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Flash Commentary 2, 5-30: All the News That's Bad We Print
The NY Times Throws a Pity Party for Dance

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

Today's $64,000 question: Why do Blacks and dancers only make the front page of The New York Times when they're in trouble?

My initial response to seeing a photo described as the Martha Graham Company (I think it may have actually been the school) on the front page of Saturday's Times was delight: Finally, the paper deemed dance worthy of putting on the front page.... Maybe there was progress. But as it sank in -- and perhaps the proximity a couple of columns over of the grim visage of an alleged murderer helped -- I realized that this was not all that novel: Once again, it took bad news to get the Times news department to pay attention to dance. And one might suggest: Perhaps if the Times had given the successful return of the Graham company last year at the Joyce front page attention, it wouldn't be in the dire position it's in now. (See Flash Report, 5-27: Graham in Turmoil.)

One of our dancer-readers had an even better suggestion: Why not, instead, run a front page photo from the historical collaboration Thursday night of Dance Theatre of Harlem and New York City Ballet at the New York State Theater? (See Flash Review, 5-26: I Have a Dream.) The Times had such a photo in its possession -- it ran on the arts pages, inside the paper, on the same day. And, not incidentally -- speaking of the negative coverage of dance and of blacks -- the subjects of that photo were NYCB's Damian Woetzel and DTH's Caroline Rocher, the latter a strong, beautiful, powerful, young black woman. What might it have done for the coverage of blacks, for instance, if across the pages from the mean visage of the alleged black murderer, the Times had run an image of this incredible, beautiful, accomplished black dancer? What would it have done for young black children to see this positive role model!? And for the rest of us to see this positive image?

And for dance -- for dancers and as an image to project to the rest of the world -- what would it have done to see such a powerful, STRONG image as that represented by Rocher and Woetzel?

The story inside, on the suspension of operations of the Graham Company and school, wasn't much better. Again, at first my reaction was positive; great, the Times is talking to dancers and dance students and getting their reactions. But in getting the dancer response, the Times had missed an essential element: It had not even bothered to talk to the dancers' union, the American Guild of Musical Artists.

In fact, as we reported Saturday, AGMA is taking action: It is filing an unfair labor practice complaint against the company with the National Labor Relations Board, and it is also going to be able to pay dancers for at least a week's salary from a security bond the union had the foresight to secure during the last contract negotiations.

The larger point I'm getting at is this: The Times portrayed the dancers as helpless, weak, frail, fragile creatures having a pity party which we should join with our own crocodile tears. Oh those poor dancers. They're pretty, but they're so delicate. They just can't cope with the real world. Cut their pay off, and they're helpless. But this stereotype -- as you know -- is a lie. The fact is, these dancers are strong enough to have voted to join a union (not an easy thing to do, by the way; one famous choreographer once threatened to fire his dancers if they tried to organize). They are assertive and pro-active enough to pay the union dues out of their salaries. And, even allowing that some dancers have expressed concerns about the union's effectiveness under a previous regime, there is new leadership at AGMA, they seem sincere about fighting for the dancers, and the Times could have made a positive difference by contacting the union and getting its officials on record to this effect.

In 1990, I moved from San Francisco to Anchorage, Alaska, to become a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. That newspaper had recently won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of reports on alcoholism and suicide among the Native Alaskan (Native American, Eskimo, and Aleut) communities. Well, I had written extensively about AIDS while in San Francisco, and decided that I was going to write the first great story about the burgeoning AIDS crisis in Alaska's native villages. The numbers of documented full-blown AIDS cases in the state were then in the hundreds. We put an advertisement in the newspaper, seeking a Native Alaskan infected with AIDS who would be willing to be interviewed. We promised not to use the person's name.

Well. Health workers who conducted AIDS education in the Bush were enraged. They pleaded with me not to write this story. They said that even if an AIDS-infected Native voluntarily came forward, he/she couldn't fully realize the consequences of being interviewed. Those consequences would be that the person would be completely ostracized by their community. They explained that the villages were so small, even if the person wasn't named people would know his/her identity. I argued that "knowledge is power." They shot back that these communities weren't ready to assimilate that knowledge yet.

I asked my editor's advice. He said we should go with the story. His principal argument for this was that with its Pulitzer prize winning report on suicidal and drunken Indians, the paper had established its credentials with the community.

That community, however, saw things differently. The series, they told me, had devastated the community, because of the way it depicted them. Because the paper never reported on the positive aspects of their lives, this negative picture became definitive -- it defined the way the outside world perceived them.

I am not saying that the media should ignore negative stories, but just that when it only reports on the negative -- especially, ESPECIALLY on a field, dance, which has brought and can bring so much LIGHT into our lives -- it is NOT telling the whole story, it is ruining its credibility with the dance world, and it is, in fact, telling a lie to the rest of the world.

Here's how one of our dancer-readers put it to me in an e-mail:

"It's sad! This morning I did a double-take.... There I found on the front page of the NY Times a photo of dancers. Well it didn't take me too long to understand the "honor" dance (the arts for that matter) got in gracing the front page of this paper. Of course, a scandal, the current "news" of the Martha Graham Dance Co. folding is fit to print and paste on the front page. Oh, the NY Times should be ashamed of itself and grow up to its reputation as a leading newspaper. Why, oh why do they have to wait for a scandal or saddening news to see it fit to include us on the front page? What about that beautiful and unique venue that you reviewed just a few days ago from the State Theater -- a collaborative celebration of the NYC Ballet hosting DTH in celebration of their anniversary. Isn't that fit to print on the front page of a NYC newspaper, in a city that is so often plagued with racial "news"?

"Grow up NY Times and take a real leadership position in the media world! Print news that is really fit to print!"

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