A music critic who covered the Cleveland Orchestra for 15 years lost his beat in 2008 after Plain Dealer editor Susan Goldberg determined that his reviews of the orchestra — and more specifically, its conductor — were too biased.
Donald Rosenberg then promptly sued the orchestra’s parent organization as well as The Plain Dealer itself, claiming that Goldberg’s decision to remove him from the beat cost him his reputation, and was a result of pressure from Musical Arts Association officials and Franz Welser-Most, the orchestra’s conductor.
It seems odd to call a critic’s opinion biased, but Goldberg says that Rosenberg approached the orchestra’s performances with a closed mind, implying that he had some sort of personal vendetta against Welser-Most. Rosenberg, however, insists that he approached every concert “like it was going to be something absolutely fresh,” according to this Plain Dealer article.
It is common knowledge that journalists must write each news story free of personal opinion, but that rule obviously does not apply to critics in the same sense. The issue here is, how do you prove that a critic approached his subject with a closed mind and wasn’t simply giving his honest opinion?
To take a critic off his beat because his reviews are “too negative” seems to defeat the very purpose of having a critic. In theory, critics should have the ability to deliver their professional opinions about whatever subject they are covering without fear of retaliation from the newspaper they work for because of outside pressure.
However, there are shades of grey when pressure from an individual for a journalist to portray them “more fairly” turns into a battle of wills between the critic and his subject. After Goldberg told Rosenberg of her decision to reassign him, Rosenberg responded, “he won,” referring to Welser-Most.
The critic holds a lot of power here. Rosenberg could have taken Welser-Most’s disliking of him personally and let that cloud his objectivity, writing reviews that consistently shed Welser-Most in a negative light because he wanted to prove something to the conductor — that he wouldn’t back down.
If the Cleveland Orchestra, Welser-Most or the Musical Arts Association did have a hand in ousting Rosenberg, it wouldn’t be the first time they tried to drive The Plain Dealer’s coverage of the orchestra.
In 2004, when Rosenberg accompanied the orchestra on its European tour, he printed comments Welser-Most made during the tour that he never intended for Cleveland to see. In an interview for a Swiss magazine, Welser-Most compared Cleveland to “an inflated farmer’s village” and talked about relying on “rich widows” to maintain the orchestra. The orchestra responded by banning Rosenberg from rehearsals, backstage, tour parties, the players’ bus and interviewing Welser-Most, according to this article from The New York Times.
It is also worth noting that The Plain Dealer has been covering this controversy themselves from the very beginning when Rosenberg filed the suit. Goldberg, after reassigning Rosenberg, also prohibited him from using the words “Cleveland Orchestra” in any future articles because she believed it would present a conflict of interest. Makes sense (except for when Rosenberg needs to use those words as part of someone’s title who may be involved in another event he is covering), but the PD covering its own controversy (which has gained national attention) might also allow for perceived bias.