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Bye-bye journalists

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By Michelle Zis

Dan Rather isn’t the only reporter stepping down. David D’Arcy, a National Public Radio (NPR) art news freelance contributor for the past 20 years, will also no longer be on the air. In Rather’s case, the authenticity of documents used in his CBS 60 Minutes Wednesday report about President Bush’s participation in the Texas Air National Guard came into question. In D’Arcy’s case, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) complained about his December 27, 2004, report on the controversial ownership of Egon Schiele’s painting, Portrait of Wally, resulting in NPR asking him to step down.

In 1939, Nazis stole the painting from Viennese dealer Lea Bondi. After the war, allies returned the painting to Austrian authorities, who subsequently returned the painting to the wrong Jewish family. That family then sold it to an Austrian museum. The Leopald Foundation in Vienna currently owns the piece and loaned it to MoMA for an exhibition in 1997. The foundation refuses to return it to Bondi’s heirs and a court battle began after the Bondi family tracked the painting to the MoMA. The piece was subpoenaed as stolen property. The subpoenae was overruled, and the painting is sitting in MoMA storage.

D’Arcy said in his radio broadcast that MoMA declined to comment for his story. However, several other sources criticized the museum’s position on the affair and D’Arcy did include those comments in his report. D’Arcy stated that within the past seven years MoMA has said that they are bound by a loan agreement to return the piece to the foundation.

MoMA swiftly contacted NPR and requested a correction. NPR posted this correction on its website: The government, not the museum, has custody of the artwork. The museum says it took no position on the question of the painting’s ownership. NPR failed to give the museum a chance to answer allegations about its motivations and actions.

D’Arcy says he faxed MoMA and received a fax back saying they declined to speak about the painting. In the NPR report, he says that all three parties MoMA’s lawyers, the Bondi family and the Leopald Foundation would not make a statement for his report. Despite these attempts, NPR sent D’Arcy a termination memo stating that he failed to follow basic standards of journalism. Many have come to D’Arcy’s side, such as well-known reporters, art historians and experts in Nazi-era art restitution. CBS News Correspondent Morley Safer sent a letter to the NPR board stating that the broadcaster has caved in to intimidation by a large, wealthy and powerful cultural institution. An interesting comment from a CBS reporter, viewed in the light of the Dan Rather affair.

Artnet.com, the first to cover the story of D’Arcy’s termination, reported that D’Arcy and his attorney plan to take action. His lawyer told Arnet.com, it’s been an awful experience for him, being undermined as a journalist by both MoMA and NPR. In both the Rather and D’Arcy cases, freedom of the press comes into question. One thing is for certain: journalists should watch their backs.

April 2005

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