Regime Change at the Village Voice (04/20/06)

The above photograph  showing  a napkin captioned, “A note from Michael Lacey, Executive Editor,   is, believe it or not, from the March 13 Village Voice,   It reads, “Doug Simmons is no longer Acting Editor.  Ward Harkavy, long time Senior Editor, and Arizona crony, is now interim Editor.  Call us tomorrow for next update.”

Huh?  When I last wrote about the Village Voice on February 9, I predicted the new owners would  make the venerable paper alternative in name only–I based my fears of a homogenized flagship on the reassignment of Ward Harkavy to local news from his nationally oriented blog, “Bush Beat.”  The only reason I could stomach the reassignment was that the paper continued to publish long-time contributorf James Ridgeway’s “Mondo Washington” column.

So, I really wasn’t surprised, just sad, when I came across the broadcast of the April 13 Democracy Now:  “Village Voice Shakeup: Top Investigative Journalist Fired, Prize-Winning Writers Resign Following Merger with New Times Media”

In an interview with Amy Goodman, Ridgeway says,

Mr. Lacey…killed my column, and he asked me to submit ideas for articles to him one by one, which I did, and which he either ignored or turned down, except in one case…they won’t say that I’m fired. I’m supposedly laid off.  So, I don’t know what that means. I’m in some technical situation, I guess.  

Sydney Schanberg, winner of a  Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in Cambodia during the 1970s which inspired the film “The Killing Fields” quit in February.  He had been the media critic.   He told Goodman,

What happened was very sad. Mr. Lacey came in and very quickly told the staff that he was disappointed and appalled by the fact that the front of the book was all commentary and that he wanted hard news. He said if he wanted to read a daily or regular critiques of the Bush administration, he would read the New York Times, and that’s not what he wanted in the Village Voice. He was insulting to the staff. He figuratively or in effect called them stenographers. He said they had to stop being stenographers. When I objected to that, because that was so insulting, and I said that you can criticize any news staff in some ways, but the one thing that you couldn’t call the Village Voice staff was a staff of stenographers, taking notes from public figures and just passing them on.

And I said it was unfair, and he said, “So, I’m unfair.” And then he added, he said, “Look, I don’t care what rouses you, even if it’s getting pissed off at me.” And I said, “I’m not pissed off at you. I don’t even know you.” And he really had this huge one-ton or two-ton chip on his shoulder. And I think he walked into the room thinking that the people in the room didn’t welcome him and didn’t like him and, you know, and hated him. And he was totally insecure. And he gave the impression that he didn’t understand the Voice and he didn’t understand New York, and he didn’t want to. He didn’t like it, even though he was born here, I understand. I mean, he was born in Brooklyn.

And he said a lot of other things. He told the staff that they better prepare themselves to say goodbye to some of their friends. He picked a fight with Nat Hentoff, which was disgusting.

Shanberg explained why he thought his column was doomed.

…when he picked that fight with Nat, he was referring specifically to a story in which Nat had led off one of his pieces praising an ABC television investigative report. And Lacey said that was unforgivable and that wasn’t good journalism, and that he in the future never wanted to see ever again a story in the Voice that referred to work done by another publication or media organization, which is kind of astounding. I don’t know how you can do it, if you don’t recognition the media as a power center in America.

My assumption was he didn’t want to cover the press. His other papers, other New Times paper, don’t have a press column. He’s not interested in that. And he really made me think that he really didn’t want to have the Voice talking about national issues and have a national focus. He didn’t understand that people in New York pay attention to those things, huge percentage of people in New York. And he didn’t want a press column.


FYI, the dust-up about Simmons was actually an outgrowth of the Village Voice’s new mission to appeal to a frivolous, rather than politically astute, youth market.  Nick Sylvester wrote on music and a column “NYC Life, ”  (with previous entries like January 6’s “Hips of Steel:  How kids too cool for exercise keep the winter pounds off” and February 7’s “Are You In Love? Rock stars, dating experts, and cartoon characters talk about Valentine’s Day”). 

Sylvester’s  February 28 cover story, “‘Do You Wanna Kiss Me?’ How New York’s women are wising up to The Game’s pickup tips” contained what the Editor’s note of March 7 described as “fabrication and composite anecdotes.” 

Oh horrors.  Journalistic malfeasance.  The problem was calling this news,  rather than a feature with a disclaimer.  The Voice took the story down, among much chest beating.  Sylvester was reprimanded.  Simmons fired.  Sylvester suspended.  Who cares?   I think this March 7 letter to the editor from Jeremy Reff of Manhattan says it best.

Perhaps the editors should have realized that Sylvester is a talented, gonzo journalist, and that his chops depend on a fluid non-naturalistic style. The same editors promoting and reveling in his dissection of Cam’ron and Jay-Z’s feuds should have realized that Sylvester was turning the navel-gazing in on itself, especially the self-referential pop sociology masquerading as in-depth reporting these days. Those depending on analytic reporting should have turned elsewhere; the error here is in the editors’ running “Do You Wanna Kiss Me?” as a news cover, instead of an inside-the-park fresh take on the most tired story in the city-—how twentysomethings are fucking in New York.

I’m not sure about the use of “journalist, ” but otherwise…Do you think this March 7  letter by Steve Lookner of Los Angeles, California has the owners worried?

I just read the article about The Game where Nick Sylvester, who I know, made up a defamatory and false story about me and used my real name, profession, and hometown in the article. I was never in New York on the trip he claimed and never performed the actions he said I did. I am incredibly upset about this and am currently consulting with my lawyer about legal action. I would also like a retraction printed.

The story is  still available at The Asian Playboy blog.  Actually, it’s pretty entertaining.  Lookner is the only pickup artist Sylvester gave a full name, but nothing evil was said .  According to IMDB, Lookner has written for Saturday Night Live and produced for the Comedy Central network.   This letter has to be tongue in cheek, right? 


éminence grise

English is a funny language.  I was about to use that term to define Ridgeway, but just to be sure, decided to look it up.   After all, I never studied French for more than a half a semester during my lunch hour.  This was  at Dabney Lancaster community college, where I started late upon my return from a trip to Chartres and Geneva.  And despite no talent for foreign tongues, became the teacher’s pet, until one day looking out the winter to discover it was snowing, exlaimed, “”Merde.”  The Swiss think its use is no big deal,  The teacher was not a native speaker and I was soon persona non grata.

Anyway Ridgeway was born in 1936, so “gray eminence” seemed fitting.  After all, “eminence” means “high status importance owing to marked superiority” according to Wordnet, the

online lexical reference system…inspired by current psycholinguistic theories of human lexical memory…developed by the Cognitive Science Laboratory at Princeton University under the direction [of principal investigator]  Professor George A. Miller.

But according to both Wordnet and E.D. Hirsch, Jr. ‘s (et. al)  New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy,  “eminence grise”  is someone who exercises power or influence without holding an official position” e.g. the President’s wife, the King’s brother.

More later.  The library’s about to close.



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