Who Put These Guys In Charge? (Why Newspapers Are Failing) « PREV | NEXT »: Notes from the Underground

February 20, 2008

scoop fever

On Feb. 5 the New York Times ran an article by Gia Kourlas, a freelance dance critic, headlined "Bolshoi Director May Take Job at City Ballet." Alexei Ratmansky, a much-admired ballet choreographer, was giving up his position as artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow and was "in negotiations with New York City Ballet to become its resident choreographer," succeeding Christopher Wheeldon.

On Feb. 13 appeared another Times article, this one by Daniel J. Wakin, headlined "Bolshoi's Director Won't Join City Ballet." Ratmansky was still leaving the Bolshoi, but negotiations with City Ballet had collapsed because Ratmansky couldn't commit sufficient time to a residency, given his worldwide choreographic commitments.

So far, so legitimate. For me, however, the juxtaposition of the two articles recalled another Times article, this one by Robin Pogrebin dated April 27, 2006. It was called "Ciry Opera Plans New Hall With Ties to Lincoln Center." The New York City Opera, long dissatisfied with the New York State Theater and frustrated in its effort to join a proposed new cultural center at Ground Zero, had turned to a former Red Cross site near Lincoln Center. The implication was strong that a deal could be cut and the company would move, with added speculation about how the State Theater would fill the months left void when City Opera decamped.

Ten days later the deal fell apart, without explanation. No follow-up investagation of this collapse appeared in theTimes for two months. The paper ran no article on the subject until another Pogrebin piece appeared on July 4, which referred in passing to the reasons for the breakdown in negotiations and then looked forward to City Opera's problematic future.

In both cases, disappointment among devotees of ballet and opera was extreme. The State Theater is acoustically inappropriate for opera, despite the decision of City Opera's new director, Gerard Mortier, to stay there. The Red Cross theater would have had only 2,200 seats, more intimate and suitable for most repertory than the 2,700-seat State Theater, let alone the cavernous 3,900-seat Met. The State Theater could have become an exciting showcase for large-scale national and international dance companies.

Ratmansky as a regular fixture at City Ballet would have been a coup, bolstering New York's claims to being the uncontested ballet capital of the world. Peter Martins, George Balanchine's successor as ballet master in chief, choreographs a lot but to little critical acclaim. Wheeldon made good ballets and so does Ratmansky. Having him in residence would have justified Martins's entire effort, despite his own choreographic failings, to make City Ballet not just a shrine to Balanchine and Jerome Robbins but a home for the most exciting choreography of today.

I worked at the Times for more than three decades. I know Kourlas, Wakin and Pogrebin, and their editors up the hierarchical chain. This is not an anti-Times screed. The Times is the paper I read most regularly, the one I care about. But this is a cautionary tale, designed to question the attack-dog, scoop-at-all-costs mentality that sometimes infects any news room. I did a lot of reporting at the Times, and I know the adrenaline rush that can accompany the pinning down of an exclusive.

Both Kourlas's and Pogrebin's initial articles, as edited, did not state flat out that Ratmansky was coming or City Opera was going. Kourlas did say the parties were negotiating, she sprinkled the conditional verb form "would" here and there ("He would replace Christopher Wheeldon") and she quoted a City Ballet spokesman that Ratmansky "has not accepted the position."

But a "will" form crept in, too ("At City Ballet, Mr. Ratmansky said, he will have the opportunity..."). And certainly the article strongly suggested that this was marriage about to be consummated, and all those woulds were mere pro-forma caution.

Pogrebin's first article, too, while riddled with qualifications, left the clear impression that the deal would be closed and that City Opera would move.

I have no thundering proscriptions to proclaim here. Complacently waiting for institutions to issue their press releases is lazy journalism, even if that's exactly what the secrecy-prone, journalist-despising institutions want. In this age of the Internet, for a newspaper to sit on its hands while the blogs are alive with facts and rumors is suicidal. A translated Ratmansky interview from Moscow stating his intention to quit the Bolshoi was circulating on the web in the days before Kourlas's article appeared.

What worries me, especially under the threat of Internet competition, is how sober newspapers like the Times, still clinging to their sweet dreams of fairness and objectivity, may be easing up on their former scruples about checking and double-checking not only the facts but the tone in which they are presented. The temptation to amp up the absolutes, to turn what might happen into the strong implication that it will happen, may be ever greater. Fine for the Gray Lady to kick up her heels, but not to the point of embarassment.

February 20, 2008 5:38 PM |


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