Sunday, October 16, 2016

Orchestra Strikes in the Age of “Citizen Journalism”

Following the news about the current strike by the members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO) reminded me of what it was like being a writer covering concert performances during the last such strike in my home town of San Francisco. That was an occasion when my colleagues and I found ourselves as loose ends, committed to covering concerts that we knew were not going to happen through the writing both previews and reviews. On March 13, 2013, contract negotiations for the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) reached an impasse that led to the musicians going out on strike. As the city’s primary outlet for print journalism, the San Francisco Chronicle did a reasonably admirable job of trying to collect the “basic facts” and align them with how they were being interpreted from both labor and management points of view. Those of us working through the Internet were not so lucky. SFS was quite industrious when it came to putting out press releases. However, because the Communications Department was part of the “back office,” the dispatches we received carried only a single point of view. On the other hand the musicians themselves had to be cautious about saying too much to anyone for fear of jeopardizing any interactions that were still struggling to take place.

In politics this comes down to what is sometimes called “owning the narrative.” When one side of a negotiation dominates access to the media, it can be very difficult for the other side to establish that it, too, has a narrative. The one thing that we in San Francisco knew was that the musicians did not want to disappoint their audiences. As a result they arranged to commit their own time to giving performances in venues other than Davies Symphony Hall, and writers like myself and some of my colleagues could pitch in to get out the word about when and where such performances would be taking place.

A little over three and a half years have elapsed since the SFS strike was settled after about half a month of time on strike. For those of us viewing the PSO strike from the other side of the country, it would appear that narrative ownership has achieved a more balanced state. PSO has a blog site, but it does not take the objective reader long to realize that the narratives on this blog are coming from management. In this case, however, there is also now a site called Musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Within that site there is a STRIKE UPDATE division, which provides the musicians with the opportunity to present the narratives that they “own.” This means that readers “on the outside” can examine the numbers that have been released on the PSO blog and then read an item-by-item rebuttal from the musicians.

This is fine as far as it goes; but, as any number of philosophers (going all the way back to Socrates) have observed, “understanding” is almost never just a matter of “having the facts.” There are any number of reasons why opposing sides should be developing different narratives; and they cannot be reduced to trivial distinctions between haves and have-nots. The problem is that a fair amount of expertise is required to read either side of the story, not only for its “facts” but also for the implications and consequences that arise if those facts are accepted. Asking someone whose primary interest is in listening to the performance of music in a concert setting to untangle the knots of conflicting narratives is about as absurd as asking a labor negotiator to sit in for the striking concertmaster.

We are thus faced with the classical problem of an Internet that allows us to see more and understand less. Put another way, we, as detached observers, may have more resources that we can consult; but that does not imply that we know what to do with them. All we can do is watch from a distance and try to make sense of it all, possibly with input from those better informed than we are who also happen to have a certain degree of objective detachment. In other words, things are not much different from the way they are when the news sources are trying to report a delicate hostage negotiation. In this case, however, the hostages are the concert-going public.

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