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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 joke.

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 car.

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 more sensitive?

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 mother."

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.


This article originally appeared in The Weekly Standard, 1995