Donald Rosenberg, the Cleveland Plain Dealer classical music critic who has been covering the venerable Cleveland Orchestra for 28 years, has been removed from his beat.
Removing a critic from his beat after 28 years is tantamount to firing him. He's been reassigned to general "arts and entertainment reporter" and the paper is refusing to explain itself, though in Rosenberg's account, he was called into the editor's office and summarily "reassigned" after she accused him of "attacking" the orchestra.
It's true that Rosenberg was deeply critical of the orchestra's current conductor, Franz Welser-Möst.
It's also true that the editor who fired Rosenberg has been at the helm of the paper a single year—and the publisher is on the board of trustees of the orchestra.
Stop, stop, stop.
Just about every critic worth anything has a long list of people lining up at the editor or publisher's door requesting their removal.
In this case, even the orchestra's executive director tells the New York Times: "I’ve never read anything in a Rosenberg review that was nonmusical." He says he didn't ask for Rosenberg's removal.
Probably he didn't have to. When the publisher is on the board of the orchestra, the critic is the one on the outside from the beginning.
I can't describe how wrong this is.
Welser-Möst has received mixed reviews from other critics as well. On tour in Europe, he gets good response. In New York, so-so. But these reviews are from critics who don't have to listen to his work every single week. What is a critic supposed to do when he believes, as Rosenberg told the New York Times, that "this is a case of an extraordinary orchestra with an ordinary conductor"? Be quiet about it? Who's best serving the city, the organization, and the art form then?
Repeated criticisms of the same subject by the same critic can begin to sound shrill. Readers often begin to accuse critics of having ulterior motivations. Critics have to watch out for this—and judging by Rosenberg's writings, he stayed well on the safe side of this dynamic.
But what is a critic to do when he or she disagrees with the artistic philosophy or doubts the abilities of a conductor, or a museum director, or the head of a theater?
The last time I was in a situation not unlike Rosenberg's (before his "reassignment," that is), a colleague who has been in the business far longer than I have pointed out: Editors and publishers don't mind if you write that this concert was boring and that concert was boring. But if you string it together into institutional critique—hey, everything that director does is boring, and wait, that's keeping the institution back—then you, the critic, are seen as "on the attack."
I fear that something like this happened to Don Rosenberg, when he was simply trying to do his job.
At this moment, I'm just glad I don't work for the Plain Dealer. The paper has embarrassed itself and its city.