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December 16, 2008

Pressure to Be Positive? Joni Mitchell and Me

Laura Collins-Hughes had an interesting posting recently asking if anyone had been pressured by his/her editors to be positive about some local institution (cf. the Cleveland Orchestra vs. Don Rosenberg).

I can't recall any such incident, but self-censorship is as repressive, maybe, as censorship. At The New York Times, everyone is painfully aware of the paper's all-powerful role in New York/national culture. Any editor would bridle at the thought that he might be pressured from even further up the food chain to ease up on some particular institution, and indeed the Times has run reporting (and certainly criticism) unfavorable to many of them.

Yet there is a prevailing ethos that we carry a big stick and should wield it lightly. I agree with that, but Gray Lady gentility can easily slip into avoidance. When the previous publisher was chairman of the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, at least some of the Culture staff automatically gave that institution more play in the listings or felt nervous about sidewiping remarks against it ("gratuitous" sideswiping remarks, they might have said).

Me, I disliked meanness or unfairness, so in that sense (and many others, like the use of "Mr.," which I always loved, even to the point of deliberate parody, as in Mr. Pop or Mr. Loaf), I fit right into the Times mold. What got me was not the pressure to be positive but, sometimes, especially in the dreaded Howell Raines years, to be negative.

I remember a piece I wrote about Joni Mitchell's CD of orchestrally accompanied versions of some of her finest songs. I hated it: I thought it was pompous and leaden. But an editor came up to me eagerly after he'd read what I turned in and pushed me to expand it and sharpen it. Being negative, in his eyes, was equivalent to being sharp and controversial; it would boost buzz and readership. In other words, go easy on the institutions but hard on the artists.

I am embarrassed to admit that I went along with his suggestion, and the piece ran as a wildly over-played full-page blast against an artist whom I had long admired (with the inevitable caveats). A few months later (why so long, Joni?), Mitchell called me up out of the blue and expressed her outrage. I thought she was way over the top, as well as tactically foolish. But I respected her for making the call, too, and felt even worse that I had gone along with cheap journalism.

December 16, 2008 3:11 PM | | Comments (1)

1 Comments

It was not only cheap journalism, it was a stupid review. Some of the arrangements work, some don't, but it's a fascinating set of music. Glad Joni called you up "out of the blue" and expressed her outrage in what I hope were extremely impolite terms.

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