As we all know, Hillary Clinton was recently diagnosed with pneumonia and, judging from the news coverage, has passed away.
The media is salivating: how long will it take for Tim Kaine to read all the white papers? which Democrats will choose Clinton’s replacement? will the Sanders camp make their move once the funeral director closes her eyes? I mean, technically Hillary walked out under her own power to greet reporters after an episode of exhaustion on 9/11, but that doesn’t really count because… Because. Her pneumonia is clearly terminal, if only because that’s interesting. Plus, her illness, temporary incapacitation, and ultimate death play into pre-established narratives about her reputation, her personality, and her campaign…plus, a presidential candidate dying this close to the election is fascinating (maybe even fun?) to think about…plus, it’s clickbait, promising the numbers of clicks that until now we thought could only come from coverage of the reality TV star candidate. As Alex Ross tweeted today…
The media is grappling with another death, too. The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra has just gone on strike, and like Hillary, it too has died. Most people would think of an orchestral strike as a bad thing, or a sad thing, but ultimately an eminently solvable thing.
However, the Fort Worth Star Telegram Editorial Board apparently knows better. They’ve already written the orchestra’s obituary less than a week after the musicians called a strike.
I’ve always been open with you guys: I’m a slow writer. My friend and fellow Twin Cities arts blogger Scott Chamberlain, however, is as fast as I am slow, and today (at lunch…) he wrote a blog entry about this very editorial. I agree with everything he wrote, and I hope the article continues to gain traction on social media. I don’t mean to come across as a copycat by addressing the same subject now, but I do have additional complaints to air. Maybe Scott was just too polite to bring them up. But after watching the organizational conflagrations in Minnesota and Atlanta, my patience is at its end. I’m done with this kind of bullsh*t, and I’m angry that my anger doesn’t surprise me anymore.
As Scott alluded to, the problems with the Star Telegram piece start with the headline: Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, RIP. So the orchestra is less than a week into their strike…and the city’s newspaper is already writing its obituary? There are so many questions about this that it’s hard to know where to begin. Is the editorial board so naive about how orchestras work that they assume a labor dispute means automatic death? What kind of death do they think occurred? Are they assuming that bankruptcy is on the horizon? Re-organization? Does anyone on the editorial board have any clue of what any of that would entail, legally or financially or morally? Do they understand the implications of a toxic work environment and a regressive (or even status-quo) contract in a season when many orchestras are negotiating progressive ones? Without organizational growth, musicians – many model citizens, and all members of the highly sought-after creative class – will leave the city for other jobs. Does the Star Telegram grasp what that means? Do they even care? What about all the orchestras that have dealt with strikes and lockouts in recent years? Are they dead, too? Or have we been listening to zombie orchestras?
I say to the Fort Worth Star Telegram Editorial Board: you are either being disingenuous for your own purposes, or you did zero research about the granddaddy dispute of them all. Forgive me if you’re a long-time reader here, because if you are, this information is old hat, but for any new readers, here’s the skinny: the Minnesota Orchestra’s musician lockout lasted from late 2012 to early 2014, and no, that is not a typo. During said labor dispute:
- The esteemed music director resigned, and no one was sure if anyone would take his place.
- The audience rebelled and formed multiple audience advocacy groups.
- Patron musician supporters actually met to discuss the feasibility of starting a new group entirely, and even bandied ideas about how to reclaim the endowment.
- The mission statement was changed.
- Pretty much every musician who could leave town found a job elsewhere or was actively seeking new employment. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the Minnesota Orchestra came very close to becoming a chamber orchestra.
- Politicians held hearings demanding to know what was going on.
- Large donations were recalled.
- George Mitchell, the man who brokered peace in Northern Ireland, came to town and failed to bring the two sides together.
- Word came out about how the CEO received large bonuses while simultaneously laying off over a dozen workers. Garrison Keillor even talked about it on A Prairie Home Companion. After this revelation, organizational trust was completely eroded.
- The fundraiser Symphony Ball was held while the players were locked out, so no symphony was allowed to play there. At the Symphony Ball.
- A major deficit was run in a fiscal year in which no concerts were played.
- The city of Minneapolis actually started investigating what to do to take over Orchestra Hall.
I could go on. If any major American orchestra has died in the modern era, it was that one. And yet nowadays the Minnesota Orchestra appears to be doing quite well. It has gone on several highly successful tours; it is releasing CDs to rave reviews; it has negotiated a long-term musician contract extension with modest raises; it has hired several top-rate musicians; it is even balancing its budget. What made the difference in two short years? Simple: a new and universally beloved CEO, board members, and musicians who committed to a spirit of can-do collaboration, buoyed by an enthusiastic audience interested in non-profit governance. In short, the Minnesota Orchestra is alive and well.
Let’s look at what evidence the Star Telegram Editorial Board offers for why this situation is (presumably) so much worse than Minnesota’s.
Several very smart and dedicated people have worked for more than a year on a new labor agreement between the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra Association and its musicians, aiming to continue world-class symphonic music performances begun more than a century ago.
It hasn’t worked.
So to recap: we are to take the paper’s word for it that everyone involved is smart and dedicated, and those people have been negotiating for over a year. And there are even “a few” of them! If the only thing you need to solve a difficult problem are a few smart and dedicated people working over a period of months, why do problems even exist? Where’s the cure for cancer? Or jet packs? I was promised jet packs!
It’s hard to imagine that the FWSO’s death could be at hand, but neither side offers hope. We have only irresistible forces opposed by immovable objects.
The Fort Worth contract is not being negotiated by a supermassive black hole and a marooned cruise ship. It’s (theoretically) being negotiated by human beings. (I think we even established last paragraph that they are “smart” and “dedicated.”) Smart and dedicated people can compromise, be creative, and make things happen…if they all want to. Or, as Scott mentioned, smart and dedicated people can gum up the entire works. It all depends on what motivates them, and it is laughably naive to assume otherwise.
Scott covered the editorial’s appalling description of the two sides in his entry, so I won’t spend much time on that. But what he says is exactly right. If you condense the editorial board’s sentiments, you see that they describe one side (management) as the benevolent clear-eyed father figure, disciplining the out-of-control children for their own good. The paper calls “their reasoning…believable, their approach reasonable.” The other side, the musicians, “refuse to accept” facts. They are “smarting.” They are sloganeering toddlers who don’t understand fiscal realities and are incapable of understanding The Real World. What’s most obnoxious about this rhetorical approach is that if anyone is a child in this scenario, it’s the newspaper. Their headline alone proves that the Star Telegram knows nothing about how major orchestras work, broader industry trends, or recent relevant history in places like Minnesota. (And Atlanta. And San Diego. And Detroit. And…)
Or…maybe they do. Because I hear rumors that the publisher of the newspaper, a Mr. Gary Wortel, is actually on the board of a major orchestra. Let me check my sources to find out which one.
Oh, that’s right: Gary Wortel is also on the Fort Worth Symphony Board. What a…surprise.
We could have a very interesting conversation as to what the role of a newspaper publisher is and ought to be on an orchestra board. (As Scott alluded to in his entry, Michael Klingensmith, the publisher of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, also happened to be on the Minnesota Orchestra’s board when it locked its musicians out. There is no way of knowing what role – if any – Mr. Klingensmith played in making decisions, but looking back, his presence certainly did more harm than good at the exact moment when the orchestra needed to build public trust the most.) Perhaps Mr. Wortel is a figurehead, unable to chart organizational course at the FWSO in any meaningful way. That being said, I believe that even a figurehead should do his homework, and I see no indication that Mr. Wortel has. If he’s not on his newspaper’s editorial board, he should be aware that they are writing about a non-profit organization that he is intimately involved with. He should maintain personal and professional credibility by instructing all reporters to note the potential conflict of interest in any article that appears in his newspaper on this topic, both online and in print. Also, I can’t believe I’m having to write this paragraph.
Here’s a story that sums it all up. I have this friend. Years ago she was a journalist. She took a job at a newspaper. She covered a local strike. She included quotes from both sides. She submitted a story. Her editor called her into his office. “You can’t write that,” he said. Puzzled, too idealistic, she asked why. She was reminded that the two primary purposes of the newspaper were to promote the city to make it more attractive to business, and to support the advertisers who made the newspaper possible in the first place. The newspaper’s neutrality was a kind of dessert: it was pleasant, but hardly necessary.
My friend quit her job.
I hate to think that this is the state of modern American journalism. I really hope it’s not, because I genuinely do believe that the field is filled with smart and dedicated people, all trying to do a good job under impossible circumstances, and I hate to think of them struggling in such a hostile environment. But viewed through that prism – newspapers are not actually here to sell news; their first function is to support the wealthy and to woo advertisers – so much that seems bewildering suddenly makes sense.
What better way to get clicks and earn revenue and foster controversy than by headlining an article with a ridiculous premise? After all, what sounds more interesting: “A Fair, Balanced, and Thorough Examination of the Minutae of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra’s Collective Bargaining Process” or “Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, RIP”? What’s easier to write: an editorial that embraces the lazy conventional wisdom that all orchestras are failing, or one that thoughtfully considers the successes and failures of the recent past?
How are we citizens supposed to intelligently support our non-profits if that’s the way our newspapers write about them?
As for the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, right now, I don’t think it’s dead. I think it’s sick. Maybe with something like…well, pneumonia. If the community takes care of its orchestra, replenishes it with the nutrients it needs (accountability, expertise…eventually money), and somehow fights off the organizational infection clearly already raging, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra will be back. And it might even return stronger than ever.