Conflicts

Conflicts (Baynard Woods / August 8, 2014)

Smalltimore: It's a bullshit designation used by white people to describe the so-called "white L." Nevertheless, it's hard to report on the city's art scene without encountering dozens of people you know, which is why I have this column called "Conflicts of Interest." Even if you start out knowing no one, eventually, you write a story, see the subject later at a bar, have drinks, whatever . . . and then you have to write about him or her again. How do you deal with it?  

The short answer, the only answer, is to tell the truth to your readers. When Travis Kitchens writes about Zane Campbell or when Nolen Strals interviews Patrick Stickles, their relationships can make the piece stronger. But only when, and because, they are acknowledged. 

There's a sort of rule in media circles that says "don't punch down," meaning "don't attack the little guy." While I agree, I also think if a publication does not offer full disclosures of its relations, then another one must. 

In this week's issue of What Weekly, the local webzine offers a feature on magician David London—who used to be the Managing Director of What Weekly. It would be fine, and appropriate, if they revealed the relationship. But they don't and so it is, ultimately, a kind of deception. 

For the sake of full disclosure: When I first moved to Baltimore, I began to write for What Weekly. I thought it had promise. I began a column there, very much like our City Folk, called "The Bent Ear" after the early stories of Joseph Mitchell. When my book "Coffin Point: The Strange Cases of Ed McTeer, Witchdoctor Sheriff," came out, they held the release party. But they didn't pay writers for stories and they did not believe in negative reviews. The business model seemed to be: if you write positive things about people, they will read you. 

We had a falling out over this and I quit writing for them. The extent of the philosophical disagreement became evident when the marketing firm—now called What Works Studio—run by the same people seemed to take a precedence over any actual cultural content. They put out an expensive-looking video advertising the "magazine" and it didn't feature any of the art or music that any of the writers or photographers had covered; instead it was a black-and-white pseudo-noir homage to the love affair of the owners. It was so utterly ridiculous, we couldn't help but give it a back-handed "best of."  

Of course that made them hate us more. They moved into my neighborhood and won't speak at me when I wave. Once, I saw Justin Allen, one of the owners, in Eddie's. I feel one should be neighborly. I said "hi." He said, "Don't pretend to be friends," and stormed off. I wasn't pretending to be a friend. He is my enemy—I think he sees capitalism as art and art as capitalism and I despise that view—but I value my enemies almost above all else. And if an enemy is also a neighbor, I will greet the neighbor on the street. Civilization. 

But the marketing types don't seem to get it. So, when they write about a former editor, they don't feel it is necessary to let the reader know—which is the final sign that What Works Studio, the advertising marketers, has entirely defeated What Weekly, the wanna-be journalistic enterprise. London ran the joint and they don't need to tell you? What the fuck else won't they tell you? 

The kind of writing we do is entirely worthless if there is not even an attempt to tell the truth. Without that it is the mere narcissism of scenesters who want to see their names in print. Sure, What Weekly has published tons of utter shit, like this six-part story where a girl decides whether she should leave the "moldy cheeseburger" of Baltimore. But they have also published some good work, which is why I write this. They ruin it all by not telling the truth. 

Publications like this one strive to keep a strong firewall between advertisement and editorial. If one strip club gets mad at what we write (What Works always tries to attack us for strip-club ads), they are not our sole source of funding, so, we can tell them to go to hell (we, of course, are not perfect—we had an issue with this back before we were bought, when we took down a blog post due to the demands of an advertiser, but it ultimately caused a rebellion and we have worked to regain your trust). And you can always flip through the pages and see, directly, where our funding comes from. This isn't always true for What Weekly, where the relationship between What Works advertising and the web zine is not very clearly laid out. When What Works offers to help you "build your brand" does that service include a profile in What Weekly? One would hope not, but I don't actually know.  

So, come on, if you profile your former Managing Director, make that relationship clear. It's not hard; just begin with the words "full disclosure" and then tell the truth.