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Forbes Magazine’s “Honest Error of Omission”: My Misadventures When Interviewed about Alice Walton

Occasionally, journalists get a taste of their own medicine: We get interviewed, sometimes with unpleasant results.

More comfortable as an interviewer than an interviewee, I was approached a couple of weeks ago by Forbes magazine’s Clare O’Connor for a detailed discussion in which I provided some background (unquoted, by her choice) for her lengthy profile of the woman described (inaccurately) in the magazine’s headline as America’s Richest Art Collector.

O’Connor’s piece appears in the Oct. 7 Forbes 400 issue (now online) devoted to the “richest people in America”:

Alice Walton, ranked 8th on the Forbes 400

Alice Walton is ranked 8th on the Forbes 400

Actually, the headline writers got it wrong: Larry Ellison and Bill Gates outrank Alice on the rich list (numbers 3 and 1, respectively) and both are art collectors (as discussed here and here). But although, by Forbes’ own measure, Walton isn’t “America’s Richest Art Collector,” she may have lavished more money than the other two on purchases of art, in assembling an extensive collection for her almost two-year-old American art museum in Bentonville, AR.

Aside from personal-gossip tidbits (which, despite its tempting titillation value, I have eschewed in my own coverage of Walton’s art-related philanthropy and her Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art), I learned little from O’Connor’s piece, other than what it feels like to be on the receiving end of careless journalism.

I was misrepresented—not just in how I was identified, but, more importantly, in how my views were characterized.

Here’s the offending passage:

In a Wall Street Journal piece, art lecturer [sic] Lee Rosenbaum called Walton “a hovering culture vulture.”

“It hurt my feelings in a way,” says Walton, noting that the “vulture” label particularly stung. “I couldn’t believe that a journalist could sit there and think that people in this part of the world don’t deserve good art. That is just such condescension” [emphasis added].

I shot off this retort, which now appears in the article’s “comments” section:

I am misrepresented in this article. I am not an “art lecturer” (although I do, very sporadically, give talks). I am an art critic/journalist, blogging as CultureGrrl.

As I firmly emphasized when interviewed by your reporter, I am very much in favor of bringing art to Arkansas [emphasis added], notwithstanding Alice Walton’s comment in Forbes that I am guilty of “condescension” because I supposedly “think that people in this part of the world don’t deserve good art.”

I have written exactly the opposite repeatedly, including here: http://www.artsjournal.com/culturegrrl/2011/12/blogback_big-city_critics_stif.html

The “culture vulture” comment in my Wall Street Journal article [link added] was distorted by being taken out of context by Clare O’Connor and by Alice Walton. It was specfically targeted at certain purchases for Crystal Bridges from other nonprofit institutions that ran afoul of donor intent and were generally criticized in the artworld.

I have always stated (including to your reporter) that I believe Alice Walton did a laudable job of building a museum-worthy collection for an under-served part of the country in a short period of time.

When under attack, blame the editors: Replying to my protest, Clare claimed that “the powers that be” (as she called them) had deleted my true professional identity and had cut quotes by other Walton critics, resulting in my appearing to be singled out for showing “condescension” to Arkansans. “Alice’s comment was referring to all criticism of Crystal Bridges, not just yours,” O’Connor wrote me. (Really? Did others also use the phrase “culture vulture,” which Alice specifically referred to?)

Clare and Alice should not have lumped me in with the critics who have suggested that Bentonville might not be an appropriate place for the praiseworthy, still growing collection that Walton has assembled. I have never been in that camp (as I have repeatedly written, including at the link that I provided in my published Forbes comment).

Knowing (because of my explicit comments to Clare) that Walton had mischaracterized my views, O’Connor should not have left Forbes readers with an insulting caricature of me as snarking Arkansas. If you quote someone telling what you know to be an untruth, you have a journalistic duty to counterbalance that with the facts.

Doubtlessly aware that she had misused me, Clare never honored her written promise to send me a link to her online piece, which I had asked her to do even if she decided not to quote what I told her. She had asked, among other things, what I thought of the collection, and I probably lost my chance to be quoted by praising its overall quality, while noting that gaps are still in the process of being filled.

Blaming one’s editors (as O’Connor did in this tweet) for an “honest error of omission” (what’s an “honest” error, anyway?) is not a responsible response. If my experience writing for the Wall Street Journal is any guide, most major publications will allow writers to approve final edits (although not necessarily headlines), to assure that no “honest errors” inadvertently creep in.

To its credit, Forbes did change the online (but not the hardcopy) version of the Walton profile, by adding a link to my Wall Street Journal piece and identifying me as an “arts journalist and lecturer…who writes the popular blog CultureGrrl.”

Thanks for the plug. But remaining online and in print is the offending passage that unfairly discredits me for “hurting Walton’s feelings” by “condescending” to Arkansans. Choosing to spend the bulk of her time not in her native state, but on her Rocking W Ranch in Texas (as Forbes reports), Alice would seem to be an imperfect spokesperson for the people who proudly reside in Northwest Arkansas.

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