Wasted Words

The failure of arts journalism at a time of cultural need

Volume 113, No. 10November, 2013

Bruce Ridge

The first of October was a difficult day for the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, a day that marked the one-year point of the managerial-imposed lockout that has silenced an orchestra once called “the best in the world.” That morning, their beloved music director, Osmo Vänskä, delivered his resignation, precisely as he said he would if the lockout did not end. The relationship between Vänskä and these musicians had begun to reach the status of legend; a unique pairing of leader and orchestra that had the potential to approach Szell and Cleveland, Ormandy and Philadelphia. So, on this dark morning the locked-out musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra did the only thing they knew how, and the only thing their years of dedicated study and training would allow them to do – they went out and served their community.

That morning, those heavy-hearted musicians performed a free concert for schoolchildren at a high school in Minnetonka, Minnesota. As the high school’s Web site described the event, it was a concert “for educational purposes meant to enlighten orchestra and band students at Hopkins High School.” But as the musicians gave the very best of themselves that morning, a writer in Britain was preparing to dump his very worst on the world through drivel that a major newspaper, the Telegraph, would actually publish even though it would likely have failed a third-grade writing assignment. As those musicians performed selflessly in a high school auditorium, the Telegraph was putting ink to fish wrap with words describing the musicians as “greedy, complacent, gilded, spoiled, and princely.” Harsh words to be directed at people who haven’t received a paycheck in over a year because their management sought to fix a hole in the roof by burning down the house.

The writer goes on to offer an analysis of the American orchestral scene as he sees it, which is apparently through a blindfold: “In recent years, there has been a spiraling of salaries, and only the stark fact of mounting deficits has brought some orchestras to their senses.” To prove his point, he cites the Los Angeles Philharmonic, saying, “Take the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the richest of the lot,” and he assails the increasing salaries there “as an astonishing sum.” It is true that the musicians of the Los Angeles Philharmonic are paid in accordance with professionals who have reached the top of their field, but it is also true that the organization has achieved a surplus in 10 of the past 11 years. There is no “mounting deficit” in the writer’s example, but I don’t mean to confuse him with facts.

This isn’t meant to dispute that the week of Oct. 1 was a tough week. It was heartbreaking in many ways. The resignation of Osmo Vänskä was reported on the same day that the New York City Opera announced it would be filing for bankruptcy. That legendary organization, dubbed “The People’s Opera” by none other than Fiorello La Guardia, had served the people of New York for 70 years, and its loss is a bitter occurrence, but not an unexpected one. The company has been struggling for a number of years, exacerbated by a terrible managerial decision to move the opera out of its newly renovated theater at Lincoln Center in 2011.

The bad news from these situations dominated arts journalism. Apparently, there are some reporters who tend to like stories that don’t require the intensive research of a Google search. These events led to headlines such “Classical Music’s Hell Week” and “It’s Been a Really Bad Week for Classical Music” and of course, the execrable “U.S. Orchestras are Greedy and Overpaid.”

But there was other news that week, though you had to dig pretty furiously to find it (and after reading the articles referenced above, furious was my mood).

  • The St. Louis Symphony announced that its revenue had climbed 7 percent.
  • The Houston Symphony announced a third year of balanced budgets on the heels of record-breaking fundraising, with the most successful annual fund campaign in its 100-year history. Subscription sales to new subscribers so far this season are 70 percent ahead of this point last season.
  • The Detroit Symphony announced a 43-percent jump in fundraising which led to a record $18.9 million in contributions to the annual fund.

But these items received nary a mention in the national or international press.

Maybe the most troubling example of the failure of arts journalism came from NPR on Oct. 5. It was intensely disappointing, and one musician confided to me that he actually threw his radio out the window after he listened to the dramatic misinterpretations and oversimplifications that were spread to a national audience.

The summary of the story promised that NPR would “sort through the wreckage” and explain “why (these) problems represent a larger and more troubling trend” for classical music. Of course, the feature shed no light on any wreckage, and explained absolutely nothing. But it did fill four minutes of airtime, which apparently was its main purpose.

Perhaps musicians find the faulty reporting on NPR most disturbing because we generally respect the network so much. NPR aspires to a higher ideal, and when they fail to reach that height, it disappoints. In this case it barely seemed like they were trying.

In the Oct. 5 NPR story, two on-air personalities analyzed the developing “wreckage” of classical music with such profound expressions as “Yikes!” In fact, “Yikes” was so profound they used it twice. (After all, the format does provide for extended coverage.)

“Yeah. Yikes. I mean, I feel like it’s a week when the classical music world tried to one-up Congress and the government shutdown.”

The unlistenable banter focused on three (and only three) events:

  • The Minnesota Orchestra situation.
  • The New York City Opera bankruptcy, which really “bums (them) out.”
  • The strike at Carnegie Hall by the stagehands of IATSE Local 1, which cancelled a Philadelphia Orchestra performance.

What does a strike by stagehands, totally out of the control of any orchestra, have to do with anything? In fact, the commentators could have used it as evidence of the flexibility and commitment of orchestral musicians to their communities, as the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra worked quickly and cooperatively with their management, waiving multiple contractual issues, to allow for a free “pop-up” concert back home in Philadelphia that played to a sold-out hall, even though it was announced at the last minute. That is the positive orchestral story to come from the IATSE strike. But no, the generosity and dedication of those musicians didn’t fit the script that NPR had in mind.

But worst of all, NPR provided a microphone for the analysts to refer to the yellowest of journalism, the aforementioned and dismissed piece from the Telegraph. We had to listen to this: “I don’t know if you read [this]. There’s a very interesting article in The Telegraph this past week, the London paper, from Ivan Hewitt, a classical music critic. He was extremely blunt, saying that U.S. orchestra musicians are grossly overpaid and greedy. “

I want to assure all British musicians that the musicians of American orchestras will always be their advocates, and we will always praise their artistry as we seek to assist them in bettering their livelihoods. Their positions cannot be improved by attacking ours.

In all of these stories, the illusion of fairness could have been created by reporting a story that I can only dream about. What if instead we were to read:

“The Minnesota Orchestra situation is a tragedy for the community, and the loss of the New York City Opera marks the end of a grand era for the company. But the news is largely good in this climate for classical music. Orchestras in Dallas, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., all settled contracts quite amicably and with modest gains for the musicians. Arts giving is making a healthy recovery from the recession, orchestras are innovatively reaching out to larger audiences with new technologies, and the cautionary tales from Minnesota can be utilized by a field that seeks to preserve a great tradition as it reaches an expanding audience that benefits economically, spiritually, educationally, and in issues of personal health from exposure to music.”

But that is not what we read. Oscar Wilde said that “In old days men had the rack. Today they have the press.”

I am not just a critic of arts journalism; I want to help. For their next articles, journalists might explore these facts:

  • In 2012, philanthropic giving to the arts in America reached an all-time high of $14.4 billion.
  • In the past three years, the number of businesses giving to the arts increased by 18 percent.
  • 17 percent of businesses that give to the arts say they plan to increase their giving next year.
  • Philanthropic giving to the arts is recovering from the recession at twice the rate of other philanthropic giving.
  • The arts in America are a healthy business, leading to over 4 million jobs and providing over $135 billion in economic activity.

In Cleveland, the number of students attending concerts in Severance Hall has doubled. The Chicago Lyric Opera saw an increase in attendance last year of 15 percent. In 2012, the Kansas City Symphony saw an increase in ticket revenues of over 46 percent, along with record attendance. The San Diego Symphony has seen a decade of balanced finances even as it more than doubled its budget. The Buffalo Philharmonic sold more subscriptions than at any point in its 75-year history.

The true story to be told is how well orchestras have weathered the recession, demonstrating once again the viability of our nation’s artistic organizations.

There are great arts journalists that still exist, and there is great analysis being written, but part of the problem has been that as newspapers have reduced their arts coverage, the most knowledgeable writers have lost their positions. A few years ago I delivered a speech in which I said:

“We must continue to build our relationships with the press. As we ask those who cover us to be our advocates, we must be their advocates as well. In too many cities we see our print media outlets eliminating their music critics and arts editors. No newspaper can adequately serve their community without devoting coverage to the local and national arts scene.”

In our instant media world, that is truer now than ever. Musicians must be advocates for arts journalists, just as we are advocates for every aspect of our great communities. When a false and negative message is reported at the expense of the positive message that will serve the next generation of Americans through a commitment to our cultural institutions, we must respond.

I am occasionally criticized for being too positive about the future of the arts, and I am proud to wear that criticism as a badge of honor. Certain bloggers will twist my words to fit into their negative message of self-promotion, and that’s fine. But readers have a right to know that false statements such as “Minneapolis is the only city supporting two professional orchestras” will be challenged by writers who will commit to at least a minimum of research.

The famous slogan of the New York Times is “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” Unfortunately for many press outlets, when it comes to reporting on classical music it would be more accurate to say “all the news that fits the print.” Too often, positive facts are discarded if they don’t fit the century-old narrative of the impending death of classical music. If one were to believe the negative messages found in the media about orchestras, you might be led to question the validity of hope.

The good news I bring you is that the bad news that permeates so many discussions of the future is largely false. Unfortunately, though, such false messages can be self-fulfilling, and we must not allow our resolve to be repelled by an assault of damaging words. Still, we have no claim to condemn the negative messages about our orchestras if we are not doing everything we can to disclaim them. As musicians, we cannot allow destructive messages to undermine our idealism and hope. The comfort we take comes from the indisputable truth that the positive message offered by musicians will far outlast the negativity of those that misrepresent us.

Bassist Bruce Ridge is the chair of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians. This essay originally appeared at and is reprinted with permission.