NY Times Stephen Johnson rebuttals


No, actually everything’s not hunky-dory in the creative universe

The creative community has been buzzing this past week in response to the NY Times Sunday Magazine piece by Steven Johnson, “The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t.”  Not surprisingly, feedback in the Times comments section was decidedly negative.  As the week’s progressed we’ve also seen a number of thoughtful responses in commentaries published across the web.  Some of the criticism, notably that found in a blog post, The Data Journalism That Wasn’t by the Future of Music Coalition’s Kevin Erickson, took Johnson to task for his questionable analysis:

Alas, what ended up running was rather disappointing. NYT Magazine chose to publish without substantive change most of the things that we told them were either: a) not accurate or b) not verifiable because there is no industry consensus and the “facts” could really go either way.

Steven Johnson’s article “The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t” frames itself as a data-driven response to concerns about the plight of creative workers in the digital age. But Johnson’s grasp of the limitations of the data he cites seems tenuous, and he ends up relying on some very dubious and all-too-familiar assumptions. In its sweeping dismissal of artists’ various concerns, the article reads as an exercise in gaslighting.

Erickson’s criticism prompted Johnson to pen a follow up piece that was published in yesterday’s Times where he defended his reportage, and his examination of the “data.”

Amid the tit for tat, I suggest reading some other thoughtful responses to the original piece.  Each questions the central premise of Johnson’s article–one that asserts that the business of creativity is thriving in the digital age.

Below are just a few snippets from pieces I suggest folks read in their entirety.  First up is journalist is author Robert Levine, author of Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back.  Writing for Billboard, Mr. Levine questioned Johnson’s thesis in his piece, Are Creators Really Thriving in the Digital Age? Doesn’t Look Like It:

The biggest problem with Johnson’s piece is that he’s asking the wrong question. He’s trying to figure out if creators as a group are making more money. There’s considerable evidence they’re not. What we should be looking at instead is whether creators can sell their work in a fair and functioning market that will reward them according to the demand for their work. That’s why we have copyright — because the best way to find out which artists ought to be creating what is to see who wants it and what they’re willing to pay.

Also taking issue with Johnson’s cover story was David Newhoff of The Illusion of More blog.   In his post, Steven Johnson & A Thesis That Isn’t Newhoff dissects each of Johnson’s assertions point by point, and also views the issue of copyright as being central to having genuine debate as to whether creators can thrive in the digital age:

Ultimately, Johnson is supporting an anti-copyright — and even pro-piracy — argument; but he seems to want to have his Cake and eat John McCrea’s lunch, too. And I say this because so much of the evidence for prosperity he offers — both economic and anecdotal — is largely dependent upon the framework of copyright. So, after leading off with a thesis that fundamentally begs a question about the seeds of piracy (i.e. Did it hurt us?), he winds up painting some pretty pictures, but never quite answers the question because so much of the good news he alludes to is antithetical to a market that ignores, tolerates, or even extolls the permission-free use of creative works.  Because, as we see with examples like MusicKey or with the Internet industry’s willingness to monetize infringement while lobbying hard against creators’ rights, many creators themselves continue to discover that the Web giveth shortly before the Web taketh away.

Chris Castle from the Music Tech Policy blog also chimed in with a critical response in a post Why is the New York Times Coverage on Artist Rights So Oddly Inconsistent?  Castle notes that not only did Johnson co-opt the blog’s tagline “Your Survival Guide to the Creative Apocalypse”, but that suggests that many of the assertions made by Mr. Johnson are strikingly similar to well-worn tech industry talking points.   Castle also takes the Times to task for not offering an opposing viewpoint:

The real question is what is the New York Times up to.  On the one hand we have great reporting at NYT by journalists like Ben Sisario who has some of the best music business writing out there.  He takes the time to actually talk to people, get both sides, and so some first rate analysis.  Trying to get at the whatchamacallit..you know, that truthiness thing.  This is what we expect from the New York Times, the newspaper of record.

But to have factcheckers cherry pick issues presented “how long have you been beating your wife” style and then to not even use the information in a side bar is really hard to understand as being anything other than agenda driven.   How difficult would it have been to run a companion piece saying that people disagree?

If nothing else, Johnson’s assertions in his magazine piece stirred up the creative community.  Apparently those working in “creative careers” are not “thriving” quite to the extent he would have Times readers believe.

If you would like to let editors at the Times know your thoughts, send off an email to the NY Times ([email protected]).  Will Buckley Jr., founder of Fare Play sent a letter to Margaret Sullivan, the NY Times Public Editor.  In his letter, titled “The Creative Meltdown That Is,” Buckley noted that Johnson’s piece was, essentially, a rehash of tired tech talking points:

First off the article is basically a rehash of Mike Masnick’s ‘The Sky is Rising‘, a much derided and criticized overview of the entertainment industry and how in January of 2012 things were actually looking up for artists.  Many of the points made in Masnick’s Techdirt post and ‘The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t‘ are actually the same ones used by the proponents of online piracy attempting to make a case for the positive attributes of illegal free file sharing.

Well said Mr. Buckley. The more the creative community who join with him to push back and set the record straight, the better.


*Update:  My original blog post originally misidentified the Future of Music Coalition as the Music First Coalition.  I regret the error.