When Paul Unger read the headline “Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, RIP,” he said he was shocked. He and his fellow musicians in the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra had been on strike only for four days, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram was already eulogizing the 104-year-old arts organization.
“No one at the Star-Telegram editorial board ever asked to speak to us to get our side of things,” he said. “It seems like they were rushing to judgment.”
The September 12 editorial, he added, was riddled with factual errors, including the number of full-time musicians the symphony employs, the musicians’ base salary, and others. Unger went on to say that the writers merely parroted FWSO management’s talking points without giving context and without fact checking any of management’s figures. Aside from the story’s mistakes and what he called the “clear bias” of the article, Unger believes the most egregious part was that the writer neglected to mention that the paper’s publisher, Gary Wortel, sits on the orchestra’s board. (The paper later added a clarification that admitted Wortel is on the board but stressed that he is not a part of the symphony’s 20-person executive committee that makes key decisions.)
The musicians immediately sent a rebuttal to the Star-T editors but still have not heard back. They also sent corrections to at least three more stories that ran in the paper, Unger said, but their emails were ignored. (The Star-Telegram did make a correction to a story that ran on October 18.) After the first round of articles hit the newsstands, only The Dallas Morning News ran the musicians’ response to the stories.
Even before and especially since their union voted to authorize a strike in early September, the musicians say that the Star-Telegram’s coverage of the work stoppage has been decidedly one-sided. The paper’s writers have made little to no effort to get the musicians’ side of the story, Unger said, and when the musicians have pointed out numerous factual errors in the reporting, no one from the paper has even bothered to respond.
The musicians say that FWSO management has waged a public relations war against its striking employees, and the embattled musos believe that the local daily paper has, at the very least, become a mouthpiece for management’s talking points. The musicians have openly questioned whether or not the paper’s publisher has steered the coverage to slant heavily toward management’s point of view.
In an email response, publisher Wortel said he stands by his paper’s coverage of the strike, noting that the Star-Telegram has made every effort to be fair to both sides. He said the paper’s omission of his involvement with the symphony’s board was just an oversight.
“We have included comments from musicians’ union representatives in all of our coverage, and we have also quoted individual musicians in several stories,” he said. “Online, we have posted videos of musicians picketing and staging sit-ins in the orchestra offices. We have also published information on events that the musicians have been organizing since the strike, including a November 20 story previewing their holiday concert.”
The musicians went on strike after 15 months of negotiations and federal mediation. Management asked the musicians to take a pay cut after taking a 13.5 percent decrease in pay in 2010. FWSO CEO Amy Adkins said in the Star-T and other outlets that the fallout from the plummeting oil and gas prices has hurt the local economy and that donors just aren’t giving as much as they used to. She also added that local governments have slashed their arts budgets and that revenue from the orchestra’s endowment has been slowly declining. Without cuts, the statement said, the orchestra would plunge into $700,000 of debt.
In the response that ran on the Morning News’ website, the musicians pointed out that local government funding represents less than 1 percent of the orchestra’s budget and that the symphony hasn’t launched an endowment campaign since 2000.
Numerous other arts organizations, including other Texas symphonies, are thriving in the same economic conditions. The Houston symphony’s budget increased 12 percent last year, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra raised $32 million. The Fort Worth Opera just raised $1 million and doubled its donor base in three months. The Fort Worth Zoo just raised $90 million in its recent campaign.
Unger and his fellow musicians want the FWSO to focus on collaborating on creative fundraising instead of cutting pay as a matter of course.
“The Star-Telegram’s alarmist editorial implying that if the musicians didn’t take a pay cut there wouldn’t be an orchestra is a little far-fetched because [the FWSO] don’t actually have any debt,” Unger said. “It’s a projected debt in the future.
“We need to create more revenue through fundraising,” he continued. “That’s been the problem since we took a pay cut in 2010 and one of the reasons that we’re [on strike]. We know that management can’t continue to operate with the philosophy that all they have to do is repeatedly cut salary to make up for the fact that they won’t fundraise.”
Minneapolis-based arts writer Scott Chamberlain has been following the Fort Worth strike closely on his blog, Mask of the Flower Prince. He said the situation here mirrors a strike in Minneapolis a few years back.
“The publisher of the Star Tribune, a gentleman by the name of Michael Klingensmith, was not only the publisher but he was sitting on the board of the Minneapolis orchestra,” Chamberlain said. “Likewise, there was kind of this sense that the paper was really just publishing the talking points of management.
“And it was one of those things where it really made it hard for the community to understand the issues because there was really only one voice coming through –– that of the management,” he said.
Chamberlain said he was disturbed by the Star-Telegram’s “RIP” editorial and called the PR campaign being waged by FWSO’s management “short-sighted.”
“This is a hearts and minds campaign, but it also has the very practical effect of influencing fund-raising and other corporate support,” he said. “They’re essentially using a PR campaign against their best asset, their musicians. So when that’s all said and done, it’s hard to rebuild that trust.”
In a statement released the day of the strike, CEO Adkins said she was “baffled” by the musicians’ decision. She went on to say that the orchestra employs 65 full-time musicians at an average annual salary of $62,000 plus health benefits. The contract the musicians rejected, the statement said, included a significant pay cut during the first year and small, incremental raises in subsequent years that would result in principal players being paid more than $70,000 a year. The Star-Telegram ran those figures without context, Unger said.
“They’re just regurgitating misleading facts that management puts out,” Unger said. “The story said there were 65 full-time positions. There are only 57 now. Earning an average of 62K, that’s misleading. We only negotiate base salary, anything above that is something that management chooses to pay … more than the base – we can’t negotiate that. To lump everything into that number artificially inflates it. Our base salary is actually $54K. And they want to take it back to $51[K].”
The information in the Star-T also fails to mention that under the FWSO’s health plan, he said, the cost to insure a family is approximately $1,750 a month.
On their own website and social media outlets, the musicians have posted rebuttals to numerous other erroneous statements made in the Star-Telegram by management. In a Star-T article on September 20, Adkins was quoted as saying that the union had not requested meetings with management despite the fact that musicians had publicly asked that management return to the negotiating table. In an October 18 article, Adkins told the Star-Telegram that she revealed a plan to start an endowment campaign in August, before the musicians had agreed to strike.
Tuba player Ed Jones, who is on the negotiating committee, said Adkins didn’t reveal the endowment plans until the very last negotiating session on September 7.
“We only had one bargaining session in August, and that was a mediation session where these types of things aren’t discussed,” he said. “On September 7, the musicians had already rejected the contract offer and had already voted for a strike authorization. So revealing that plan at the last minute when she states that it was revealed prior to us rejecting the contract offer is inaccurate.”
FWSO management did not respond to questions from a reporter for this story in time for print deadline.
The musicians have formed a community organization called Save Our Symphony Fort Worth that recently produced a Christmas concert at Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum. More than 1,500 people attended, which several musicians said exceeded their wildest expectations.
Unger said that he and the musicians have received overwhelming support from the community.
“The response from everyone … was just astonishment at the lack of effort on the board’s part to resolve this,” he said. “I can sense the public is getting a little fed up with the way management and the board have been acting by canceling concerts months out instead of trying to resolve this.”
The symphony is already starting to lose players to other cities. The Orchestra has lost roughly a third of its players since 2010. French horn player Molly Norcross recently signed a contract with the San Antonio Symphony with the understanding that she’ll return to Fort Worth once the strike has ended. She said she’s felt a little demonized by the local media’s coverage of the strike, but she remains optimistic.
“There are a lot of great musicians out there,” Norcross said. “And if the environment can be recreated, they will come.”