The firings of three longtime Village Voice writers remind us what an innovative, irascible and entertaining paper the tabloid was for five decades and how, like much of the rest of the press, it now slouches towards irrelevance for our culture and our democracy.
Theater critic Michael Feingold and food critic Robert Sietsema were fired, followed by the Voice’s only remaining brand-name writer, columnist Michael Musto. Editors Will Bourne and Jessica Lustig resigned rather than execute their orders to fire, forcing top management to fly in to do its own dirty work.
Musto, reading all the praise for his work that poured in Monday, told The Huffington Post, “I feel like I’m reading my own obituary while still alive.”
But the praise for the “La Dolce Musto” columnist is also part of a pre-obituary for the Voice. At least for the feisty, intellectual, raucous, profane and literary weekly that stood four square for fist (we’ll let the curious look up the last word) and for exposing corruption everywhere in Gotham and sometimes far beyond.
It was, not incidentally, the 1955 birth of the Voice that spawned a thousand alternative newspapers, including one in Phoenix whose owners bought the Greenwich Village weekly in 2005 and still control its emaciated and emasculated remains.
For almost three decades Musto entertained readers while bringing them plenty of actual news in the world of other-than-straights. Gays and lesbians were far from the Voice’s only audience, but they were among its most devoted readers. Offered a real Village Voice, they likely would remain so because even as same-sex unions become legal, the major news organizations continue to portray the world through straight eyes.
Even the mainstream gossip columnists, most of whom could gather their tantalizing string because they lived in the alternative society that straights forced on others, had to write it straight unless they were in a paper like the Voice.
For decades the Voice once did fine work revealing the corrupt courts that let estates be looted, on Donald Trump’s tax favors and fantastical claims, on the handing out of paroles and pardons to dangerous felons whose relatives donated generously to politicians, on the unsavory ties between organized crime and local elected officials — and the rest of the unofficial, but crucial, version of events.
All the news that’s fit to print is a slogan of the official version of events and the official criticisms of the official version of events. The Voice of old said baloney to that and gave us the richly textured, often polemical, badass version of events the establishment closed its eyes to as long as it could.
But the bylines that for so long alerted us to all the corruption the three dailies missed, or came to only after the Voice, are long gone from the Village paper’s pages. Now Musto, the merry print prankster, joins them in exile.
A not-so-subtle shift began when the Voice was sold to new owners in 2005, publishers of Phoenix New Times, a scrappy alternative weekly with a libertarian bent that fit the “Desert of the Sun” in Arizona. The new owners moved away from the Voice’s historic audience of outsiders and toward the young money crowd that was prospering even further down Manhattan Island than the Village right up until the economy collapsed in 2008.
The firings of Musto, Feingold and Sietsema, and the principled resignations of Bourne and Lustig, come three years after the Voice made what historians will, I am confident, see as the turning-point decision for the newspaper’s future.
In 2010 the new owners fired the best reporter in New York, at least when it came to digging up malfeasance. He is Wayne Barrett, the most honorable journalist I have ever known and someone who would have been a huge star if only he could have written as solidly as he reported, because his reporting was pure gold dug from mountains of bureaucratic paperwork used to hide terrible truths.
Despite working for a lefty rag, Barrett had fantastic law enforcement sources. NYPD detectives, FBI sleuths and more than a few of the green eyeshade financial cops knew Barrett’s work, fed him and even trusted when Barrett shared these sources with a few other journalists, including me. And unlike a lot of those sources, Barrett never smoked, tobacco or joint.
Barrett had an astonishing capacity for hard work, once sitting for days reading microfilm files, fighting off the nausea the moving images induce, to find a golden nugget of fact buried in a million pages of documentation.
Barrett trained many of the best reporters still at work in publications large and small, instilling in them his instinct for news, his fearlessness and his work ethic. And he was generous with other reporters he respected, including me for the last 25 years.
In the Voice, Barrett went wherever the facts went. Period.