An Unwarranted, Unfair Editorial

What the…?

…?

…?

Okay… sorry, I still can’t believe the recent editorial in the local Star Tribune about… yes, that blasted Minnesota Orchestra Lockout of 2012-2014—a half-page editorial that uses the lockout to preemptively complain about negotiations surrounding the Orchestra’s new labor contract with its musicians.

Let’s just drop all the elegance and introduction and get into why this has got to be one of the most idiotic things our state’s “newspaper of record” will publish this year.

And while we’re at it, let me say a few words about why I’m so hopeful about the situation.

* * *

To begin, a few questions.

1) Wait… Graydon Royce is writing about the lockout?

As a refresher, Mr. Royce was not a classical music critic, nor a classical music reporter… he was the last one standing after a shake-up/buyout at the STrib some years back. His work was… fine. But he was hardly a deeply-sourced, go-to guy for everything you want to know about the industry. And yes, early on he did score a major scoop by reporting that the Minnesota Orchestra’s board minutes showed that a lockout, and deceptive messaging around the bonding bill to refurbish Orchestra Hall, had been planned for some time.

Alas, it was widely understood (if, to my knowledge, not explicitly confirmed) that the STrib management came down hard on him for that scoop—the Publisher and CEO of the paper sits on the Orchestra’s board.

Thereafter, Mr. Royce’s coverage was hugely pro-administration. His stories were characterized with:

  • jaw-dropping instances of false equivalencies
  • quotes that added nothing to the story and were often wildly one-sided
  • mischaracterizations
  • blunt-force metaphors
  • bad chronologies
  • alluding to leads that he stubbornly resisted to pursue or clarify
  • heavy use of “conventional wisdom” that was certainly conventional, yet hardly wise

The result was stories and in ways both large and small fundamentally painted an untrue picture of what was going on, and that constantly celebrated the management’s position during the lockout while denigrating that of the musicians. I documented this extensively on my blog (for example, here).

That’s the person they chose to write this piece?

 

2) Wait… the Star Tribune is publishing a piece on the Orchestra’s labor negotiations?

As I just pointed out, the Publisher and CEO of the paper sits on the board of the Orchestra—one of the parties in labor negotiations. Is that appropriate? Isn’t this potential conflict of interest going to be acknowledged?

And to be clear, the STrib did an atrocious job at the time of informing the public about the two side’s positions, or in simply reporting on the ebb and flow of the lockout. And there was news to discover.  Emily Hogstad over at Song of the Lark did far, far more investigative reporting than the STrib did… and she’s an amateur musician from 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 were fact-based news stories that other people broke… and that the STrib avoided commenting on even after the news broke.

And the STrib was relentless in its efforts to carry water for the previous administration. For example, the STrib’s 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, it again parroted the management’s talking points (“Minnesota Orchestra costs can’t be sustained”) nearly verbatim, 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.

Why is the STrib still considered to be a reliable, even-handed voice about the Orchestra’s negotiations?

 

3) Wait… the Star Tribune is publishing this now?

With everything that is going on right now in the world, with all the things to editorialize, why on earth is the STrib giving one-quarter of its editorial space to this piece that wildly mischaracterizes the 2012-2014 lockout, and somehow promises dark times unless… well, the “unless” is never made clear. I mean, maybe industry insiders are curious about these as yet unresolved and—up to this point—unremarked upon negotiations. But why would this kind of real estate be given over to this kind of “storm-clouds-gathering-on-the-horizon” editorializing other than to needlessly stir the pot?

I mean, this whole thing reeks of a hit job placed by followers of the old, failed business model who are looking for a chance to vent, and lash out preemptively at followers of the new, heretofore successful business model that emerged from the wreckage of the lockout.

* * *

 

So, let me dig into what I find so irritating about this current piece.

1) Once Again, The Jaw-dropping False Equivalencies.

True to form, this editorial brims with false equivalencies—attempts to make both sides roughly equal in terms of moral standing, truthfulness, and transparency. The fact that years later we still have to knock down these casually-made, false equivalencies is, quite honestly, mind-boggling.  For what I hope is the last time, there was no equivalency between the two sides of the dispute.

Let’s review the tape, shall we? The Orchestra’s previous management actively engaged in a wide-ranging disinformation campaign directed at the musicians, the community, the City of Minneapolis, Minnesota’s State Legislature, and beyond.  This isn’t me just being mean saying this, this was abundantly documented during the lockout, and clearly documented in the Orchestra’s actual board minutes I mentioned above. For example, when the Orchestra leadership was approaching the State Legislature to secure bonding money to refurbish Orchestra Hall, it shaded the numbers to create the appearance balanced budgets and overall fiscal health. Then, on the eve of contract negotiations with the musicians, management shaded the finances in a different way to report a large deficit and make it seem that financial collapse was imminent.

Along with this, management lied about the size of the reported deficit. This wasn’t an accident… in 2011, the board retained the public-relations firm Padilla Speer Beardsley to determine “what size of deficit to report publicly.” Once it determined the optimum number, leadership manipulated its fundraising, expenditures and draws from the endowment to match this pre-determined number. And that was the origin of the $6 million deficit the management kept touting.

Again, all of this was documented in the board minutes, and covered widely in the local media when the board minutes came to light.  The legislature was furious about the deception, feeling that former President and CEO Michael Henson personally lied to them under oath.  At least 10 lawmakers called him out by name and demanded his immediate resignation. Plus, a number of lawmakers began exploring ways to claw back the money, and at least 100 legislators demanded an immediate, independent audit of the organization. The City of Minneapolis was also furious about the deceptive finances, and as the lease holder for Orchestra Hall demanded a full report about what was happening and how the Hall was being used. When the management supplied a report that was obviously and demonstrably mendacious, Minneapolis demanded management submit a new one. And when that revised report turned out to be just as bad, the City began taking action to repossess Orchestra Hall—it was hours from doing so when the lockout ended.

All of this was extensively documented at the time.

The musicians—along with everyone else—were actively lied to. Repeatedly. Over many years. Which is why the public, local government, state government, and funders reacted so harshly. The two sides are not equivalent.

Mr. Royce continues that same pattern here. It’s the little details, like his glib summary of the lockout as essentially “both sides underestimated the others resolve.” “Egos got in the way.”

 

2) Bad-Faith Arguments.

Closely related, Mr. Royce implies that both sides just needed to try harder, and since there was no resolution both sides were equally at fault. With a shoulder-shrugging line, “there is no deal until there is a deal.”

Well, over the course of the 16-month lockout, many intelligent, well-meaning people started off thinking that way, too. They argued that the dispute was a straightforward negotiation involving rational people who could meet in the middle if they just put their minds to it. The two sides just needed to put in a good faith effort.

And time and again, they were burned for thinking this.

Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak and legendary Orchestra supporter Judy Dayton offered to host a celebration concert where the Orchestra could celebrate its Grammy nomination and lower tensions. The mangement refused their invitation. Orchestrate Excellence, a group founded to bring the sides together, created a report comparing the Minnesota Orchestra with the Cleveland Orchestra to help facilitate dialog and present a useful model for future compromise. Management dismissed it out of hand. Respected arts leader Alan Fletcher came to town with tough talk for both sides, and offered his views about surviving difficult negotiations. Management rebuffed him. Senator George Mitchell, who famously brought peace to Northern Ireland, was formally brought in by management to mediate a solution to the crisis. Management negotiated around him, and ultimately rejected his recommendations because to do so would cause them to “lose leverage” in the dispute. Outside observers called for an independent financial analysis of the Orchestra. Management instead hired its own firm to do a targeted analysis based only on information it provided. Concerned community members launched an “SOS Osmo campaign” to raise money specifically so that the Orchestra’s Music Director Osmo Vänskä could stay.  Management blithely suggested it would roll any such funds into its own general fundraising operations, and made callous statements that Osmo was free to move on. And so forth.

As a result of all this, the community came to the understanding that both sides were not equal, and both sides were not equally interested in a resolution. Again, all the points were extensively documented; and as noted, it was the management side that was repeatedly caught lying, and sanctioned for these lies.

For the interested, here’s the full chronology of events and statements.

So why is Mr. Royce accepting at face value the ideas the previous management brought forward… now?

 

3) Fundamentally Misunderstanding the Nature of a Nonprofit.

Oh For The Love Of God.  One again, we’re treated to a horrible misunderstanding of what a nonprofit fundamentally is, and how it operates. He writes: “There is an immutable truth in the symphonic world — and for that matter the nonprofit performing arts world: every year, you will roll the rock up the hill to plug the financial hole; and every year you will do it again.”

No kidding.

Please, enough already.

I hate to revisit this again… but I must. Let’s be clear:  the Orchestra is not a commercial enterprise.  It is not a for-profit business. The Orchestra is a 501 (c) (3) not-for profit organization, as recognized by the IRS. That means the organization is a nonprofit—in structure, it is like the Humane Society, American Red Cross, or Habitat for Humanity. Like every other nonprofit in the country, its costs will be higher than its earned revenue. That is why it is classified as a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit. By definition, the Orchestra will engage in fundraising activities to supplement the revenue coming in from endowment, ticket sales or other sources of earned income.

Just like every other nonprofit in the country.

This is not a failure of its business model… it is the Orchestra’s business model, as approved by the IRS.

But I understand that for many people, the world of classical music is somewhat arcane… perhaps another example will help clear things up.  Let’s take Habitat for Humanity, another nonprofit. Just like the Orchestra, Habitat for Humanity’s earned income does not cover all its expenditures, and it depends on charitable donations and volunteer labor to fulfill its mission of building homes for families in need.  Yes it could bump up its earned revenue—the quickest way would be to sell the homes it builds at market prices, rather than give them away.  Problem solved!  Then it would be able to buy its own supplies, and pay its workers rather than depend on volunteers. But in doing so, it would stop being a mission-based organization, and simply become yet another real estate developer.  Plus, there would no longer be any reason to donate to it, so it would have to completely restructure its budget to compensate for the loss of that revenue stream.

In short, it certainly could reshape itself to rely on earned income… but it would be an altogether different organization.

Let me be clear. Organizations like the Orchestra and Habitat for Humanity are businesses, but they have to be recognized as nonprofit businesses. Nonprofits stand apart in that they are designed to meet a critical social need, or provide an important service to the community. They are driven by a stated mission, and their success or failure is ultimately determined by how effectively they live up to that mission. Yes, there absolutely is a business and financial aspect to doing this, but the business and financial strategies and decisions are always in service of the outcomes, not the profits. Thus nonprofits are fundamentally different from for-profit businesses, both in outlook and financial structure.

Can we please put this talking point to rest?

 

4) Blithely Dancing Around the Details.

I’m amazed at the airy breath of condescension here, along with the trite metaphors and a desperate attempt at detachment. It’s like the details are so trivial that they’re beneath contempt. The Minnesota Orchestra lockout was a titanic conflict that cost everyone involved real money, and caused real disruption. I’ve been to nonprofit workshops that have used it as a textbook case at failed governance, disastrous negotiation, and self-destructive business models. It gained international attention. But Mr. Royce writes it all off with “Sometimes it takes a fist fight to clear the air.”

Similarly, the Orchestra’s current, positive situation is written off with a snarky reference to “Kumbayah”—a “Kumbayah.” that Mr. Royce seems to feel is unwarranted because the wheels are apparently ready to fall off the wagon… for reasons he chooses not to disclose or even allude to.

The whole tone of the piece is… bad.

 

5) Minimizing the Hard Work that Led to Success.

It’s infuriating that Mr. Royce specifically seems to write off all the hard work that everyone in the organization has done to make it succeed, and rise up from those dark days of the lockout. He writes, “As the smoke lifted, the orchestra stumbled into a miracle.”

No. NO.

It wasn’t just some good feelings and fairy dust. The Board remade itself, and refocused its work. Incoming President and CEO Kevin Smith worked his ass off to build confidence, build communication, talk to donors, and to make things happen. The musicians dove into the details surrounding the management of the organization, rolled up their sleeves, and got things done. Staff members, volunteers, and yes, audience advocates rose up to make sure that the Orchestra ended up being better, more engaged, more responsive, and more responsible than ever before. Do not minimize this work, or pretend it didn’t happen. It was an enormous task, a labor of love, and I’m proud of what everyone collectively achieved.

 

6) It’s Missing the Real Story, and All the Good.

I think what makes me so mad about this hit piece is that in this “retelling” of the lockout, and all the gloomy “foreboding” about what may come, it overlooks all the good, the exciting, and strong… and everything that’s going right.

Call me optimistic, but despite the obvious danger points, the situation right now is actually a feel-good story about how organizations and people can learn from their mistakes.

I was at the public meeting where the current deficit was announced. I talked to musicians, board members, and staff members.  All of them are looking forward.  All of them are taking a realistic approach to the considerable challenges the organization is facing, but are focusing on how to solve these issues.  They have a work plan. And they are going about this work with a profound respect for other stakeholders within the organization. There is plenty of cross-dialog about how to raise money, how to build excitement, how to draw audiences, how to lower barriers for participation.

And this is what is needed.  People don’t give you donations because you need funds… they give to you because you inspire them. People don’t come to concerts because they are “important,” they come because it’s a powerful, engaging experience. President Michelle Burns is doing a great job, and doing the hard work to make things happen. The musicians are doing a great job, and the hard work to make things happen.  The board is doing a great job, and doing the hard work to make things happen. Staff members are doing a great job, and doing the hard work to make things happen.

So why is Graydon Royce and the Star Tribune throwing enormous resources into telling us a story about storm clouds gathering… based on nothing more than muttering and pessimistic speculation?

 

.

Xochipilli

 

1 thought on “An Unwarranted, Unfair Editorial

  1. Ah, Scott, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head — I think it’s safe to say that Michael Klingensmith is the one behind the editorial, even though Graydon Royce wrote it. He couldn’t get Mike Anthony or Terry Blaine to even listen, probably. My opinion. The STrib always called the lockout a strike, and I wrote a couple letters to them correcting them and pointing out the legal differences. I also wrote a series at Eyes on Life about the MO’s Board and how its membership has changed since the original founders created it. Did you know that the MO Board is planning a major fundraising effort and they’ve sent out a survey to all MO supporters, donors and friends? Not anything about taking care of the business that needs taking care of and that caused the deficit they have now, but all about tours, artistic partnerships, and education. I think I’d better stop or I’ll be writing a blog-length comment! Thanks for staying on top of this!

    Like

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