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Controversy Over Critic's Demotion

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Imagine you're a sports reporter in New York and you've just been told you're no longer allowed to cover the Yankees. The axe comes after years of carping about the lousy performance of the manager. Essentially that's what happened to a music critic at Cleveland 's Plain Dealer. Donald Rosenberg has covered the world class Cleveland Orchestra for more than two decades. Two weeks ago Rosenberg was reassigned; some say demoted. It caused quite a stir in the Plain Dealer newsroom, among music critics, and it drew the attention of the New York Times. For a hometown version of the story, here's ideastream's Dan Moulthrop .

Tuesday, September 30, 2008 at 3:46 pm

For 28 years, Don Rosenberg has praised his hometown orchestra. But since the arrival of Franz Welser-Moest in 2002, his reviews have been less than enthusiastic.

Sitting on a stoop across the street from the Plain Dealer, Rosenberg explains his view of Welser-Moest.

DON ROSENBERG: I often have felt he doesn't really convey what's in the music in a way that's interesting or illuminating. Very often, he seems to be washing out the colors in a piece, straightening out the architecture of a piece."

In other words, he's no good, and Rosenberg has made no bones of putting that sentiment in many of his reviews.

Consider this evaluation after a performance of Mozart's Symphony Number 28 last year. Rosenberg wrote, "Welser-Moest muddied textures… C major has rarely sounded so mirthless."

In the world of classical music, that's kind of a slam

So, two weeks ago, Rosenberg was called into a meeting with his editors.

DON ROSENBERG: …when I arrived at the conference room, Susan Goldberg the editor of the Plain Dealer was sitting there, and I sat down and she told me they were going to make a change, that I was no longer going to be covering the Cleveland orchestra…

Rosenberg says Plain Dealer Editor Susan Goldberg told him the paper's relationship with the orchestra had become "untenable." When asked to elaborate on that, Goldberg told ideastream® it was a personnel matter and she couldn't comment.

She did acknowledge that there's always outside pressure whenever important local institutions are covered.

SUSAN GOLDBERG: Outside pressure doesn't affect our internal personnel decisions one way or another, so if there was criticism of Don-and there certainly has been some. It wouldn't affect our decision to either keep him on that beat or take him off that beat. We just can't operate that way.

Comments like that have done little to squelch speculation that Goldberg caved to pressure from orchestra backers, who, of course, are legion here.

Former Washington Post critic Tim Page teaches music and journalism at the University of Southern California

We're hired to say what we think…but if there's this perceived sense of censorship, it's really kind of shocking.

At least one former arts editor would disagree with that estimation. Charles Michener was the cultural editor for the New Yorker and Newsweek. In recent years, he has returned to his native Cleveland and followed the orchestra closely. He says there have long been basic problems with Rosenberg's criticism of the orchestra.

CHARLES MICHENER: He has consistently said that the orchestra has maintained its greatness… My question is how can the orchestra be maintain its greatness if the music director is so lousy?

Former New York Times critic and arts editor John Rockwell says the real problem is how Plain Dealer editors handled the reassignment.

JOHN ROCKWELL: If they didn't like Rosenberg, then they should have said, OK Don, we love you, we want you to be the night copy editor, and if you don't like it, leave, but to somehow split up his job so that the Cleveland orchestra is covered by one guy and all other music in town… is covered by somebody else is A. Weird, and B. so insulting to Rosenberg, and so small town, as far as the Plain Dealer is concerned.

For the time being, Rosenberg is staying in his current job as arts reporter and the PD has assigned Zach Lewis to the orchestra beat. The union representing journalists at the paper is weighing the possibility of filing a grievance on Rosenberg's behalf. Meanwhile, the Plain Dealer is expected to announce more staffing cuts sometime in October.

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