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.
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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.
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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.
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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?