The Village Idiot
By Daniel Radosh
Earlier this month, the Village Voice celebrated its 40th
anniversary with an enthusiastic tribute to itself. That's hardly surprising
-- the New York weekly has always been one of the most self-obsessed publications
going. What was almost surprising was the reminder -- in the form of dusted-
off essays by Norman Mailer, Joe Flaherty, Stanley Crouch, and other old
Voice hands -- that there was a time when it was actually worth reading.
I'm too young to remember those days, but the legend of the Village Voice
is one of New York's most enduring ones: the newspaper of the counterculture
back when counterculture was a dirty word the first time around; the writer's
newspaper, where anything that could happen in print did; the muckraker,
scooping the city and national dailies; the leftist gadfly that was secretly
respected even by those who most hated it. Whether this reputation was
ever wholly deserved is a matter for reasonable debate. What is inarguable
is that the Village Voice today is less a living legend than an embarrassing
I say this not with glee, but . . . well, okay, with a little
glee. But also with some sorrow. If ever the left needed a sharp critical
voice and the right a worthy sparring partner, now is the time. In the
last several years, however, and the last few months especially, the Village
Voice has abandoned any claim to that title. There is no space here for
a thorough recap of the Voice's tumultuous history, nor for juicy details
of the paper's seething office politics -- a staple of New York media
gossip. Suffice it to say that many backs are bloody with stab wounds,
and the editor in chief's office has a revolving door. The current inhabitant
of that office, hired last year, is Karen Durbin, a Voice$ N writer in
the 70s. Two months ago, after a number of ominous signs, Durbin unveiled
a new look and new attitude for the Voice: shorter articles, peppier design,
more generically fabulous. Observers partial to mid-life crisis metaphors
have been tossed a softball: The Voice turns 40, buys a flashy new sports
The publication that billed itself 40 years ago as a "newspaper
designed to be read" is now designed to be skimmed at best. How much
attention do you have t o give to topics like rubber dresses, backstage
with the supermodels, partying with Divine Brown (of Hugh Grant hooker
fame), and folks who collect bubble bat h containers and David Letterman
paraphernalia? The combination of mid-70s iden tity politics and mid-80s
pop magazine style makes for a confusing mix. Writers are as likely to
allude to Alicia (Clueless) Silverstone as Noam Chomsky. Praise for labor
unions shares space with phrenological rea dings of Newt Gingrich's head.
When an article breathlessly intones that "Body modification is here
to stay," you can't help but suspect that the whole thing is a put-on
-- a counter- culture parody of Seventeen magazine. Or vice versa.
Then of course there's cyber-everything. Well, not everything,
but "Jews in Cyberspace" and "A Gay Chicano Lost in Cyberspace."
Meaningless chatter about the Internet is not exactly lacking in current
discourse, but the Voice seems to believe that it's crucial to have at
least one hipster on staff who can write sentences like, "Let's have
an f2f with this: Humans would rather interact with each other than with
computers. That's why sex is on everyone's hot list."
The good news for people who want desperately to avoid reading
such claptrap is that the Voice's new design renders text largely unreadable.
In an apparent effort to be eye-catching, a riot of different typefaces
in random sizes are scattered across each page. Squeezed into boxes and
bubbles are attempts at humor. A list of "statistics to ponder"
is a rip-off of Harper's Index without the grace; "Reasons why Rudy
Giuliani ousted Arafat from Lincoln Center" is a stab at a Letterman
top-10 list without, well, funny jokes ("No. 4: beard envy"
In an editor's letter accompanying the redesign, Durbin seems
especially proud of the institution of wider margins, which she calls
"a new 'fifth column" for our editors, writers, and readers
to be subversive with." As a reader, I use the fifth column to write,
"Boring!" next to most articles. Because as annoying as the
new graphic design is, the Voice's real problem is an ideology that still
adheres to a very tired old design.
To put it simply, there is hardly an article to be found that
does not include, if only implicitly, a sentence that begins, As a black
woman . . . or As a gay Chicano. or, more frequently, As a white man who
really doesn't deserve to have an opinion on the matter. . . . After all
these years, the Voice is still chanting that old mantra, the personal
is political. Fair enough, but it's also exceedingly dull. Here's the
defining moment of a typical column by Adolph Reed: "A solid majority
of attendees at the stewards" conference were nonwhite, and they
were largely, if not predominantly black. But Latinos and Asian-Americans
were also prominent in number, as were whites." Whoa, you sure you
haven't left anyone out?
Census-taking of this nature substitutes for critical thought
throughout the paper. In the TV coverage, an article condemns the "ethnic
cleansing" of the Fox network, as if shows such as Sinbad, M.A.N.T.I.S.,
and Townsend Television were canceled because they starred black people,
not because they were awful. In the film pages, a forum onthe movie Kids
focuses on the questions, Is it sexist? Is it racist? Is it ageist? and,
for GenX appeal, What if it had starred Alicia Silverstone?
Not that such questions shouldn't be asked per se, but all
too often the obsession with identity politics drags the Voice into absurdity.
In an article titled "The Unbearable Whiteness of Journalism,"
media critic James Ledbetter devotes several paragraphs to counting the
number of people of color at individual publications, including his own.
"There are 18 nonwhite staff members out of approximately 80. . .
. That includes one black woman as features editor and another as chief
of research, about as high as people of color ever get in the industry.
In the middle ranks, however, the numbers are less impressive: as of last
week, two out of 18 senior editors, two out of 17 staff writers. Breaking
those numbers down a bit more, one senior editor is Asian, one black .
. ." Okay, I'll spare you the rest. The howler, of course, is not
just the fact of the bean counting but the claim that a shortage of minorities
is limiting the Voice's perspective. Does this paper really need to be
There is some room to fudge these matters when the occasion
demands. In a puff piece about a performance artist, for instance, the
unfortunate problem of the man being white is dodged by describing him
as "the only child of an Italian immigrant father and Italian-American
The Voice is at its most disturbing when it permits ideology
not just to replace but actually to obscure facts. In a story about the
September murder of a female jogger in Central Park, media critic Richard
Golstein fumed at the way "every white woman in running shoes was
corralled for comment" and wondered why this case attracted more
attention than nine others in the last five years. "To answer that
question," wrote Goldstein, "we needed to know each victim's
race." The clear implication is that September's victim attracted
media attention because she was white. No wonder Goldstein goes out of
his way not to give her name: Maria Monteiro Alves. In any other Voice
story, she'd be Latina.
In another crime report, Ed Morales tackled the strange story
of 17-year-old Carlos Ariel Santos Ortega (this time we got the full name),
who nearly instiga ted a rio t when he claimed that a police officer threw
him out a window. Although Ortega later confessed that he had actually
jumped in order to escape the cop - - who wasn't even coming after him
-- Morales chose to focus on "the police department's enduring record
of questionable practices involving Latino communities." Which does
not include, in case you missed it, throwing people out of windows.
On those shocking occasions when people of color come together
for a cause antithetical to the Voice's agenda, the paper's conclusion
is usually that the masses have been duped. When an inner-city community
voted overwhelmingly to expel an Afrocentric youth group called Zulu Nation
in favor of the Police Athletic League, the Voice sided with the Zulu
Nation spokesman who said, " We tried to tell the residents, "You
don't understand what's about to go down: martial law in the projects.
. . . Stop being fooled. It's a cover-up." Which brings us to another
important element of Village Voice politics: paranoia. Sample victims
of covert oppression include a Colombian artist whose sculptures were
damaged by customs officials ("This is not a coincidence, this is
a policy," she claimed. "I was judged and condemned and my work
was destroyed") and a radio host who insisted he's been getting more
parking tickets since he began denouncing the "Fuhrmanization"
of the criminal justice system ("The fantasy I have is that there's
an organization not unlike the Aryan Brotherhood whose members are cops,
district attorneys, court officers, and prison guards").
Amidst all of this nonsense, it ould be pointed out, the Voice
does have a handful of writers who are either intelligent, witty, or both:
essayist Nat Hentoff, political reporter Tom Carson, advertising critic
Leslie Savan, and slash-and-burn sex columnist Dan Savage, among others.
Their opinions and styles are divergent, but they all know how to think
for themselves, an uncommon attribute at the Voice. For example, another
writer recently offered this reluctant support for A1 Sharpton: "In
the absence of any strong progressive resistance to the black conservatives
riding the Republican wave, ! had to admit Sharpton's mission had a sort
of loopy appeal." But why settle for an unreconstructed buffoon like
Sharpton just because he's there? If strong progressive resistance is
called for, it's the job of a paper like the Voice to provide it, not
to wistfully go along with the next best thing.
It should also be said that this is hardly the first time
someone has documented the fall of the Village Voice. A 1991 Voice cover
story was headlined, "Why I Hate the Village Voice." That article
echoed a 1975 one by Hentoff, who asked, "What's Become of the Voice?"
In 1969 an aide to Mayor John Lindsay declared, "The Voice isn't
as important as it once was, five years ago, even three." Russ Smith,
the editor of the New York Press (a Voice rival to which I contribute
a column), likes to say that the Voice doesn't keep getting better and
then worse, it just continually attracts new readers who inevitably become
disillusioned with it. That may be the case, but these days it's difficult
to believe that anyone who has never read the Voice before would be likely
to give it a chance in the first place. When it comes down to it, the
Voice has nothing left to say.