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Can an employed critic be truly objective?


How much independence should a publisher give to an employee critic whose criticisms are hurting the publication?

That’s the big question raised by the case of a classical music critic in Cleveland, Donald Rosenberg, who was pressured by his editor to lay off his heavy criticism of the Cleveland Orchestra, which Rosenberg had been reviewing negatively for some time, according to this report in last Saturday’s New York Times.

Rosenberg sued his paper, The Plain Dealer, alleging he’d been reassigned to lesser roles and ordered not to review the Cleveland Orchestra anymore. The newspaper and its editor, Susan Goldberg, defended themselves in court, with the latter testifying that a “hefty chunk of the community was saying that Don Rosenberg was biased and unfair and that he was compromising our integrity.”

Both sides had expert witnesses testifying on their behalf. A jury last week ruled for The Plain Dealer, effectively throwing out Rosenberg’s complaint, which also included a charge of age discrimination. Rosenberg remains employed at the newspaper, but only as a music reporter (not a critic) and a dance critic.

As I read this, all kinds of questions popped up in my mind. What would happen if lots of readers of Wine Enthusiast started complaining about my reviews? Would my publisher reply, “Steve has every right in the world to express his opinion — that’s what we pay him to do” ? Or would he be concerned about a subscriber (and possible advertiser) backlash, and conclude that it was in the company’s best interests to rein me in?

Fortunately, the above has not occurred, and isn’t likely to. My magazine gives me wide latitude to tell the truth as I see it. I’m sure some of my reviews make my publisher, Adam Strum, wince; but he understands and respects the importance of employing unbiased editors, whose rectitude and incorruptibility in reviewing reflects well upon Wine Enthusiast.

For me, the most interesting and troublesome issue in the Rosenberg case is this: If The Plain Dealer thought highly enough of Rosenberg to hire him in the first place and then keep him onboard for years, how could they now question his objectivity, just because some people complained? It does look like management caved to outside pressure. The editor said (I’m quoting from the Times) that “Mr. Rosenberg had a closed mind about [the orchestra’s music director].”

“A closed mind.”
Wow. Think about that. When I criticize certain table wines for having too much residual sugar, does that mean I have “a closed mind”? What about a wine I give a low score to because it smells like it came from the inside of a cat’s bladder? Is my mind “closed” to the pleasures of cat pee? For that matter, what about an eleven-year old Chardonnay that’s dead? Is my mind “closed” to dead Chard? You see where this is going: toward a slippery slope. Any negative critique of any kind can be attributed to “a closed mind.” But what does a publication hire a critic for, if not to praise things he likes and blast things he doesn’t? And shouldn’t a scrupulous editor stand by her critic?

I think The Plain Dealer caved in to outside pressure, but obviously, eight jurors who actually heard the case disagreed. What do you think?

  1. If you poorly rated all CA Chards with prominent oak, you might get fired.

    If you called all Napa Cabs parodies of themselves, you might get fired.

    If you wrote column after column describing all CA wines as alcoholic and praising lesser known Spanish reds, you might get fired.

    If you never found a thing to like in Zinfandel but praised Sangiovese, you might get fired.

    If you castigated CA Pinot Noir as Syrah whores and asked incessantly why can’t they all be like Oregon, you might get fired.

    Now, none of this gets to the heart of the Cleveland issue. We really don’t know much about it in reality except that a critic was removed for what his employer called a lack of objectivity.

    My points, as playful as they are, do illustrate the problem of having a critic who does not like the product he or she is asked to review and whose position on that product is now seen by both employer and audience as biased–even if the accusation is not seen as fair by the critic.

    How else is a critic held accountable? Ultimately, we are.

  2. In any business, when it comes down to a choice between what’s right for profitability vs. what’s right for employees, the business will choose the former EVERY time.

    The better ones will try to minimize the negative impacts on the employees, but essentially the choice will always, without fail, be on the side of profitability.

  3. Steve,

    You ask how could the Plain Dealer question the reporter’s objectivity after so many years. Easy, they have a business to run. What about their responsibility to keep paying their employees? As far as I know, the PD is not a non profit paper. Rosenberg’s lawyer said:

    “Freedom of the press, independent of the influence of corporate power, was the real loser today,” Sindell said Friday. “If critics are at the risk of losing their beats if they express their honest and courageous view, which may be unpopular with some, this nation is in serious trouble.”

    And he may be right. That is exactly why I think the internet and bloggers may eventually become the true replacement to what once was a viable communication medium. Printing news with ink and paper and shipping it all over the place is clearly not sustainable anymore. Do you think you will keep your job for long if you started bashing Gina Gallo repeatedly? (just an example, I LIKE Gina Gallo).

    I agree with Rosenberg’s lawyer that we are in trouble because the press is not that free anymore, it is more about entertainment than objective content; but I think this nation is in REAL trouble because of lawyers and the tort system, not because some editor caved to corporate presurre.

  4. Well, for one thing, I think it’s ironic that Rosenberg sued because people criticized his work.

  5. Does anyone here know whether the Cleveland Orchestra is any good? Or even if it is as good as orchestras in cities of its size?

    I have made my living as a critic of sorts for over three decades, and I have always understood that my judgment only had value if enough folks agreed with it. One of the things that plagues me and my writing is the notion that sometimes I get “too hip for the room”. A couple of niggling worries and and an otherwise delicious wine gets a low score despite the fact that (a) it is still quite good and (b) half my audience is not going to be worried that the tannins are wood tannins instead grape tannins (for example). I am responsible for speaking to my audience–in intelligent, accurate ways, but also in ways that conflate with their needs. Do we know if the Cleveland critic thinks that the days of George Szell need to be reinvented in Cleveland and anything short of that is a disaster? If he does, he may be “too hip for the room”–for his own audience.

    I don’t think we have lost the free press in this country just because one critic whose audience finds him biased has been reassigned. I see movie reviews and wine reviews and automobile reviews and peanut butter reviews all the time. They are independent and bow not to GM or Skippy or to the effervescent Gina Gallo.

    One of the easy criticisms of the Internet and the folks who post there is that so many of them are sample whores. It is unfair to label all who post on the Internet with that claim, but did we not just discuss a guy who essentially begged for wine samples in a most ugly fashion? His claim to fame was that he could post his views on a free Internet site as if his views on that free-for-all site were somehow more valid than anybody else who posts there.

    Print journalism may or may not go away because it is expensive, but, to quote Monte Python’s Holy Grail, “I am not dead yet”.

  6. I was told in the 80s, for a segment that I was recording called “Modern Health,” that I could NOT run my specific one-minute segment on sodas.

    What was it about?

    The fact that sodas contain approximately one teaspoon of sugar per ounce of soda; e.g., a 12 ounce soda equals 12 teaspoons of sugar.

    Why couldn’t I run it?

    One of their major sponsors was a soda company…

    Okay, America, now you’ve gained too much weight… about 15 pounds a year, if you’re a soda drinker.

    Don’t think you’ll be saved by sugar-free ones, either. The artificial sweeteners increase your appetite about 30 minutes after you’ve drunk the soda, so you’re reaching for starches.

    There, I’ve finally been able to say it!

  7. Charlie,

    Well thought and well written. And no, I don’t think print journalism is going away. I see all of us (chefs, winemakers, writers, critics and business owners) as foot soldiers in the quest to refine the American palate. In a similar way, I see all thinking folk as worker ants taking part in the process of making sure our values and ethics evolve to keep up with technology.

  8. I’m not a lawyer (and I don’t play one on TV and I didn’t stay at a nationally recognized hotel chain last night either) but suspect if you criticize a wine by saying “it smells like it came from the inside of a cat’s bladder?” that you would very likely have to prove in court that you know both specifically and explicitly what the inside of a cat’s bladder smells like…

    Just sayin’…

  9. Dennis Schaefer says:


    Good one: “Too hip for the room.”

    Haven’t heard that expression in years

  10. Rosenberg also writes about wine! Check out this link — scroll down a couple of wines and you’ll see a succession of weekly picks from him:

    As for Charlie’s question about the quality of the Cleveland Orchestra, there’s this from the New York Times in 2008, before the lawsuits began to fly:

    “Donald Rosenberg, the chief classical music critic of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, has often been harshly critical of Mr. Welser-Möst’s interpretations, finding them inferior to those of his predecessor as music director, Christoph von Dohnanyi, and even to those of less celebrated guest conductors. In contrast, reviews of Mr. Welser-Möst’s performances with the orchestra in other tour cities, especially in Europe, are typically glowing.”

  11. Oops. Maybe instead of being too hip for the room, he was not hip enough. Either way, it does not matter. When a critic gets sideways with his audience and the rest of critical opinion, that critic has no leg to stand on if he gets redirected in life. It is the risk we all take when we put ourselves on the line.

  12. Pete: So at what point does a publisher or editor conclude that his/her reviewer has lost his marbles and must be pulled off the beat?

  13. Richard: Glad I don’t have to testify under oath about that!

  14. for some reason, Scott, my husband, wasn’t able to get this posted — so I’m trying — disregard if his shows up…

    “By its very nature a critic is (or should be) biased to his/her own personal perception. That’s the whole point. Being an objective critic only means that your perception is not swayed by any other person, interest, or opinion, and that you are fairly consistent day in day out. As Mr. Olken correctly points out that to be a successful critic your perception has to align to a critical mass of people if one of your or your employer’s goals is to be a profitable enterprise. And in turn the more people you align with as a critic, the more money that can be made.” Scott Elder

  15. Stephanie:

    I’d say the opposite is true. The successful critic is one whose opinion is valid enough that it attracts an audience. No true critic, and no true wine maker, can know what the audience really wants. By dint of the wisdom, the style, the clarity of vision, both the critic and winemaker lead.

  16. Greg Brumley says:

    My name is Greg and I’m a former journalist.

    (EVERYONE IN UNISON: “Hi, Greg.”)

    It seems the thrust of Steve’s original post is whether “The Voice Crying in the Wilderness” should be protected from his readership’s possibly fickle condemnations and his publisher’s sensitivity to them.

    Let me play the iconoclast: Wine critics should be paying more attention to one dominant trend: the exponential growth of the wilderness.

    The real issue here is not freedom of the press which, by the way, belongs to the publisher — not the writer. (If Rosenberg wants freedom of the press, let him buy a newspaper. Purchase prices have never been better.)

    The real issue, for wine critics, is relevance. And they’re losing it.

    The “heavyweights” among them are like the Tyrannosaur who looked out his window and wondered, “Where are all the tasty hadrosaurs these days? And, while we’re at it, what’s with all these furry little creatures that seem to be taking over the neighborhood? Oh, hell, is that a meteor?!?”

    A few big-name critics so dominated the landscape when print was king that their — let us say “unique” — view of great wine intimidated and confused their readers. These big-name critics over-played their hand. By pushing wines few people liked, and ignoring or disdaining the majority’s very different tastes, they poisoned their own waters. They so alienated the consumers that, when online and social media came along, those consumers have gladly abandoned them for a community which they understand and in which they feel comfortable.

    Do I include Steve in this? No. But it doesn’t matter. The damage is done. Whether a wine gets a 90 – or no review at all – matters less and less to consumers. Especially with small wineries, wise producers are concluding the considerable expense of chasing critics’ ratings is of questionable sales value.

    To be brutally candid, I’ve never read a Steve Heimoff wine review (nor do I read any of the other oracles). For personal consumption purposes, I have no interest in reading one.

    I read this blog religiously because it consistently provides insight, stimulating commentary, and a thought-provoking pool of commentators. Most of my wine reading is online. What print I read is judged rather quickly by whether it offers me the same things Steve’s blog does.

    As we find platforms which provide us what Steve does – with some visuals — they will dominate the wine media (electronic, print, or a combination). More and more, we explore new wines based on consumers’ recommendations, especially those of colleagues in our own wine communities. (There’s little question about the independence of those recommendations.)

    Oded needn’t worry about a “quest to refine the American palate”. Consumers of wine and fine food can now do that for themselves, thank you very much. The future is bright for wine writers who can inform readers and bring them into the conversation. Those, who wish to grace readers with their august knowledge of what’s good or bad, should keep an eye out for meteors.

  17. Scott misses one essential ingredient. Everyone is a critic, and if a paid critic is worth listening to, that critic’s judgment must be in line with the critics who are reading those critical comments.

    Who would listen to a critic whose views of the movies panned those that the people loved and recommended those that people hate. One does not need to change one’s opinions. One needs to get them right in the eyes of those who are critiquing the critic–the readers.

    As for being a dinosaur, I plead guilty, but the funny thing is that I and the other dinosaurs are still followed by our reader who read the mags we write. At the point, that they stop, then we will follow the dinos into extinction. Most of today’s critics will be long gone by then–and it will be father time, not a meteor who does us in. In the meantime, others will take our places.

    Oh, and all of the existing wine media are smart enough to understand the future and to prepare for it. It will be a shared future, but it will exist.

  18. Greg, thank you for your kind words about my blog. I think wine writing is all about the writing. I’ve advised young bloggers and wannabe wine writers from the very start: It’s all well and good to hone your wine knowledge and tasting skills, but you must also become a strong writer and develop a strong voice, if you want to succeed in this business. I don’t know about dinosaurs or hadrosaurs or furry creatures or meteors, but I do know that people are going to be reading about wine in the future, and the writers they turn to will be the best writers — the most informed, the most expressive, the most personal.

  19. Stephanie, I don’t know where Scott’s original post went. Anyway, I agree that a critic should be objective. But as several people have pointed out, it’s not always easy, as Rosenberg discovered.

  20. steve,
    the really ironic part of the story is that rosenberg was busted down to wine writer for the PD. he is responsible for finding and giving a 3 sentence review of the wine of the week. he is far more appreciative of mediocrity in wine than he was of franz weller-most, who could be, by name, an austrian varietal.

  21. David Vergari says:

    Heaven help us if internet reviewers/bloggers become the “true replacements” Charlie! I will accept them as replacements, but not true ones. I’ve developed a pretty thick skin but even that does not prevent an occasional comment from getting to me. One fuck-wit recently opined that my ’07 Marin Pinot smelled like the inside of a NY Subway mens room. Man…I don’t even know where to start with that one.

  22. grapemaster: Wow, talk about a demotion! From classical music to wine.

  23. David, as a Bronx kid, that brought back some memories. Disinfectant … Formula 409 … bleach.

  24. Steve, to answer your question, I’d start by saying being a critic at a major daily isn’t an appointment to the Supreme Court, nor a tenured position at the university. If a publication’s leadership feels as though its readers are not being well served, it doesn’t just have the right to make a change, it’s imperative that it do so. That doesn’t mean you bounce a critic if a couple of readers get riled up about a review and send letters to the editor. In most cases, if a critic is simply parroting conventional wisdom nobody is going to care, so there’s typically going to be some tension. At the other end of the spectrum, relentlessly attacking the values of the readership probably won’t get you very far either. But if a critic is smart and entertaining and respectful of readers’ interests—and the publication’s interests—he’ll generally have space to roam. Don’t you think? The other thing is, Rosenberg had been covering the orchestra for a long time. Every once in a while a publication might just have to freshen things up.

  25. Donn Rutkoff says:

    You all should have been in Cleveland after the great George Szell passed away and the orchestra’s board brought on Lorin Maazel. Three or four first chair musicians left in protest and plenty of fur flew. But then, replacing Dr. Szell was a hard shoe to fill. I did not ever see or hear Szell but I had little use for Lorin. The board apparently loved his histrionics. I think maybe too many were already suffering hearing loss but could see Lorin jumping and gesticulating all over the stage and just like a 99 point Parker bomb, thought it was great stuff.

    I would like to know if anybody knows what goes on inside of WS magazine. Why do all wine reviews follow a very tightly scripted format? How many writers or reviewers DON’T work for WS and don’t want to write for WS because they don’t like the box they are forced to write in? I no longer subscribe to WS even tho I work wine retail, because I found less and less useful information and content in WS. They sell a lot of ad space for pricey watches and cars and resort hotels. The magazine looks more like Vogue than a wine magazine.

  26. David–

    Maybe NY has changed its formula for subway restrooms.

    Your point, of course, is that reviews, even those that are unfavorable, need to be written in ways that are not snide and snarky and, to my mind, cheap imitations of our responsibilities as accurate reviewers.

    Of course, as there can be no dispute in matters of taste, maybe the guys has spent a lot of time in NY bathrooms.

  27. Pete, it’s hard for me to know exactly what went on in Cleveland. Was Rosenberg attacking his readers’ values? I don’t know. Was he getting stale? He charged the PD with age discrimination but the jury didn’t buy it. So I’m just raising questions without necessarily knowing the answers.

  28. NOTE: FROM SCOTT ELDER (his comments still aren’t showing up, weird); please respond to him – muchas g.

    Steven M. – I respectfully disagree with you. Saying there are valid opinions also necessitates that there are invalid opinions, and that can be a slippery slope, especially when it comes to highly subjective topics like wine. For example, in past posts Steve Heimoff did not speak very highly of wines from Screaming Eagle and Marcassin, but presumably there are many, many people out there, some of them quite reputable, that have a different opinion. Whose is valid and whose is invalid?

    Charlie O. – I think you and I are saying essentially the same thing. I agree with you that each of us are or can be a critic of the wine critic, but the fact is most people out there reading wine scores and reviews want to be lead – if I like what a critic recommends then I’ll return to read more and I will tell a friend, and the readership grows. I am not critiquing you and saying you are right; I am saying my wine preference aligns with yours (or vice versa). And that is exactly the kind of critic a money making magazine wants to have on their payroll.

  29. Stephanie, actually I’ve given pretty good scores to Screaming Eagle, on the few occasions I’ve had it.

  30. Steve,

    NOTE: that comment was from Scott (i guess i didn’t make it clear enough with my NOTE at the beginning of the post — sorry) – he cannot for the life of him get his comments posted — so i submitted for him –

    please respond to him.

    mrs. a-wiggins

  31. READ THIS, PLEASE: this comment is to steve h. from scott e. not from stephanie.

    “Steve H. – I am not saying anything one way or another about your wine critiquing. My one point to Steve M. was that opinions on wine can vary quite wildly, even among the experts…and I of course put you in the expert category.” SCOTT E.

  32. Scott E: Totally agree. Never said otherwise. Opinions can and do disagree. That’s what makes it so interesting.

  33. Changes in editors and management can also make a difference whether its music, art, wine or politics. With blogs, the editors, management, and critics are also the readers.

  34. Kathy, yes, we know that editors and management read this blog!

  35. I’m pretty sure if Wilfred Wong started rating all the Bevmo wines that are their “partnered vineyards” 70 points that he would get fired.

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