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July 18, 2005

Observations about the observations

I have some comments on Peter's and Willa's observations.

First, I agree with Peter that keeping the reporting/feature-writing staff and the critical staff separate to whatever degree is possible should be the ideal. This was long the arrangement at the Times, but it began breaking down a couple of decades ago, and is only now being reconstructed, now that we have a dedicated music reporter. Even so, the critics still do features periodically. To the extent that we can choose to write about people whose work we actually admire, rather than whoever an editor sends us to talk to, this can be okay, particularly since we have the luxury of a staff, so that the person who wrote the feature won't then review the performance.

In terms of reporting, the separation is more critical. When I was freelancing for the Times, and writing only Sunday features, there was a good-cop/bad-cop dynamic with interviewees. In other words, you'd turn up, listen to the interviewee spout about what morons the critics were, and then, once they've got that off their chest, they consider you on their side and (whether that turns out to be the case) the rest is history. As a critic, it's entirely possible to trash someone one night and then call for a quote about a news story the next day -- that is, it's possible to summon the schizophrenia necessary for that -- but in my experience, it isn't always possible for the interviewees to do the same. There's no reason for them cooperate with you if they feel you've injured them, and I've had more than a few icy chats that probably would have yielded better information if I hadn't reviewed the person I was speaking with. A reporter who isn't a critic doesn't have this problem -- although boards and managements may be wary of them for other reasons.

Willa: the NYTimes Foundation contributes to lots of arts organizations, and sometimes their sponsorship is listed prominently in program books. I've never thought twice about saying the performance was substandard, if it was, and I've never heard from anyone at our foundation suggesting that we go easy on things they support. For that conflict to exist, the foundation would have to actually exert some sort of pressure. Are you saying that your paper's foundation does such a thing? Or are you simply saying that the mere existence of the foundation, and a knowledge of what it supports, leads to self-censorship? In which case, why should it? The success or failure of enterprises the foundation contributes to has no bearing on the business success of the (newspaper) corporation; it is purely a tax issue, isn't it?

Posted by akozinn at July 18, 2005 09:36 AM


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