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Journalism Ethics 101

Jazz journalists don’t sell their influence to musicians

Jul 2nd, 2011 | By

A jazz journalist does not offer a positive review of an artist for the artist or their producers’ money. A jazz journalist should not sell information which is readily available to the general public under the guise of providing an introduction. A journalist’s client is their publication, and the publication’s interest is in its advertisers and general audience, not serving to advance the agendas of the people it covers.

These basics of journalistic ethical conduct bear repeating as baseless accusations of impropriety and genuine infringements pop up on the internet. For instance, bassist Arturo Mora recently blogged that he had “evidence” that Jazz Times asks musicians to “buy” reviews. An unnamed reviewer had responded to Mora’s sample cd with an email including the following paragraph:

I work independently, but I will get all of the articles published myself, guaranteed. Because some of JazzTimes‘ online articles do get printed in their magazine, that possibility does lie open. I like your music so the articles will be positive, should you decide to do this. My rates are below.

The presumed writer offered several “packages” of positive coverage, at different rates for inclusion of reviews and/or interviews in JT and or Ink 19. Upon learning of this proposal, JazzTimes’ editor/publisher Lee Mergner was quick to deny the writer has any authorized connection with the magazine or its website,  but instead was trying to take advantage of do-it-yourself musician-cd producers by charging for posts to JT’s open editorial “community” platform.

In a statement to JJANews, Mergner explained:

Over the last several months, a few musicians have brought this disreputable practice to my attention and I’ve made it clear that this is not a practice that we endorse in any way. What is going on is that we have a community section in which people can post articles, news, listings, photos and, yes, reviews: http://jazztimes.com/community/articles Although there is a great deal of self-promotion in this section, the end result is an open forum format in keeping with the egalitarian nature of the jazz community. This community section is very different from the rest of jazztimes.com, in which we have a ton of assigned and edited content, including reviews assigned by our editors to our ongoing contributors, many of whom are JJA members.

Leave it to some enterprising folks to use the open forum opportunity of the Community section to take advantage of emerging artists. I have been trying to nip these in the bud by deactivating users who have been shown to be abusing the system, but it can be difficult to regulate.  Nonetheless, I will continue to pursue these folks, like a modern day Columbo.

The notion of Mergner as a shambling, trench-coated investigator may be hard to conjure, but his dismay is easy to imagine. Any critics’ contribution to an arts discussion is only as good as their insight+ taste + honesty, and if those aspects of one’s work are swayed by payment from those whose work is being judged, the result is not journalism but, at best, public relations. If positive reviews are paid for and posted without disclosure of the arrangement in an editorial guise, the result verges on fraud.

Doing straight out promotional work for an artist is not preferred work but not necessarily taboo for jazz journalists, who have historically supplemented low pay for articles and reviews with the writing of press releases (usually unsigned) and analytic liner notes (typically, signed). True, journalists walk a fine line when committed their time to think about and write up what are almost inevitably positive opinions of a new release they’re commissioned to annotate, yet master jazz journalists including the late Stanley Dance, Martin Williams and Whitney Balliet, very lively Nat Hentoff, Dan Morgenstern and Ira Gitler have given their energies to essays published as part of record packages (complete disclosure: this writer has done it too, often).

This practice is frowned on and sometimes banned by publishers who employ their jazz critics full-time, but freelancers consider themselves lucky to establish another outlet for their views on music, especially as good liner notes for good recordings have long lives, attached as they are to original releases of enduring projects. The endorsement of a recording by its annotator is generally taken by readers as a matter of course, though that endorsement may be explicit or implicit (and sometimes, through clever use of language, withheld or subtly contradicted). Nevertheless, expectations of readers of liner notes are not the same as assumptions of impartiality attached to journalistic enterprises.

Another journalistic no-no that’s been reported of late is the sale of editors’ and publishers’ emails and/or postal addresses to musicians, with the seller suggesting that such information is privileged and amounts to a personal recommendation that can lead to coverage. Most editors and writers in the jazz world maintain some sort of public contact information which musicians can access using a search engine and a little ingenuity. While selling such info is marginally acceptable — many organizations, including the Jazz Journalists Association — have sold or leant mailing lists for a fee — the best practice is to urge musicians to compile their own lists from available resources, to offer professional consultations on a reasonable, verifiable fee basis, and to refrain from commending particular artists for coverage unless one is, oneself, willing to do the critical work required. And if that willingness is based on a payment from the musician, it amounts to little more than a fix based on a bribe.

Jazz journalists are, on the whole, an uncorrupted lot. They tend to be idealists who do what they do for love as much as money, whine about that though they may. Payments for legitimate jazz journalism are always low, and the value of a review on the marketplace is unpredictable and dubious. This is true even if the review is a rave, and whether or not it’s the result of an enviably high fee. Hard-pressed journalists may be tempted to develop creative new ways to make money on the basis of their expertise and access, but respectable writers, broadcasters, photographers and new media professionals to not trade in their hard-won reputations for a few dollars more, soliciting bribes from people they purport to unsuspecting audiences to really and truly enjoy. Jazz journalists in any medium depend on their sensitivities to sound, their knowledge, analytical skills and abilities to communicate. They may sell those to the highest bidder — all to the good if the bidders are publishers who will advance their opinions as editorially vetted. If jazz journalists open the market for their opinions to those they have opinions of, they are simply sophists, and their “work” adds not to the light, but to the noise.

Mergner also wrote:

I am very proud of our contributors, who work hard to maintain the highest level of professionalism in the face of diminishing revenue streams.  No one on our masthead would pull such a stunt [as selling reviews to musicians] and that should be red flag to artists or labels who are pitched for this sort of coverage.  If they [people doing the pitching] ’re not on our masthead, then they’re not likely to be professional contributors to the magazine or website.

So musicians: Beware the non-professional, unauthorized contributor, especially if he or she comes forward asking to be paid for creating work that they promise will be favorable and guarantee they can get placed just where you want it. These people are after your money and the stray readers’ gullibility. They aren’t reviewers, and what they’re offering isn’t journalism.


About Howard Mandel

Howard Mandel is an author, media and events producer, editor, educator, lecturer and president of the Jazz Journalists Association.

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14 Comments to “Jazz journalists don’t sell their influence to musicians”

  1. avatar brent black says:

    I encountered a situation with Blue Note records where I remarked some Wynton Marsalis arrangement fell somewhat flat on his most recent release and suddenly the label will no longer service or communicate with me in any fashion. I am an independent writer.

    • avatar uck says:

      maybe you don’t understand that the “jazz media” is generally not respected by serious artists. you believe that your negative commentary is correct/justified, and that the reason for the label/artist reaction is that they don’t like negative press. maybe they just don’t like negative press when it’s delivered (as it often is) by a person that has no real expertise/basis for opinion. just because you put pen to paper doesn’t mean that anyone has to take you seriously.

      • avatar JJA Editor says:

        True, no one has to take a journalist’s critique or any other person’s seriously. Only if the insight, logic and clarity of a critique strikes a reader as being persuasive will that critique gain any credibility. In my experience, serious artists do indeed take at least some representatives of the “jazz media” seriously and give it some respect. Some artists conceive of the jazz media as being a first line of audience communication, and a force that can advance their interests. And there is precious little negative press in jazz reviews today.

  2. avatar robert d rusch says:

    howard what a bunch of obfuscating hog twaddle
    your first paragraph has within in the very seeds you try to deny in the rest of your piece
    i have known some ethical critics over the years and some ethical critics who turned otherwise
    but to even suggest that a admirable level of ethics exists among critics or the “entertainment” and jazz press e is not my experience presently
    its a money game pure and simple

  3. avatar Howard Mandel says:

    Brent — Appropriate journalistic independence is not always rewarded by publicists. But Wynton Marsalis is one who has numerous gatekeepers, and I know from personal experience that speaking one’s mind about him does not institute a complete, abrupt ban on press relations. Perhaps other factors are at play.

    Bob, thanks for your note. You’re always an astute reader. My first paragraph was a statement of the ideal and the rest of the posting spoke of the treacherous shoals and commercially, yes money-oriented infractions (or compromises) that await jazz journalists at every turn. Nobody’s perfect. People do things counter to what I think of as good professional standards — I reiterate some of those standards.

    But you must know a different realm of jazz journalists than I do. Of the several hundred jazz journalists of my acquaintance, not even a handful of professional (or amateur) writers, photographers, broadcasters, editors, publishers and new media producers engage in the behavior or represent the sell-out, cynic (though some of them are highly sarcastic) or greedy mindset you describe. If they did so, they’d be much better to choose a different field of endeavor, one which offers at least some potential of significant monetary rewards. We may be dumb or have tin ears, but none of us really retails our reputations for the pittance. Possibly for the glory.

    • howard
      i may or maywww.cadencebuilding.com not know a similar set of “writers/critics” than you do
      and i may know them from another perspective
      fortunately regardless how the music is co-opted and the public misled
      time will eventually prove the artistic merit or lack of merit of the music
      and its practitioners
      dust to dust hype to hype time is on arts side

    • avatar brent black says:

      Thanks Howard.
      I use Wynton perhaps as “ground zero.” There were 2 other Blue Note artists that i expressed what other label executives considered fair and reasonable critism so I am guess it is perhaps the culmination of not “green lighting” everything from their label.
      I offered the Director of Publicity the opportunity to respond but thus far I hear crickets chirping.
      I have however seen reviews written in Amazon by a contributing writer for Jazz Times and when sending the link to these “questionable” uses of the “reader review” section – Jazz Times has declined comment.

  4. avatar Howard Mandel says:

    True enough: Time tells. Jazz journalists are pressed just to try to be with it, now.

  5. Howard, I’ve gone ahead and re-tweeted this essay, to use the vernacular. I couldn’t agree with you more. Any musician that pays to have his or her music ‘reviewed’ has tainted that review. It’s a corruption of journalistic process.

    Here’s an excerpt of an inquiry that I received last year, from a would-be writer:

    “…Dear James, I hope I’m not bothering you by e-mailing you out of the blue like this. I listened to your music online, and I especially liked “Harrison Street.” I was wondering if you were interested in having any promotional articles done for your album right now? I can write promotional articles for you and have them published in prominent jazz sites As you can see, they contain biographical information about the artist as well as vivid descriptions of their albums. There will be interview portions in the articles, too. These articles are intended to give you and your work as much exposure as possible. I like your music so the articles will be positive, and each one will be different. I work independently, and I can e-mail you my personal rates should you wish to see them. Please e-mail me back if you’re interested, and I can send them to you. Thank you for your time…”

    Perhaps the current emphasis on ‘branding’ has lead to these practices. But that’s just speculation on my part.

    James D. Armstrong, Jr.
    Composer / Pianist
    San Jose, California

  6. avatar JJA Editor says:

    Writers selling their services is not a new phenomenon — it’s what we do. Writers working on publicity materials that are positive about musicians, paid for by the musicians and/or their companies, has become an established practice among jazz journalists, myself included.

    However, soliciting a musician for payment for what is being passed off to a paying publication as journalism is an abridgment of trust. Such solicitation is fraudulent on two fronts: No writer can really guarantee a work will get published somewhere — unless they already have the assignment — and I can think of no reputable publication that would accept an article, knowing it was paid for by the artist (an exception: Excerpts from “as told to” autobiographies). Iwill write about musicians’ works as annotated liner notes, but I then will not take assignments from journalistic platforms to write about those projects or the artists themselves (I reserve the right to do it on my blog, though). If I ever am asked to write about someone I’ve recently been paid to write about by his record company — as I probably did about Don Pullen and Andrew Hill, after their deaths — I make sure to have raised this as an issue with my editor.

    I think writers asking musicians to pay for journalism about them is an all-around bad business practice.

  7. Thanks for your response. Yes, there’s a distinction between publicity materials and legitimate critical press.

    Three years back, I had an unsolicited inquiry from a major, glossy jazz publication. They requested multiple copies of my recording, and an $80 fee to review it. They also wanted license to reproduce the recording in a compilation CD. Quid pro quo.

    Ironically, there was no response when I told the publisher that I’d be happy to submit the CDs for review, without payment.

    • avatar JJA Editor says:

      The way to fight against these practices is to out them. I remember Jazziz having a cd compendium, which included an in-publication precis of the album, but it was clearly labeled “advertorial.” I don’t recall DownBeat or JazzTimes ever having such programs. Those are the only three “major” glossy jazz publications in the U.S.

  8. For what it’s worth, Jazziz was the organization that contacted me. However, there was no discussion of an ‘advertorial’ at the time. Had they been genuinely interested in the music, they should have pulled that $80 retainer from their own accounts.

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