Thoughts about the Recent Press Coverage

The Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute came to an end earlier this week, and it’s time for the healing to begin.

At such a time, I’m loath to “go negative” and upset the delicate balance that’s taking hold.  That said, there is a situation brewing that needs to be addressed, and addressed strongly.  Over the past week I’ve been severely disappointed by key elements of the local media coverage—specifically how the media has covered the labor dispute’s endgame.

I’m not irritated because these media sources are disagreeing with me—I could handle that.

What I can’t handle is the lazy, nearly mendacious tack several writers are taking, leading to stories or editorials that are often inaccurate, or severely mischaracterize events that happened.  Worse, many of these questionable articles are coming from the Star Tribune, arguably the state’s largest and most influential media source.

Let me explain.

In today’s paper, there was an editorial titled, “New ideas must follow settlement at Minnesota Orchestra.”  This was… well, embarrassing to read.

I don’t want to do an exhaustive deconstruction, but let’s look at a couple of key lines:

“Minnesotans who care about the orchestra tend to care deeply, and most took a side during the dispute. This page did not, in part because sorting fact from spin in behind-closed-doors labor negotiations is next to impossible.”

This is astonishing on so many levels.  So… disentangling this story was going to be too difficult?  More difficult than explaining, say, the civil war in Syria?  The politics surrounding the government shutdown last fall?  Or the issues surrounding the roll out of the Affordable Care Act?

You’re a news outlet, for heaven’s sake.

And there was news to discover.  Emily Hogstad did far, far more investigative reporting than you did… and she’s an amateur musician living in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.  The buying up of Internet domain names?  Michael Henson’s massive bonuses?  A report to the city of Minneapolis that was so inaccurate that the city immediately demanded a new one, under threat of revoking the Orchestra’s lease of Orchestra Hall?  Those items weren’t “spin,” they were fact-based news stories that other people broke.

Heck, most of my blogs have been dedicated to sorting fact from spin, and I’m hardly an investigative reporter.

I don’t mean to be snide, but I don’t understand why you found this so difficult.

But more important, your statement saying you didn’t take sides is demonstrably false.  Your October 5, 2012, editorial essentially reprints the management’s talking points uncritically.  The subtitle is: “Though management has made errors, it really is a new world.”  On September 7, 2013, you again parroted the management’s talking points (“Minnesota Orchestra costs can’t be sustained”), giving extensive quotes from MOA leadership without bothering to see if they might be at all controversial.  For the record—yes, those points were and are highly debatable, and not borne out by the Orchestra’s own documents. But there was worse to come.  Despite the Orchestra’s management bringing in outside legal representation, you scolded the musicians for slavishly following “the agenda of their New York labor attorneys”… a thinly-coded message that surprised and disturbed me. (The statement is also a bit bizarre—in a fight for their livelihood, the musicians are obviously going to secure the best representation they can find, especially if their opponents are bringing in big-name, anti-union lawyers.)

And as others have pointed out, at critical moments you were strangely silent.  You could have used your voice to prod, explore, or question, but you seemed to accept MOA’s story as the final word on any given subject.

So yes, you clearly took sides.

And there was another comment that really raised my hackles in this editorial.  The final sentence: “Artistic excellence is not enough.”

The first problem here is small but telling— this simple sentence is how the editorial ended in the print edition.  Clearly, someone pointed out that the statement was questionable, and it was lifted from the title an article by Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times (one that was critical of the management’s financial plan, by the way).  So you amended it in the online version to make the origin of the sentence more clear… as well as attempting to give it an air of gravitas and falsely implying that many important people shared your concern.

But that still doesn’t solve all the myriad problems with this idea.  For one, to my knowledge, no one was advocating that artistic excellence by itself was enough.  The musicians obviously realize there are other factors at play here, including the financial health of the organization.  They had willingly given back part of their salary in 2009 when the market crashed, and offered to do so again before the lockout, only to have this offer be rejected by management.  They constantly made reference to the Orchestra’s financial health throughout the dispute, too.  There is nothing to indicate that the musicians were wholly obsessed with artistry, or turning a blind eye to finances.

The key issue was that they had no confidence in the numbers management was feeding them… with good reason, as it turned out.  They didn’t want to accept outrageous, sacrificial cuts to their salaries without clear indications that such a move was absolutely necessary.  And they believed, accurately, that the management’s financial plan was a house of cards.

Plus, the musicians were fighting for, and I believe still hope to achieve, structural reforms that would provide better governance of the organization, which would include stronger strategic plans, greater transparency, and the incorporation of outside groups into the decision making process.  The changes they are fighting for go beyond “mere artistry.”

But let me throw out the following truism for you:  financial growth is not enough.  The Minnesota Orchestra is a mission-driven, non-profit arts organization.  It can’t exist to simply turn a profit, and it can’t be run as if it were a for-profit venue.  Of course it has to be financially sound… but its purpose is to present music.  The long-term artistic viability of the organization cannot be sacrificed for short-term financial gain.

I should note here that Publisher and CEO Michael J. Klingensmith serves on the Orchestra’s board, and it’s hard not to see his influence in this editorial—despite your protestations to the contrary.

* * *

But this wasn’t the only low moment in the Star Tribune’s coverage.  I was stunned at how arts editor Claude Peck talked about the lockout in the Sunday paper.  His “Withering Glance” column focused on things that he was tired of, such as drivers failing to signal properly and neighbors not fully plowing their sidewalks.  In discussing things he wanted to hear less of, he included the following statement:  “Less about the Minnesota Orchestra disaster. Time to settle up, folks. Jeez, as we sometimes say here.”

So—the arts editor of the state’s largest newspaper is bored with all that Orchestra coverage.

This is… astonishing.

Let’s move past the shockingly disrespectful message that sends to the musicians (presumably as the paper’s arts editor, he likes music and musicians) who have been without paychecks or insurance for over a year.

The astonishing thing is that the ongoing story of the lockout has been covered and dissected by news organizations around the world.  Heck, people are reading my blogs about the lockout in Mongolia, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Morocco, and Kyrgyzstan.  The New York-based media has given it much attention, as have other national and local outlets.  I can easily see why—the story has all kinds of elements and speaks to many issues, such as non-profit governance, the role of arts in society, the role of corporate heads on boards, financial shenanigans and more.  Plus, for our own state, many people involved in the arts have been following the story closely for fear of the implications for them, too.

But sadly, our local arts editor is just… tired of it?  Like people who drive too slow in the left lane? I can maybe understand burnout—maybe.  But if that’s the case, I wish he had indicated that was what he meant, rather than make a callous statement in the face of such personal pain.

* * *

And finally, today on Minnesota Public Radio’s website, a new feature appeared by Jay Gabler.  For his column, “Minnesota Orchestra lockout: What have we learned?” Jay has asked some of his colleagues to write about what they took away from the 15-month lockout.

While the ideas here are eloquently expressed, I have a couple of problems with the responses. For one, the writers seem to be to be writing words of conciliation, not lessons they learned from the dispute. And everyone seems to be saying that bad things occurred to both sides, and they hope that things will improve now. That’s a perfectly acceptable approach, and welcome after all the rancor (I went this route myself in my previous blog post)… but that’s not exactly an effective post-mortem or debrief, which seems to be have been the article’s original intention.

Personally, I’ve learned a great deal about issues like being transparent in your dealings, the dangers of shutting out outside perspectives, effective ways at resolving conflict, paying attention to the optics of a situation, the power of public pressure, how tone matters, the rise of audience advocacy, and the fact that music still plays a vital role in our community. And lots of other things too.  Each of these could be elaborated on in greater detail, and I wish the contributors here would have provided deeper perspective.  Others, are already doing so on MPR (see Euan Kerr’s story here) so this seems like a missed opportunity, although I realize space limitations may be a factor.

But another thing, too.  There’s such a strong effort here to make sure all the writers maintain a sense of balance, or go out of their way to suggest there are good people on both sides (I agree there are).  But while balance can be a good, it seems artificial here, and greatly distorts what happened.  For example, this “equivalence” ignores the obvious reality that the musicians were never hauled twice before the state legislature to answer for their actions. The musicians were never accused of financial mismanagement by lawmakers and asked to step down. The musicians never rejected a settlement offer proposed by their own internationally-renowned mediator simply because they would “lose leverage.” The musicians never gave their leaders lavish bonuses while laying off others. The musicians never adopted a negotiation tactic that caused the leadership personal financial hardship. The musicians never filed a report to the city that was so flawed that a new one was immediately demanded. The musicians were never found to be so out of compliance with their lease that the city moved to take them over. These things are not my biased opinion, they are demonstrated facts. So I have a hard time buying that all sides are equal here.

Related to this, I find the tiresome analogy of the musicians and the management being like a fighting couple on their way to a divorce to be pretty strained.   What happens if this metaphoric couple is fighting because the husband has been having a torrid affair with a woman half his age… and wildly spending their joint savings on expensive gifts for his mistress while asking his wife to live frugally?  Or he has a gambling addiction and has blown the kids’ college fund?  Are they still both equally to blame?  Shouldn’t we dig deeper than to simply say, “Well, it takes two to argue.”  Plus, this tired analogy ignores the fact that the management-led lockout cost the city of Minneapolis an estimated $2.9 million, while spending public money inappropriately.  This was hardly a self-contained spat involving no one but the two principals—there’s all kinds of collateral damage happening, and larger issues being raised.

* * *

So, again let me say that I’m not impressed with the local media’s coverage right now.  Don’t get me wrong, there are great stories out there, and I’ve been particularly happy with MinnPost’s coverage of events.   And both the Star Tribune and MPR have done some important stories over the last year and a half.

But I had much higher expectations.  This is our local band… so why do we have to go to the New Yorker for quality coverage of it?

 

Xochipilli

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21 thoughts on “Thoughts about the Recent Press Coverage

  1. Agree. Graydon Royce’s LAZY summing up led one to believe that the musicians saw the financial light, and kissed and made up with the board. Zero mention of the preservation of classical music programming and other work rules that the board backed off. It’s all money-money-money. Even the musicians’ quote was, “being paid like a top-10 orchestra was absolutely critical.” I’m sure they said more than that (and even wish they hadn’t made that particular statement, because it helps the Strib characterize the musicians as out-of-touch with financial realities.

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  2. Thank you for your thoughtful insights and reporting throughout the lockout. I cancelled my Sunday only subscription the day after the September 7th StarTribune editorial appeared castigating the musicians for hiring a “New York attorney”. I am glad you took offense with Claude Peck’s remarkably insensitive comments about the lockout. Despite the fact that the “Withering Glance” column is full of useless blather, those comments, coming from the “arts editor” of the paper, were offensive. I do wish that you had also mentioned how misleading it was to the public for the Strib to continually use average salary figures when reporting the musician salary. Knowledgeable people know that it is the base salary which gives a much more accurate salary picture because a handful of higher paid players in an orchestra (or on a football team) can drastically alter “average pay”. It is incredible to me that when reporting on the settlement on January 15th, Graydon Royce insists on reporting an average salary that is at least $20,000 above the negotiated base salary. Respected national media, such as the Washington Post and the New York Times, accurately reported the base salary under the new contract in their news stories. I believe that the major media outlets in the Twin Ciies have lacked accuracy and objectivity in their reporting. Thank goodness for the bloggers and support groups who have been willing to research and report facts.

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  3. Scott, I’ve had my own issues with the Minneapolis Star Tribune. James Lileks characterized the dispute as a strike in his column not once but twice. I pointed out to him and his editor that to call it that was a factual error — it was a lockout. They corrected it. Then I sent them a commentary proposing new governance structure for the MOA and it never saw the light of day. So, I withdrew it from them. I plan to send it to MinnPost after updating it a bit. As a blogger, I unearthed the whole governance issue at my blog, Eyes on Life, and that was something that could have been done by anyone at the Star Tribune, MPR News or elsewhere. Rep. Phyllis Kahn got the ball rolling on that one. So, I agree wholeheartedly with what you are saying here, and I agree with Curt Carlson — send it to the Strib as commentary and see if they’d publish it! Cinda

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  4. This needs to be said. You have opened this discussion so eloquently and concisely. We all need to keep the discussion going. We should no more let the issue (how this unfolded and how it was narrated to the public) drop now that the lockout has ended than the folks in New Jersey should return to business-as-usual with the reopening of the closed lanes on the George Washington Bridge. Our eyes have been opened and things need to change.

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  5. Interesting that I hadn’t read this post before mentioning in a comment to your “gratitude” post that I hoped true, meaningful media attention to classical music in our community would continue, and that likely it would have nothing to do with the STrib or Pioneer Press. Once the STrib chose to discontinue their coverage of classical music some years back we chose to end our subscription to the paper. It doesn’t surprise me that their “arts” editor was so dismissive about this entire story, because he is editor of a section that has long dismissed the MN Orch or any classical music. I simply stopped paying attention to anything they printed in their paper about the MN Orch debacle because it infuriated rather than enlightened me (no doubt, as you said, because of the profound debt they feel to the bankers that run MOA and to whom the STrib is likely beholden). You’re right that as the paper with largest statewide circulation they owe it to their readers to accurately and thoroughly cover these important issues, but they abrogated this responsibility long ago. I mentioned in my comment to your “gratitude” post that I suspect true, meaningful, thoughtful discussion of issues relating to classical music were not going to happen in the corporate-run media, but suspected it would be happening by you and your colleagues, as well as upstarts like MinnPost. It is terribly unfortunate that the largest “news”paper in the state can no longer do justice to covering important news in our community, since by definition those not already predisposed to seek it out will not be part of these discussions, and so can continue to thoughtlessly toss off comments about greedy union musicians, or how orchestra music is just for a miniscule community of rich people.

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  6. The StarTribune’s coverage (and selection of opinion pieces) were horrible. MPR’s coverage was HORRIBLE. Both were often blatantly false. Both were perpetually filled with omissions. Both get an F in investigation into facts. Horrible, inadequate, false, flip. They are “owned.”

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  7. Bravo! Insightful analysis during the whole mess and now an eloquent post-mortem. Yes the musicians and the management should kiss and make up – they need to work together moving forward, but that doesn’t forgive the Board’s actions. Nor should we forget them.

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  8. Pingback: Revising History | Mask of the Flower Prince

  9. If it’s not sports, don’t expect much from the modern newspaper.

    Not to get into the sports versus cultural debate (it’s so hard not to), but publishers have so eviscerated their “news” properties that their papers and broadcasts are mostly filled with press service reprints or re-worded press releases. A local newspaper is almost worthless. Unless it’s sports. Or sports-related. I have dropped both the Pioneer Press and Strib subscriptions I used to have, and their coverage of the MN Orchestra reinforces my decision.

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    • Great observation, Wally! As long as we know what a local “newspaper” will and will not spend time on, we don’t have to get pissed off because they are not spending time on something they have chosen not to.

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  10. The MOA members should be most proud of themselves for depriving the community of classical music for 16 months, almost destroyed a world-class orchestra and threatened the livelihood of about 100 musicians while they themselves sat back in their leather-bound chairs. Nice job dudes ! !
    By the way, the media should not have compared the salaries of the musicians with those of the general public. After all, in all of the Twin Cities there are only about 200 professional musicians in the two orchestras. Let me ask, “How many CEO’s are there here and how much do they make ?” Let’s compare apples with apples and not oranges.
    Thomas

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  11. Pingback: Arts Writing, and Thoughts for my Blog’s Future | Mask of the Flower Prince

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