A friend pointed me to Allan Kozinn’s take on a recent dust up in the little world of classical music criticism in newspapers. A reviewer filed a notice of a production of a rare Rossini opera, liked most of the singing, disliked the production, got a couple of trivial things wrong, one a straightforward photo credit (whether that was him or not is unclear), and then things spiraled out of control.
The opera company PR person asked the paper to correct the errors, and this escalated to charges and counter charges, with the review disappearing and then reappearing on the web, with accusations against the editor, complaints about the critic, attacks on the company for meddling with coverage, and finally the resignation by the reviewer.
Most of this is neither new or newsworthy. In thirty years of writing reviews on and off (and a couple decades more of reading them), I can remember incidents–a couple uncomfortably personal–of PR flaks complaining, something they have every right to do. I also know first hand that editors change reviews, one hopes for the better, and spike reviews, including probably the most damning (but amusing) one I ever wrote. Something they too have a complete right to do.
It’s easy to forget that reviews are a (admittedly somewhat oddball) species of journalism, and that even critics are ultimately subject to the authority of editors. The best professional decorum would be not to complain publicly on either side. Certainly, artists rarely gain from complaining about subjective opinions–something Berlioz, himself a critic was on to–nor do I think writers stand to gain from publicly complaining about their editors, no matter the merits of the beef. Gripe privately, but abjure public second guessing about what should or shouldn’t have been done. To talk about “sides” is to talk past the issues a bit, and seems to me to indicate the game has already been lost. But if you have to draw them up, to me at least, the editor isn’t completely on the writer’s side, nor the source’s side, nor even the reader’s side, but stands in the middle of these and other forces, including standards and practices of the publication.
And judging from this story, and the disdain everybody–including the flak–is eager to drop on the hapless editor, the thing that most strikes me is the front row view of what a crappy job it must be to be an arts editor of a print publication. For starters, you are manning your oar solo in the leaking boat of print journalism. In this case, it doesn’t like sound the editor was equipped to know whether the concerns about the reviews in general were valid. He wasn’t experienced on this kind of desk–but I can’t imagine getting anything but a blank stare if I approached an editor at a major daily and said “what do you make of opera company x’s take on our coverage and their claim about our reviewer’s dislike of Regietheater?”) Maybe once upon a time that could have been a discussion about what was interesting about the question, reasonable and fair for the coverage, and maybe a feature or interview might have grown out of it. Now? Don’t make me laugh.
What the editor did do is make the point that he would like to cover the arts and perhaps tapping media was away to increase interest beyond the passionate few. That is the way forward. Classical coverage’s death in news papers is lamentable (but not that lamentable) and hot diatribes, whatever else they do, don’t make it any less dead. But as the piece points out, rich media-based reviews could draw on a new generation of journalists and might–God help us–actually get some of a new generation of audiences interested. There are questions about the technology, rights, and attitudes of the performers. These are non-trivial, but the fact that tens of millions of people view media-based reviews of films and video games on YouTube suggests that at least some of the technical obstacles are surmountable, and some artists are doing this for themselves. No doubt, some bloggers and web publications are already on it as well, and on the front-end, arts producers and presenters have started using media creatively for education and outreach. (For me, reviews always had a “back end” educational goal anyway. I write a lot of program notes, which are reviews in reverse and with out the snark.)
That newspapers are past their sell-date makes me sad. And reading my morning Post gets more and more like some kind of exercise in historical reenactment. (“How did you get your news in the olden days, gramps? Well, sonny, this person delivered a parcel of rolled up paper to our door and we sat in a chair turning pages as we drank our coffee and shared amusing items with one another.”) But having written hundreds, I’m certainly not going to mourn the demise of the overnight review. If its death hastens a better way to cover music, and engage people, bring it on.