonious duo," then maybe the "perceived problem" has _nothing_ to do with the original critic!

Sounds rational to me, but maybe that's not just journalistic enough. TIMK

It is amazing that it does not occur to Tim Smith - even fleetingly - that as a fellow music crtic and a friend of Rosenberg he may not be an entirely uninterested party in the matter.

Music critics,like all human beings, are not immuned from sometimes developing personal biases. Rosenberg admitted in the trial that he believes that FWM cannot grow and improve his perfomances over time. Therefore, he also believes that FWM should be removed and replaced.

Holding this set of beliefes would make it very difficult for Rosenberg to approach the review of every single concert with an open mind, completely independent from his deeply held convictions.The persistent harsh and predictable tone of his pieces bears this out.

One more point. Contrary to your claims (and some others), The reviews of FWM work with the Cleveland Orchestra, especially in the last 2-3 years are wonderful. Certainly in Europe, but also in the USA,despite of the large number of American critics who are Rosenberg's friends.

As an arts manager, I've followed this case with great interest. Thank you, Tim, for keeping us up to speed as the situation has unfolded. Generally, my sympathies lie with Mr. Rosenberg--it seems like the the Plain Dealer really stepped in it, and Mr. Rosenberg is a highly respected critic and journalist.

But I've struggled with the question of what a company is to do when it feels that a journalist or news outlet is biased. Bad reviews are par for course anywhere, but consistent trashing in one's paper of record must do damage to the organization's reputation over time, and true bias does a disservice to readers who rely on newspapers to provide a balanced perspective. In cases of persistently persnickety critics, is there any recourse?

One reasonable course, suggested by others, is a shared duty approach, rather than totally removing a critic from the beat. Not all papers have the luxury of two staffers, of course, but there's usually a freelancer option. It was interesting, for example, to see the contrasting views of the two Philadelphia Inquirer staff critics during the brief Eschenbach era. Something along those lines could at least have been tried out in Cleveland first, it seems to me. One thing that keeps bothering me about this particular case is how so many people seem to think it's totally isolated. It's not. But when you look at, say, the Maazel years in New York or the Slatkin years in DC, it looks as if the orchestras and newspapers managed to survive, agreeing to disagree, as it were, even though review after negative review continued to appear, year after year. Would the music and journalism worlds have thought it perfectly normal for, say, the Times or the Post to "reassign" the critic(s) who so often found fault with those music directors because they and/or their orchestra's boards were upset? I just can't imagine we'd be seeing the same sort of defenses being offered for the Plain Dealer or the Cleveland Orchestra in such a scenario. From the get-go, I've said that those two Ohio institutions were cheapened by this affair, and I still say so. Cooler heads and more imaginative management should have prevailed. No one wins this. TIM

"Contrary to your claims (and some others), The reviews of FWM work with the Cleveland Orchestra, especially in the last 2-3 years are wonderful. Certainly in Europe, but also in the USA,despite of the large number of American critics who are Rosenberg's friends."

That's really a red herring. First of all, Rosenberg never to my knowledge, suggested that the CO wasn't capable of (regularly) turning in superbly honed performances on a technical level. Or that FWM is a fine custodian of quality. Simply that that wasn't enough, given what and how much more the CO can do under other conductors.

In towns not used to such a high base quality orchestra, that's always going to impress mightily. Heck, it impressed me mightily when the CO came to DC in 06. Ditto European critics. And many of the rave reviews from Europe were about FWM conducting the CO in opera (like his supreme Rusalka in S'burg in 08). Read what Rosenberg had to say about that. He was utterly delighted and made no attempts to diminish that achievement.

That said, it's fair to argue for a bias on DRs part... or to suggest that reading the same opinion, no matter how true, time and time again (perhaps at the expense of occ. different foci) was as tiresome to the readers as FWM's interpretations to DR.

This movie 'trailer' might be entertaining in that context:

Alternating critics would certainly have been the right response to that. Silencing inconveniently critical voices, however, is and was certainly *not* the way to go.

+1 to jfl's comments - spot-on!

To Yoash Wiener: how would being an "entirely uninterested party in the matter" (meaning "objective," I presume) change Tim's opinion of this case? Tim's writing about his _opinion_, not as some neutral party reporting the dry, bare facts of the matter. (Though some of these ARE mentioned, handily.)

Welser-Möst isn't the worst, but he _certainly_ isn't "the best" (or even _potentially_ the best) in his profession. I consider him competent, with pretty clear strengths & weaknesses. He _can_ surprise and delight, but mostly, I find myself saying, "Well, that was nice!" but no more.

I do NOT base my own opinion of Welser-Möst on the opinions of others, so the "wonderful" reviews mean little to me. However, I find quite a bit of "echoed sentiment" in Rosenberg's critiques. Therefore, I tend to sympathize with his feelings.

And, for the record, the London press didn't care much for Welser-Möst -- they routinely skewered him when he led the London Philharmonic for 6 or so years. Coincidence?

The comments about the Cleveland Orchestra getting good reviews on occasion, does not materially affect Rosenberg's case. The alchemy of performance depends on a thousand intangibles, not merely which conductor is on the podium. I assume the CO gave some good performances under Welser-Most. That said, when I heard WM conduct the CO, I was disappointed. I compared the CO under other conductors, I compared the CO to other orchestras, I compared WM conducting other orchestras. I read upon WM's record as a conductor in Europe (mixed). I factored in as many variables as possible and asked the ultimate question: "Is this the best one can expect, given the status of the orchestra, the presenter's publicity claims, and the resources deployed?" For me the answer with WM and the CO was "No." So on at least on one occasion I agreed with Rosenberg's assessment (and no, he is not a personal friend, though that would have made no difference to the evidence of my senses and rational deductive processes). Truth be told, many other music critics held the same negative opinion of WM, usually more forcefully in private than in print. Rosenberg's plight at the hands of the orchestra administration and newspaper management is important because it exemplifies basic issues of media control, censorship, and critical freedom. Ultimately, his case is one for the books and hopefully it will be taught in journalism courses.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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