Yesterday, you posted a story about James Oestreich’s departure from the New York Times.

Lebrecht vs Oestreich 1

This article reflects poorly on you in a number of ways:

1) You are dismissive of his contribution to the New York Times without offering a single example of something he’s supposed to have done wrong. This is weak: it’s pretty easy to identify specific flaws in bad writing. I’m about to demonstrate this, but I suspect you’re familiar with the method. I imagine you probably read this review in the New York Times, in which your book Why Mahler is systematically torn to shreds by a critic called James Oestreich*. Journalism is subject to the principle of falsifiability: you only need to show that somebody got something wrong once to establish that it can’t be relied upon.

2) You offer the barely-meaningful commentary that “his departure will unblock a function that has ossified and gone rancid in recent years”. This may be a slightly pedantic point, but whatever the “function” is, it has either ossified (ceased to develop in any direction) or gone rancid (actively decayed). Either way, it’s perhaps worth mentioning that your low opinion of his work is not universal.

3) A cynic might suggest that this vagueness is deliberate ploy: you’ve tried making specific accusations before, and seen one of your books pulped as a result. This, too, was covered by the New York Times – I’m speculating here, but I imagine with the approval of the classical music editor, James Oestreich. The lesson most people would learn from the whole libel/pulped book experience is to avoid attacking somebody’s professional reputation unless you know what you’re talking about. To instead switch from specifics to innuendo is a particularly repulsive and cowardly form of bullying.

4) Ossified, rancid, or both, what you’ve done here is a casual slur, something you’d know all about, since you complained about such sloppy, misinformed writing here, in an article written last July in which you take issue with a story in the New York Times written by a critic called James Oestreich.

5) Aside from a non-specific disdain for his body of work, your story is short on verifiable statements. I count just three: he’s leaving immediately, he’s retiring, his departure is a consequence of Jon Landman’s resignation. You offer no source for these assertions, which leaves the reader to trust that you are both (a) an honest and neutral observer and (b) a knowledgable insider (as your tagline “the inside track on classical music and related cultures” might imply).

6) You illustrated the story with a picture of somebody who is not (and does not particularly resemble) James Oestreich. This rather undermines the notion that you have specific, accurate inside knowledge of this matter. You might have simply grabbed the image from this blog post without bothering to check a second source. I suppose “this is what Jim Oestreich looks like” might be considered a fourth verifiable statement, and in this case, it’s false.

7) You later added what you assert to be his farewell email to staff (as an “Update” and not as a correction), but you did not acknowledge that, while it is silent on one of them, this email contradicts two of the three assertions above: he says he is not leaving immediately and has no plans to retire. That means 75% of this story has already been shown to be untrue, with the veracity of the remaining 25% (the reason for his departure) as yet unaccounted for.

Lebrecht vs Oestreich 3

8) You eventually found a picture of the right person, but again made the correction quietly. It is not good practice to make corrections without acknowledgement, and here’s why: you might fool some people into thinking you never make mistakes, but you leave anybody who is paying attention with the impression that, if what they’re reading subsequently turned out to be untrue, you’d make no effort to tell them. I can’t think why you’d do this unless you were totally indifferent to the truth and thought your readers dumb enough not to notice.

So, to recap: in this instance at least, you don’t have much to say. That which you do say is largely untrue, and when you find out  it’s not true, you don’t bother to tell anybody – either because you don’t care or because you actively wish to hide it.**

This is why I very rarely look at your blog: it’s like the factual equivalent of antimatter. I can feel myself getting dumber and less well-informed as I absorb one misleading headline after another. It’s simply too much work to go back and check each of your assertions, and they’re wrong far too often for me to assume they’re not. There are more than 4,000 posts on your blog. Who knows how many mistakes are in there? You’ve given us no reason to suppose that you’d tell us (or even change it) if you found one.

When I accidentally start reading something you’ve written, I now make an effort to check every verifiable statement in it so I don’t walk away with a head full of half-truths and distortions.

In the end I came to the conclusion that I’d have a more accurate picture of what’s going on in the music industry if I just ignored your work all together.

Now that I’ve finished this post, that’s what I’m going to do.

* If I’m going to call you out for attacking somebody who gave you an unfavourable review, I should probably say that while several of my projects has received favourable coverage in the New York Times, I’m not aware of anything James Oestreich has written about me, and as far as I know the only things you’ve written about my work are here and here. Both are laughably bad bits of reporting, but I have never lost any sleep over them.

** The difference between these two is eloquently and concisely described in Harry Frankfurt’s excellent On Bullshit. I suspect, Norman, that you’re more of a bullshitter than a liar, but that’s just speculation on my part.


EDIT: I’ve disabled comments on this post because it attracts a vary large number of spam comments. If you’ve got a real comment, please do get in touch and I can turn them back on for you.



  1. January 24, 2013

    Hmm – not sure publishing his private email (and as a live link!) is cool either. :-/

    • January 24, 2013

      You’re quite right. I should have pixelated that before hitting “publish”.

    • K. R. #
      January 24, 2013

      I note that Lebrecht has since updated the post again to completely remove the line with Oestreich’s private email – and, true to form, he did so without acknowledging that any change had been made, confirming your point.

      I agree with all of the points made against Lebrecht in this post. I can only add that he – or perhaps the person who moderates comments on his blog, if it’s not him personally – is also quite ungracious when other correct him on his mistakes. I found this out personally when I called him out for a small but sloppy factual error (he said that Georg Solti had been dead for ten years, when it had actually been fifteen). Naturally, the error was corrected, but my comment was also swiftly deleted and I was also put on some kind of technological blacklist that kept me from being able to make future comments with my own email address and from the IP address I’d been using. No great loss, of course, as Lebrecht wasn’t providing me with anything like reliable information, and giving up reading his blog was probably good for my blood pressure.

  2. January 24, 2013

    My habit of immediately making and noting corrections will, I hope, keep me from ever being on the receiving end of “I have a bone to pick with you.” 🙂

    • January 24, 2013

      That, the fact you don’t talk utter bollocks and maybe also because I’m slightly scared of you.

      • January 24, 2013

        I am sworn to use my powers only for good, sir; you are in no danger from me.

  3. Pekka Kuusisto #
    January 24, 2013

    Dear Sir, this is pure gold. Thank you.

  4. January 25, 2013

    Being totally out of the loop, I thought the article was really about decentralizing the (monolithic myth of) one overriding reviewing paper (only Lebrecht didn’t know it). I was moved by Oestreich’s letter to the staff – what a lovely man. And I think I remember something about him giving Taruskin a leg up in more popular forums writing about classical music; that alone deserves our undying gratitude!

  5. musicalassumptions #
    January 26, 2013

    I first doubted Mr. Lebrecht when he had incorrect information in “The Companion to Twentieth Century Music,” and later I found some blatant misrepresentations of people I knew (and could check) in “Who Killed Classical Music.” The fact that he retains an audience in the blogosphere and a respected place as a critic, of sorts, boggles the mind. I used to read his blog and comment when he said something particularly distasteful, but I have stopped reading him altogether. I don’t think you’ll miss much by tuning out.

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