29 October 2008

On The Jazz Press and Media Criticism

A mini-controversy erupted in the jazz blogosphere this week, as Anthony Medici at the Princeton Record Exchange Blog wrote a brief screed against the jazz media, specifically JazzTimes and Down Beat. His criticism elicited a response from Lee Mergner, the Editor-in-Chief at JazzTimes [Full Disclosure: I currently subscribe to JazzTimes and have subscribed to Down Beat in the past]. To recap:
  • On Sunday, Medici accused the jazz press of "feeding from the public relations trough," or pushing the new model, to borrow a phrase from Stanley Crouch. He argues that if both JazzTimes and Down Beat issue cover stories on the same artist (he uses the recent example of David Sanborn), then this is likely a case of both magazines being "driven by the PR- flack- hype - machine" (sic). This is also the case if either magazine writes a cover story on an musician of limited artistic merit, according to Medici (he uses a story on the Return to Forever reunion as an example). He also takes the magazines to task for poor editing and poor writing, comparing both to the golden age of Down Beat (which I'll define as the mid 1950s to late 1960s), when critics like Leonard Feather, Ira Gitler, Don DeMichael, and Nat Hentoff were creating the form of jazz criticism as a highly literate and informed discipline. He concludes that these magazines are in fact bad for jazz because they are so industry-driven and badly written.
  • Later this week, Lee Mergner of JazzTimes responded to these charges on a listserv post reproduced on the Night Lights blog. He first argued that just because recent cover stories on Return To Forever, Esperanza Spaulding, and Freddie Hubbard also coincided with new album releases does not make those stories irrelevant from an artistic standpoint. He also notes that the magazine recently featured the late Rahsaan Roland Kirk on its cover, which works against Medici's argument. He added that nostalgia for older issues of Down Beat hides the fact that there was plenty of bad writing during the magazine's heyday (a point to which I can attest, having read every issue of the magazine published between 1955 and 1972). Though JazzTimes obviously has room for improvement, Mergner argues that the magazine is better than the critics suggest. In a media environment that rarely pays any attention to jazz, Mergner points out, it is ludicrous to suggest that a magazine that so avidly promotes jazz and features preeminent critics like Hentoff, Gary Giddins, and Nate Chinen bad for jazz. He closes, "As my teenaged daughter would say, 'whatever.' Or, as stated in a quote often attributed to LBJ, 'Any jackass can burn down a barn, but it takes a helluva carpenter to build one.' "
Night Lights added its (valuable) two cents, pointing out that if JazzTimes is not your bag, there are plenty of great writers discussing jazz in the blogosphere, like Ted Gioia at jazz.com and Doug Ramsey at ArtsJournal, not to mention jazz musicians with blogs like Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus and Darcy James Argue.

It seems that both sides have made their arguments and the controversy (for lack of a better term) will soon die down. However, I feel a few important points need to be made about the jazz press, blogs, and media criticism:
  1. It must be noted that magazines like JazzTimes and Down Beat rely on advertising from record companies to help keep their magazines profitable. Even in the best of times, subscriber and newsstand revenue alone cannot keep a magazine in business. However, that doesn't mean these magazines are in the pocket of record companies. Artistry and commercial viability are NOT mutually exclusive. And even in the case of a cover story that veers to the more commercially viable side of this bipolar construction, there are still plenty of places to find good criticism in JazzTimes, including the monthly columns from Hentoff, Giddins, and Chinen, the record reviews, and the Before and After feature (JazzTimes' verison of the blindfold test). As the saying goes, let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
  2. That being said, I think bloggers are in an excellent position to offer valid and (hopefully) constructive media criticism. This kind of thing happens all the time in the worlds of sports and politics (see for instance, this post from Deadspin criticizing ESPN for inconsistent treatment of two network personalities who made separate unfortunate and ill-advised references to Adolph Hitler). However, such media criticism needs to be done responsibly for it to be effective. Bringing up a good point, then burying it under tired analogies and exaggerated claims tends to hurt the critic's credibility rather than bring light to any legitimate grievance. So let's play nice and keep it professional, okay?
  3. In the complex media environment we inhabit today, it is ludicrous to write of a monolithic "Jazz Press" or assign excess agency to large periodicals like JazzTimes. Even if the people at JazzTimes wanted to be "bad for jazz," how would such a fringe publication (in the grand scheme of things) accomplish that, anyway?
  4. As Night Lights points out, if JazzTimes and Down Beat are not up to your preferences, there are plenty of great alternatives on the internet. You can start with the links on the sidebar of this page. We live in a free market, and sometimes the best way to make yourself heard is by using your wallet (which is why I buy free-range vegetarian-fed eggs, but that's another story for another blog).
That's all for now. I will be back to the music soon...

h/t: Night Lights blog

UPDATE: At Jazz Chronicles, James Hale, a regular contributor to Down Beat, weighs in on the feud, mostly debunking
Medici's fetishization of the 1950s-60s as a golden age of jazz journalism.

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