Just days ago, I wrote a blog post on the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra (FWSO) strike—specifically arguing that an article posted by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as “background” was little more than the transcription of the FWSO management’s talking points. It covered only one side of the dispute. There was no attempt to show the background of the musicians who had actually called the strike… or for that matter, provide an acknowledgement that they and their side of the story even existed. I had hoped that the Star-Telegram would rectify the situation, ideally by interviewing the musicians or at least presenting the musicians’ talking points as listed on their website and on social media.
Clearly, my hope was in vain.
Today the Star-Telegram doubled down on its one-sided coverage of the dispute. It published a jaw-dropping hit piece with the title—seriously—of “Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, RIP.”
I suppose we should be grateful that the Star-Telegram editorial didn’t lead off with the title, “Striking Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra Musicians Break Open the Seventh Seal.”
Again, let’s leave off the particulars of the actual strike…there is no part of this editorial that isn’t seriously flawed. It is not just a prime example of bad optics; it also displays terrible judgment, provides factually incorrect information, and demonstrates a willful ignorance of broader industry trends.
Not bad for a 350-word editorial.
Let me provide a few examples of why I find this piece so problematic.
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A Conflict of Interest
I can’t help but point out that Gary Wortel, publisher of the Star-Telegram, also happens to sit on the Board of Directors for the FWSO. Meaning he’s a party to the dispute. The potential for a conflict of interest here is immense—and so obvious I hardly need to elaborate. At the very least, it seems like there should be some sort of disclaimer acknowledging this connection, if not a more conscious attempt to avoid the appearance of being so obviously one-sided. I would think in this case that the Star-Telegram would do more to bring the musicians’ perspective forward. I mean, this connection between Mr. Wortel and the FWSO board is hardly secret knowledge… it’s actively being discussed in the comments section of this very editorial.
As an aside, I can’t help but note how closely this parallels the Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute, where Michael Klingensmith of the Star Tribune similarly sat on the board of the Orchestra. There were indications that he, too, tried to shape the paper’s coverage, which ended up shattering its credibility.
Generalities and Passive-Voice Explanations
The key sentences in this piece read: “Several very smart and dedicated people have worked for more than a year on a new labor agreement…. It hasn’t worked.”
Apologies, but the first two sentences willfully disguise a series of concrete actions taken by concrete groups of people under a cloak of vague generalities. Yes… “several people” did try to work to reach an agreement. But by using this oversimplification, the Star-Telegram avoids having to explain who these people were and the specific reasons negotiations fell through.
It is possible, for example, to be both “smart and dedicated”… and “obstructionist.”
I have no insider information about the negotiations, but as I mentioned before, the public statements clearly indicate that the “smart and dedicated people” on the musicians’’ side were consistently stymied by the “smart and dedicated people” from FWSO’s leadership—who staked out an untenable position and refused to budge despite months of negotiation and the involvement of federal mediators. It’s also clear from media reports that the FWSO refused to negotiate any longer, and was about to impose a contract on the musicians they could never win at the negotiation table. Out of options, the musicians declared a strike.
We can disagree on whether or not such actions are justifiable, fair or productive, but they happened. And they happened because of the actions of real human beings. But in this editorial, there are no real actors making real decisions with real consequences, just an undifferentiated group “smart, dedicated people.” This is the only way the Star-Telegram can reach the astonishing, passive-voice conclusion that “things didn’t work out.”
No. One group wanted a specific goal, and took specific actions to successfully bring that goal about.
Another thing that grates my nerves about this piece—and further reveals how fundamentally one-sided it is—is how it frames the two sides’ arguments. The management’s side as cast as a clear set of self-evident, pitiless facts: money has run out, and the FWSO must cut expenses to meet obvious targets. After presenting these ideas in the best light possible, the editorial hammers home its position with the point-blank statement that management’s “reasoning is believable, their approach reasonable.”
The musicians’ point of view, however, is literally chastised for being merely a slogan. Then, the musicians collectively are written off with this casual dismissal: “They refuse to accept that the symphony association can’t raise the money to pay them their current salaries or better.” Shortly thereafter, the Star-Telegram concedes the musicians have already taken a punishing, 13.5% pay cut, but goes on to say “While frequent references to that cut might help gain public sympathy, that money is gone and won’t come back.”
So, the sloganeer-dreamers want more-more-more, while the rational-reasonable people know that money is all gone. The management’s position is uncritically taken as gospel, while the musicians’ position is folly.
I recognize this is an opinion piece, but couldn’t the Star-Telegram at least present the two sides as both having legitimate concerns, then advocate for what it feels is the better option of the two, rather than seeking to present one side as fantastical nonsense? Essentially the Star-Telegram takes the management’s opinion of the negotiations as its starting point, then uses the management’s arguments to badger the musicians.
Just Plain Wrong
And the thing is, the FWSO’s position is flat-out wrong.
To the “reasonable people” in the FWSO management, and their pseudo-anonymous supporters at the Star-Telegram, let me point out a few things. Their argument that there’s no more money for the arts would look a lot more “reasonable” if it wasn’t completely undercut by a host of counter examples—from Texas and across the country. Many, many groups are enjoying success right now.
I pointed out in my piece from a few days ago that the Kansas City Symphony, for example, had announced a new contract with substantial raises and increased benefits because, per their management, “we were losing too many talented musicians to other orchestras.”
Can’t Fort Worth keep up with Kansas City?
But there’s more good news, some of which came out this very week. The Detroit Free Press just reported on some great news for their city, as the Detroit Symphony Orchestra just received a $3.5 million gift to revamp its recital hall and help fund a marketing position to realize its potential.
Can’t Fort Worth keep up with Detroit?
Today, the Colorado Symphony posted its best fiscal year since 1989. It is beginning a new concert season with a budget surplus, $1.7 million in cash in the bank and substantial financial commitments toward a goal of creating a $50 million permanent endowment.
Can’t Fort Worth keep up with Denver?
The Houston Grand Opera announced a banner year, with a total of $16.8 million in annual operating support, which represents an increase of $600,000 over last season’s funds.
Can’t Fort Worth keep up with Houston?
And around the same time frame that the FWSO began stalling negotiations with its musicians, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra announced a balanced budget with $7 million in annual fund contributions, plus more than $25 million in contributions and commitments to a long-term initiative to provide a sustainable future.
Can’t Fort Worth keep up with Dallas?
And to top it off, two weeks ago the Fort Worth Opera successfully completed its 90-day, million dollar match campaign. It exceeded its goal to bring in $500,000 in three months, with 100% participation by the board and staff. Significantly, this all led to a 100% increase in its donor base.
Can’t Fort Worth keep up with… Fort Worth?
And there are plenty of other similar success stories from all around the country. Outgoing International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) Chair Bruce Ridge has recently provided a run down for last year:
- The Atlanta Symphony announced that it ended the season with a surplus, and raised $13 million
- The Arizona Opera exceeded its fundraising goals
- The Buffalo Philharmonic saw record season ticket sales and subscription revenues for the third consecutive year
- The Charlotte Symphony received a $2 million gift
- The Cincinnati Symphony raised over $26 million and signed a new contract that adds 15 new musicians over the next five years
- The Dallas Symphony achieved a balanced budget and received a $5 million gift
- The Detroit Symphony raised $1.4 million in one evening
- The Houston Grand Opera exceeded its fundraising goal, raising almost $173 million
- The Houston Symphony received a $5 million donation, the largest gift in nearly a decade
- The Indianapolis Symphony saw ticket sales increase 15%, and subscriptions rose 24%.
- The Memphis Symphony received a $1 million gift for education programs
- The Minnesota Orchestra received $6 million in special gifts and embarked on a historic tour to Cuba
- The Nashville Symphony set fundraising and ticket sales records
- The Omaha Symphony saw record attendance
- The Oregon Symphony set records for ticket sales and contributions, and its gala raised a record $700,000
- The Pacific Symphony’s gala raised a record $1.6 million
- The Richmond Symphony received a $1 million gift for outdoor concerts
- The Rochester Philharmonic reported a 19% increase in single ticket sales
- The St. Louis Symphony received a $10 million gift
- The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra saw its highest attendance in 20 years
How many counter-examples does it take before it starts to look like the FWSO is the outlier, and that its position that “there’s no more money to be had” is not exactly “reasonable?”
For what it’s worth, I find that when organizations claim “all our donors are tapped out, and there’s no more money,” it means that they haven’t been growing their donor base, but simply going to the same well over and over. It helps to have an appropriate development/fundraising staff to expand operations. It appears there’s been substantial turnover in fundraising leadership, with several new VPs over the last five years. In fact, the FWSO website currently lists the Vice President of Development as an “interim.” This would suggest that lack of money isn’t the only problem here….
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So all in all, a strange editorial from the Star-Telegram. Perhaps most curious of all is the funereal tone—beyond the sensationalist headline, there are repeated references to this being the end of the road. I find this astonishing, particularly in light of the many counter examples out there. The San Diego Opera’s board, for example, famously decided San Diego couldn’t support grand opera and decided to liquidate the company. In response, the community rose up, found the necessary resources, reinstated the company and deposed the defeatist board. The Philadelphia Orchestra went into bankruptcy protection, but emerged and is performing today. Two years ago Peter Gelb of the Metropolitan Opera threatened the Met faced bankruptcy in “a couple of years,” but the Met has had balanced budgets in each of the two years since. The New York City Opera survived its dissolution.
So why is the Star-Telegram so willing to write the FWSO’s obituary… right this very minute?
Most curious, indeed.