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.
Barrett had been perhaps the best-fed source of hard-charging Rudy Giuliani, the federal prosecutor who made his name going after mobsters. When Barrett’s meticulous research for his book Rudy!: An Investigative Biography of Rudolph Giuliani, revealed that Giuliani’s father had gone to Sing Sing after getting pinched for robbery, Barrett never flinched. He just told the truth, despite the furies unleashed by the man who would become mayor.
And after 9/11 Barrett (with coauthor Danny Collins, husband of Gail) wrote the most eye-opening book on what happened on the ground in New York on that day. Grand Illusion: The Untold Story of Rudy Giuliani and 9/11, was published by Rupert Murdoch’s HarperCollins (itself an amazing liaison of lefty journalist and rightist publisher).
The analysis of how Giuliani ignored advice on where to put the command center that collapsed in the 9/11 attacks (a vulnerable spot, but one with a bedroom where he took lady friends after a short stroll from City Hall) to how the mayor drew command officers away from dealing with the collapsing towers to get promotional video footage of himself is a frightening description of the politics of appearance rather than substance. It is exactly what you will never read in what remains today of the Village Voice.
When Barrett got the boot three years ago, the other tenacious watchdog on the Voice staff quit in unison. Tom Robbins had the integrity to do that in a collapsing market for journalists and despite being 60 years old.
The loss of substance in the Voice immediately became apparent. Without Barrett and Robbins, and the eager youngsters they attracted to the newsroom, the paper lost its edge.
So today the Village Voice comes out, but without Barrett, without Robbins, without Feingold and now without Michael Musto. Pray tell, what is there in the Village Voice worth reading these days? And what appeal can persist for advertisers in a paper that was once a thick pad of ideas sublime and outrageous, but now offers the thin gruel of lists and silliness?
Could Norman Mailer, if we resurrected his insightful mind and pugilistic spirit, get published these days in the paper he co-founded with Dan Wolf and others 58 years ago? Could any of the writers who in the 70s and 80s produced such powerful journalism it attracted readers (like me) from as far away as California?
Some substance still exists today in the Voice. It has done good coverage of the Cooper Union endowment mess. But beyond that, not much urban journalism. It reads like a paper aimed at yuppies, who are so yesterday, and those readers with neither a social conscience nor the fortunes required for the private jets and gated communities required to buy one’s way out of the social contract.
Instead, the 2013 Voice proffers low-rent foodie porn not in the low-rent East Village or ad hoc artist communes in Brooklyn, but pieces like “Spiedie Notes: A Sandwich Tour of Binghamton and Endicott.” It does still, of course, offer listings of all the things you can do at a quarter past three, mixed in with lightweight film reviews.
All in all, certainly not enough substance to make it worthwhile to just stop on the sidewalk, reach over, open the plastic newspaper holder and take a free one, much less actually devote time to reading.
New York’s klepto-politicians rejoice privately at how the new owners run the place. They are deservedly renowned for being tough-as-nails on the crazy old racist sheriff of Phoenix, with his pink underwear for inmates. But in New York they are absentee managers (and technical owners under a new financing arrangement), not even up to softball coverage of government in Gotham.
The lesson here: Readers are drawn to substance, even the raucous, offend-everyone-you-can substance the Voice was sometimes known for.
But spiedies in Binghamton? Mailer would punch somebody out for running that.
The question left to be answered is how long will the Voice meekly holler, not about what matters but about spiedies in Binghamton, before no one cares anymore to hear what it says?
Photo: Beyond My Ken via Flickr.com