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July 18, 2005

Another way to look at the American style

The topic of whether American critics are more gray in prose, less opinionated and have less personality in print than British critics arose at the symposium, "Shifting Ears," hosted at Columbia University's School of Journalism last fall by the Music Critics Association of North America. In the end, the consensus answer seemd to be: yes, Americans have, for reasons no one could entirely explain, tended to hew to an agreed upon, arms-length style of writing about classical music since about the '60s. There are of course a few notable exceptions, but this tends to be the norm at major daily newspapers, and the rationale seems to be better credibility because text swept clean of the "I" pronouns feels more subjective somehow.

From my view, this is a collective view emanating more from editors, who are quite organized here, regularly exchange ideas, and meet cordially in annual conferences to exchange ideas and decisions. There is a disconnect; on the editorial pages, where writers do not even sign their work, there seems to be a goal of offering feisty, probing and intelligent views. When it comes to arts criticism, there is a palpable discomfort with any one critic being too much of a curmudgeon or too regularly a praiser of local arts.

Think about this: this could very well be because, in the U.S. anyway, almost EVERY daily newspaper maintains a foundation, has a top executive on important local arts boards (our publisher traditionally sits on the local symphony), and gives money regularly to local arts. I wonder if this relationship between papers and the arts they cover exists in England?

U.S. newspapers do this because it's considered correct to support and help grow the local cultural scene, which is viewed more or less just one step above a local charity like a hospital or women's safe house from domestic violence. Think about it: if a newspaper's higher executives, like so many at other corporations (and newspapers ARE corporate business), view donating money to local arts as part of being a good citizen in their community, are they likely to have the true will, underneath all the layers of hierarchy, to really apply their opinion staff to criticize the very organization they are financially supporting?

Interestingly, this does not necessarily apply to covering actual news about an arts organization (i.e., budget woes, fundraising victories, staff changes, mission changes); many papers employ an arts reporter who is expected to aggressively pursue news leads and write on them. In this regard, arts reporting is far ahead of, say, sports reporting.

God forbid my newspaper, or anyone's, should stop making the donations that make art and art centers possible. But this is really an important issue, and one worth pondering.

And by the way, that October symposium at Columbia was more than half underwritten by donations from several major North American dailies!

Posted by wconrad at July 18, 2005 06:03 AM


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