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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
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
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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