This piece is still under edit, so expect problems, typos, etc.
This is an excerpt from Chase as the White Horse, Tom Manoff’s memoir about his family across an American Century.
The phone rings. A fellow named Nat Silverman starts talking fast. Nat was a record promoter and shouldn’t have had my home number.
“How’d you get my number? ” As a music critic for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, my private information is supposed to be secure at NPR.
Nat avoided my question and started telling jokes, funny ones about being a record promoter, inside jokes for people like us. Suddenly I was laughing, still annoyed, but laughing. Nat slipped into his spiel that he was also a stand-up comic.Nat was hawking two record labels. First, Naxos. a new budget label selling classical Cd’s for around 5 dollars. With CD’s normally around $15, Naxos CD’s were a bargain. The quality of the music wasn’t good. The artists were paid nothing. But the label was doing well in Asia where people wanted Cds at a low cost.
Nat’s ptich wasn’t about the music, but the company and its head Klaus Heymann, born in Germany and a resident of Hong Kong where Naxos was based.
Nat said Naxos would fly me to Hong Hong for two weeks to do a show on Heymann and the label. I nice offer. I’d had a few of these, one to England for a week.
“Nat,” I said, “I’d lose my position at National Public Radio if I did something like this.”
Nat must of known this, but Heymann may have assumed European rules where critics accept “offers.” So it was a no on Naxos. Nat did send me a lot of the CDs, some of interest, but in general not good enough to review. Today Naxos is among the best classical companies in the world.
Nat had a second label to push. A start-up classical label from Chicago with the fancified name Cedille.
The idea, Nat told me, was a world-class label that used Chicago artists only. The idea struck me as silly. How could one start a world-class label and limit the artists to this one city? By definition, world-class means artists from around the world. I pointed this out. Nat said that was the plan.
First off, I knew this was a vanity label. Someone with deep pockets was setting this up. But classical music needed (and needs) all the help it can get. So, with that in mind, I let Nat continue with his spiel.
Amazingly, Nat had promised the owner of the label – a guy named Jim – that Nat would get him a review from me on All Things Considered. Nat ! Are you out of your mind ? You can’t promise anything like that.
And now, Mr. Nat Silverman, just how did you get my private home number ? That had to come from NPR. Not good.
Nat says, “listen Tom, my job depends on getting a review for this label on All Things Considered.” Too bad Nat. You had no right to promise that. Are you kidding me ? I’m wondering now with a growing anger: just who at NPR had given this fellow my home number. That is not done in a professional news organization.
But I still wanted to support an American label that was releasing classical music. So I agreed to listen attentively to any recordings he sent.
The recordings arrived. They were just awful. Bad musicians and terribly recorded. I let Nat know. Send me anything new, and we can see if something really good comes my way. And I forgot about the interchange. Over. Done.
Records arrive. All mediocre. Nothing I would review. Nat called after sending them. I told him the truth.
Then he says, will you at least talk with the Jim, the owner of the label. Tell him your concerns and perhaps the conversation will help him with the label.
OK. Seemed honest, reasonable and something I wanted to do for classical music. In the end, what matters is that classical recordings keep coming.
More bad records. Then I get a call from the owner, Jim. The guy strikes me immediately as a prima donna, someone with a old silver spoon in his mouth, and worse, in his head. He wanted to know why I didn’t like his records. I said because they were mediocre. He seemed unwilling to accept my stand. Too bad, Jim. That’s who I am. Put out a good record and I’ll review it. Meantime, step aside and learn your craft.
Then a fine recording came to me from the Nonesuch label. Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No.3, Opus 36, featuring Dawn Upshaw as the soloist. Here it is :Gorecki, Symphony No. 3.__________________________________________________________________________
I get another batch of mediocre Cds from Cedillie and report to Nat as a courtesy. Then I get another call from the owner.
Jim wants to know why I didn’t give his latest record a good review like the Gorecki Third Symphony. Are you serious ? That recording was inspired and touched by magic. Your stuff, well, isn’t near that level. Come on, Jim. Get real.
Then he says, “by the way,” are you going to be in Washington on July 14th for the festivities?”
What’s he talking about, I thought . Bastille Day ? What festivity could possibly be on that date.
Then he drops the hammer as if he were bigfoot. “My mother is going on the Supreme Court.”
So. Mr. Jim Ginsburg, here we are, I thought. here’s the reason you’re limited to Chicago.
I was more than angry.Who does this guy think he is ? Does he think he can lean on me because his mother is going on the court ?
Listen, Jim, I say. Congratulations. And rah rah for the Bill of Rights. And, Mr. Ginsburg, if you ever put out a porno record, at least you will have someone on your side. And I hung up.
The next day I call Bob Boilen, the director of All Things Considered and my editor. I say we can’t review this label. He’s leaning on us because his mother is on the court.
Bob says, “oh, that explains the all the Cedille records that Nina Totenberg dumped on my desk.”
And that was that. Later, I still tried to help out the label. But this wasn’t a square deal.
NPR may have had a liberal reputation then. But when it comes to undo influence with classical music, any under-the-table pressure is a blemish on our Sacred Sounds.
I imagine that justice Ginsburg had no knowledge of the incident. But I wonder who and where got this whole thing going. It most certainly doesn’t reflect well on her position. I imagine her son, James Ginsburg is in for a scolding. Certainly I did my job here. And I stand by my actions.
As fir Ginsburg. What can I say. All these Cedille records are tainted for me. Every one. It wasn’t technically a bribe, but it was close to it.
Bad business all around. Don’t you think ?
This is the kind of thing that makes people distrust news outlets. And without that trust, we are without a true voice in a bleak time.
Nina Totenberg’s relationtship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is discussed here
Then in 2000 some journalists expressed concern that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg officiating at Totenberg’s marriage could be seen as a conflict of interest. Totenberg responded she did not consider it a conflict of interest since her friendship with the jurist was established long before Ginsburg was nominated to the Supreme Court. (Wikipedia)