Results tagged “ethics” from ARTicles

A mini-scandal has broken out in Milwaukee, where the city's police chief and a smitten journalist who wrote a breathless magazine profile of him have admitted that they had an extramarital affair. The controversy -- which, if nothing else, surely has been great for driving traffic to Milwaukee Magazine's website -- has zero to do with arts journalism in particular (even if "The Music Man" provides a key metaphor in the 5,400-word piece, where Shakespeare also crops up now and again). But it has everything to do with journalistic ethics, and with an unavoidable ethical issue we tend not to discuss.

The issue is this: Journalists, being human, do sometimes feel strongly attracted to their subjects, whether that attraction is sexual or platonic, and whether it blossoms in a single interview for a one-shot story or develops over time on a regular beat. So at what point does a reporter tell his or her editor, "I'm sorry. I can't do this story because I like this person so much that my objectivity is shot"?

For Jessica McBride, the author of the profile of Police Chief Edward A. Flynn, that conversation probably should have occurred around the time she became conscious that her attraction to him was clouding her vision. McBride, a freelancer and a journalism lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says the affair began after the story ran. There's no reason to doubt that. Even so, a message from her to Flynn, quoted in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, suggests the conflict was evident to her while she was working on the piece:

"Perceived you instantly - knew you were a good person who does things for the right reason," reads one signed Jessica. "As a result, I began to struggle with the story - having to give time to vitriolic baseless attacks."

I've never become romantically involved with someone I've written about, but I've encountered that kind of struggle. I think a lot of us have. The editor of Milwaukee Magazine, Bruce Murphy, confesses in a post today (where he also defends McBride and attacks Journal Sentinel columnist Daniel Bice's "hatchet job" on her) that he has: "I've had the same feelings sometimes as a reporter when writing about someone for whom I have some admiration." It's hard to report and write clearly, fairly and well about people for whom we feel strong affection -- which is one of the reasons we shouldn't do it. (The converse is true, too: It's tough to be fair to subjects we can't stand.) At the same time, gut feelings about the people we cover are real, and even necessary to guide us, at least to some extent. We can't discount them. But we're not always the best judges of the effect our emotions are having on our work.

Ideally, that's where editors come in.
June 22, 2009 11:59 AM |

I'm preparing to yak at some cultural colleagues (in a classroom context) about credibility and ethics in our new age of immediate journalism and have come to an unexpected, though tentative, conclusion:


That critics, as opposed to reporters, are unavoidably "unethical" by the very nature of our jobs because opinion, however transparent or fact-based, doesn't fit the usual J-school ethical guidelines. Remember the high-school definitions of ethics and morals? Something of their squishy difference seems to applies to how we measure "right and wrong" for reporters and critics.


I've always wondered why big-boy editors tend to mistrust and sometimes disdain their own feature departments, and this may be one of the reasons: "All sides" reporting and singular opinion seem inimical. Any editor who's worked with a reporter-critic who's fearful to write that something is good or bad knows just what I mean.


Sure, a whole batch of the usual ethical guidelines apply to both types of work, and most apply equally in the blog fog and out. (Here's where I will recount about how one new, multiplatform company I worked for asked me to cross the editorial/advertising line and another traditional one did not.) But the replacement of the longtime classical music critic at the Plain Dealer, Donald Rosenberg, ostensibly because of his lack of critical sympathy with the relatively young Cleveland Orchestra conductor Franz Welser-Möst, brings up ethical issues related only to critics. (Wanna read a really good blog post about negative criticism? Here's Ann Powers on her own review of diva Tina Turner.)


So, do any of you critics or editors have any thoughts 1) on whether digital multiplatforming (and the overwork it entails) has changed ethics and credibility, or 2) do critics require a different set of rules to play by? Love to know.





October 23, 2008 9:23 AM |

Before we let this bone go, indulge another posting on the Ramiro Burr-Douglas Shannon affair.

For the sake of accuracy, we must acknowledge that our profession has had a long, sad history of publishing ghost-written columns.

Consider a parenthetical before a 1949 entertainment column in the L.A. Times:

("While Hedda Hopper is in Europe her column is being compiled and written by her Hollywood staff.")

Might Mr. Burr have been better served by sharing a byline ... or by warning in parens "When I'm blocked or too lazy to come up with my own prose this column will be compiled and written by someone I rely on and respect but would just as soon not identify"?

Contact Lovell at
June 28, 2008 3:44 PM |

I don't know about Sasha and Patti and Barack vs. Hililary (I'm wearing my Obama button as I peck) and reject vs. denounce. Nor do I know whether a response to someone else's entry should be entered as a new submission or a comment. But since we are all laboring under Doug's rule of one filing a week, I'll make this a new entry.

Which is in response to Jeff Weinstein's musings about conflicts of interest. When I was younger, I was a purist. Alfred Frankenstein was the much-respected classical music and art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle; just recently, Alex Ross quoted his wonderful, insightful review of the world premiere of Terry Riley's "In C" in his book. His support fostered the extraordinary Bay Area new music scene in the 50's and 60's. I personally owed Frankenstein an affectionate debt, since when I was 15 he gave me a generous hour of his time talking about a life in music criticism, how difficult it was, how rewarding it was.

Frankenstein wrote program notes for the SF Symphony. He so bought into the orchestra's ethos that he became a fierce defender of the then-music director Enrique Jorda when everyone else was attacking him. It was very hard to separate how such a perceptive critic could defend Jorda without factoring in his relationship with the symphony.

Eventually, Frankenstein was forced out as classical critic, but not becasue the paper considered his note-writing a conflict in itself. George Szell came to town and departed after one rehearsal, pleading illness. Frankenstein, at this point apparently delusional, wrote a page 1 open letter to Szell, urging him to affirm his confidence in Jorda and the orchestra since unfounded rumors were circulating that he was somehow dissatisfied. Szell, thus provoked, wrote back that in decades of guest-conducting he had never encountered a more dire situation in a major orchestra. So Frankenstein had to quit.

In my no doubt compromised maturity, I have lightened up a little. In Britain, where there are very few staff arts critics, writing program notes and even directing concert series and festivals while continuing as a critic is common. (I at least quit the Times forfour years while I founded and ran the Lincoln Center Festival.) The British scene is very clubby, but so was Vienna's in the late 19th century, and both towns produced a lot of good music. Joe Horowitz, another critic/adminsitrator, argues that critics who cut themselves off from the real world of their chosen art form are simply contributing to their own ignorance.

For me, the issue of the appearance of conflict is almost more important than conflict itself. By and large, I will take critics at their word when they say they can retain their objectivity despite professional and social entanglements. But such ties can still look bad from the outside. And in the increasingly fragile world of print journalism, struggling for credibiity and viability, an apparent conflict can be yet another excuse to cut loose yet another critic.

February 28, 2008 2:17 PM |

Actors can wait tables. Theater critics can bus tables, maybe wash dishes. But what can art critics do?

About a month ago, blogger Tyler Green posted a three-part interview with one of the Village Voice's freelance art critics, Christian Viveros-Faune (quite a good critic, too), in which Green asked him if he thought his connection to two commercial contemporary-art fairs, as executive director of one and "organizer" of another, was a conflict of interest. The critic's response, intemperate certainly, was basically yes, but because conflict of interest is inevitable, virtually built into the position, it didn't matter.

He was dropped from the Voice freelance stable a few days later -- not the same as being fired, because he was never on staff. (An unusual part of the Voice union contract does give health coverage to freelancers who earn enough money and file enough pieces during a fixed period, or at least it did when I worked there.)

But the important issue here is not one particular critic's decision about how to make a living. Unless cultural critics are full-time employees of the place for which we write, or have a plush and dependably regular freelance gig, we must find other work. I was a weekly restaurant critic for the Voice for more than 15 years, yet I needed to edit (the Voice's art and architecture criticism as it happens, and other stuff as well) and write plenty of pieces in plenty of fields in order to survive. Sure, many of my delicious meals were paid for, but I still had to keep myself in Pepto-Bismol.

I'd be surprised if more than half a dozen art critics in New York, even now the center of the multibillion-dollar art universe, eke a living only through their writing.

So the specter of "inevitable" conflict of interest must arise. Teaching and editing are pretty safe. But what about writing art-show catalogues, performance and CD program notes, or giving gallery talks? You're taking money from the very hand a reader expects you to bite.

Yet it doesn't seem reasonable for a paper or mag to demand from its freelancers a complete divorcement. Some places (like the Voice) have allowed compromise: wait two or three years to review a show in a gallery that's given you work because, if the workplace won't pay you enough to live, it shouldn't count on fealty.

Any thoughts?

I'll ask Peter Schjeldahl over there for my check.

February 27, 2008 10:10 AM |


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