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May 16, 2006

Different islands


Claude Peck writes that he hasn't found many artists "who are interested in writing for publication." I have heard that from other editors, too. To blunder in, presumptuously: I can think of any number of musicians who would very likely be interested in writing for publication and who would have something distinctive and valuable to say -- something they could say better than anyone else..

It depends on who you ask. It depends on who you know.

This is another department of objectivity/disengagement: journalists/critics and artistis tend to live on different islands. I appreciate that there are advantages, but on balance I don't think it's healthy.

Also, being cited or quoted isn't remotely like writing your own piece. In my experience, I am never quoted precisely and rarely quoted reliably. I usually wind up supplying a morsel for someone else's meal.

Posted by at May 16, 2006 9:30 AM


You're not imagining things. I'm an arts journalist and I've seen quotes changed by editors willy nilly. When I was at a large daily newspaper, they had strict rules for changing quotes (ellipses, parentheses, etc.), but lately they don't bother with the niceties--they just change it. Recently, a magazine asked me to go in and change quotes and it was either do that or not get paid. Needless to say, I'm not writing for them anymore.

Posted by: Lynn at May 16, 2006 10:14 AM

Joe and I discussed this issue at the NEA institute for classical music and opera journalists in New York last fall. I generally agree with his call for a more engaged criticism, with artists themselves given a great role in print and blog media. However, as a former editor and journalism professor who comes from the journalism side of the arts writing world, I have to add a couple of cautions.

First, one truth that most editors (and many of my magazine editing students) eventually learn the hard way is: if you have a choice between a good writer who has to learn about a subject, and an expert who has to learn how to write, pick the real writer every time. That goes for artists, too. Not that there aren't many honorable exceptions to that rule (Thomson, my faculty colleague and former Guitar Player editor Tom Wheeler, the filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, G.B. Shaw, and many others who came to arts writing from the arts rather than from journalism), but editors should allow plenty of time and effort to work with artists who want to write for publication. Obviously this is less true with book reviewers who are also writers.

Second, any potential conflict of interest should be disclosed in the writer's line of any article. That allows readers to make up their own minds about the writer's credibility. I'm a big fan of the music of Lou Harrison and John Cage, but those two friends and creative partners shouldn't have been reviewing each other's concerts in Virgil Thomson's NY Herald Tribune (as they and many other composers did in the 1940s) without telling the readers about their relationship.

My amateur experience in music and theatre has certainly helped my writing about those subjects, and I do think there's room for more line-crossing of the sort Joe advocates -- as long we tell the readers where we're coming from.

There's a practical side to observing such principles, too. As several earlier posters have noted, with so many voices now echoing around the net, readers need some way to discern writers' credibility. Experience in the art form you're writing about is one such credential. Abiding by journalistic ethical and other principles and practices is another, and helps distinguish journalism from opinioneering. Not that there's anything wrong with the latter, but presumably, the credibility that comes with adhering to the rules such as fairness, full disclosure, balance and so on adds value to a writer's published judgment. That's why I think that, as valuable as blogs and other democratizing/ centrifugal forces are, there'll always be a place for institutions that at least try to enforce those rules.

Posted by: brett at May 16, 2006 4:43 PM

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