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Guest Opinion: Aspen Daily News story lacks all-star reporting

Stewart Oksenhorn

When we first saw the Aspen Daily News’ coverage of the North Mississippi Allstars, a rock band that finished a two-night stand at the Belly Up last night, we were impressed.The story, under the byline of Daily News staff writer Andre Salvail and appearing in the paper’s Time Out section dated March 10-16, was an ambitious piece of journalism. Salvail had apparently interviewed not only Luther Dickinson, the Allstars’ guitarist and singer, but also Jim Dickinson – the father of Allstars Luther and Cody Dickinson, producer of several Allstars albums, and a noted musician in his own right, having worked with the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin.More than just the sources Salvail had tapped, he had gotten priceless quotes out of both generations of Dickinsons. Salvail quoted Luther, reminiscing about his younger days watching North Mississippi blues legends R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, “We used to drive down wide-eyed and open-eared to watch and listen to these giants among men, the kings of the hills playing their music with their people for their people.” He had the elder Dickinson saying, “Something happens when white boys play the blues – rock and roll. Whether it’s Elvis or the Beastie Boys, this music has come to symbolize freedom the world over and to illustrate the interracial brotherhood of man.”It’s interesting, even deep stuff, these observations on rock music’s social role, and on the relationship of young white rockers to older, black bluesmen. It’s excellent journalism.With one problem: It’s not Salvail’s work.The quotations cited above, like all of the quotes in the Aspen Daily News article, are ripped word-for-word from the North Mississippi Allstars’ page on bighassle.com, the website of the band’s publicist.In fact, there’s nothing wrong with using such quotes; that is the purpose of such freely available press materials. However, good journalism, even at the bottom rung of honesty and transparency, requires that such sources be disclosed. A reporter pulling quotes from a website – especially lengthy, insightful quotes, used in abundance as the dominant part of a story – should make it clear where such material comes from.Salvail did not do this. There is no reference to the website for the quotes – five of them. Instead, Salvail uses the phrases “says Luther Dickinson” or “says Jim Dickinson” as the source for each quote. It’s impossible for us to know whether Salvail misled readers – and his editors – into believing he had conducted his own interviews. But a reader is certainly left with the impression that Salvail had an audience with both Dickinsons; indeed, he nearly fooled the cagey veterans at this newspaper.There are, of course, far worse crimes of journalism than failing to mention that your work is not, in fact, “your work.” A piece of sloppiness in the entertainment section doesn’t shake the world. But it should be, and has been, taken seriously. A few years ago, G. Brown resigned from the Denver Post after it was revealed that he had repeatedly appropriated segments from other sources without attribution. Brown had been the Post’s longtime music journalist.It should be noted that Salvail’s duties extend beyond being a music writer; his recent coverage includes stories on the development of Burnt Mountain in Snowmass and proposals for the rebuilding of the Snowmass Chapel. Poor journalism in those areas could have potentially greater ramifications.Stewart Oksenhorn has been The Aspen Times arts and entertainment editor for more than 12 years.


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