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Phoenix music critic, ethics

Posted by Geoff Edgers  July 22, 2008 01:42 PM

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So should a music critic allow an institution he covers to set his poems to music – and pay his expenses? I say not, as does the Boston Globe’s ethics policy. The Boston Phoenix disagrees.

I raise this after reading these blog entries from Lloyd Schwartz, the alternative weekly’s music critic. In them, he mentions the “delightful invitation from the Boston Symphony Orchestra” to have his poems set to music by the Tanglewood Music Center’s composition fellows. Schwartz signed a contract with the BSO-run TMC, according to his blog ("The Tanglewood Music Center was actually paying me for my services"), and, in anticipation of his visit, noted that he would be staying for free at the Tanglewood guest house Seranak, the former home of legendary BSO music director Serge Koussevitzky. “I was even going to be reimbursed for my gas mileage!” Schwartz wrote.

Am I being too harsh in calling out Schwartz, who won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1994 and is also an accomplished poet?

Peter Kadzis, the Boston Phoenix executive editor, clearly thinks so. In an e-mail response, he stated that Schwartz “works in the now waning tradition of artist/critic, not unlike Virgil Thomson. That the Tanglewood fellows would choose to set his poetry to music is a mark of distinction, not a compromise. Narrow minds, of course, might think otherwise.”

I guess that’s me. And, apparently, I found another “narrow mind” in Al Tompkins, a faculty member at The Poynter Institute whose specialties include ethics.

“Is democracy going to come undone because of this? Probably not,” he told me. “But it presents, if not a conflict, the appearance of conflict of interest. You can avoid this conflict by, at minimum, paying your own way or having the paper pay your way. That would be of some value.”

I related to Tompkins what Schwartz told me over the phone.

Namely, Schwartz said, “It seemed to me that it didn’t involve any kind of compromise on my part. I have always written what I think. I have written good things about the BSO and bad things about the BSO and have continued to do that after the person at the Tanglewood Music Center told me that they had selected [me].”

“Over time,” said Tompkins, “we do build our reputation. And no doubt, he has. However, as the old saying goes, you make your reputation over time and you lose it overnight. Why would you take the risk of harming a long-term reputation by having a relationship that some might perceive as being too cozy?”

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About Exhibitionist Geoff Edgers covers arts news for The Boston Globe..
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