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Did The Village Voice Help Ruin Journalism?

books and culture

Did The Village Voice Help Ruin Journalism?

Advocacy reporting, once revolutionary and corrective, increasingly supplants the documentation of facts. September 7, 2018
Arts and Culture
New York

It’s tempting to say that the closing of the Village Voice marks the end of an era, but its true era, that of 1960s “alternative” journalism, ended long ago. After all, a history of the weekly, The Great American Newspaper: The Rise and Fall of the Village Voice, was published in 1978!

But as one inspired to become a journalist by The Voice, I see the paper’s era as continuing—and in many ways, not for the better. The Voice and other alternative newspapers, including The Boston Phoenix, for which I was a staff writer in the early 1970s, provided a forum, for the first time, for topics and styles that richly deserved one. But they also—especially in their news coverage—helped American journalism take the hard turn toward merging reportage and advocacy, which by now has infected the mainstream media. I know, because I was part of it.

The Voice first reached me as a teenager in my lower-middle-class, Levittown-like Cleveland suburb. My father, in contrast to our neighbors, subscribed to a range of thought magazines: the Reporter (Max Ascoli’s brilliant liberal anti-Communist periodical), the Nation (though he canceled because he thought it soft on “Red China”), Harper’s (in the Willie Morris era), and Esquire, then in its Harold Hayes era of the “new” or narrative journalism of Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer. It was a back-of-the book Esquire classified ad that led me to subscribe to my own first periodical, The Village Voice. That I did so is a reminder of how alluring the emergent counterculture was, even for those geographically distant from its centers. The Village! Bleecker Street! A weekly would deliver it all to me, direct from the setting of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album cover.

To this day, I admire many of those Voice writers, who changed the way I saw the world. Nat Hentoff moved effortlessly between his appreciations of jazz and blues to his defense of the First Amendment (and, later, courageously, opposition to abortion). Vivian Gornick not only helped to chart feminism but also did it in a tone that helped one appreciate the often-tragic complexity of the relationship between men and women. (Memorably, she wrote of how women should appreciate the “existential aloneness” of men.) Robert Christgau not only listened to rock music but also “heard it” (per the argument about Jimi Hendrix in the movie White Men Can’t Jump). Less well-known figures made a difference for me, too; the African-American music critic Carmen Moore’s column on James Cleveland and Shirley Caeser pointed me toward the gospel music that became a passion of mine (and now of my musician son’s). Paul Cowan (whose wife Rachel died this week) wrote subtly on Jesse Jackson, noting his social conservatism (at the time).

Then there was Jack Newfield, the reporter of that era who became my role model, bringing to life the politics of New York. He was the chronicler of the New Left (“A Prophetic Minority”) who would write, with tears on the page, about Robert Kennedy’s rise and murder. Newfield was first to report on the problem of lead poisoning among the poor. I determined to follow in his footsteps, following the counterculture’s magnetic field to Boston and Cambridge and a vibrant alternative-journalism scene that boasted not one but two lively papers—the Phoenix and the Real Paper. Those of us who were there at the time have our own alumni group: film critic Janet Maslin, later of the Times; Paul Solman, the news editor who’s now business reporter at the PBS News Hour; Joe Klein, the Anonymous chronicler of the early Clintons; Laura Shapiro, the brilliant food historian; David Denby, film critic for The New Yorker; Peter Guralnick, who would write the definitive Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke biographies; and Sid Blumenthal, who would go on to a much different public role through his relationship with the Clintons, and later described the era to me nostalgically as “our Bloomsbury.”

I took up the Newfield mantle, publishing work of which I’m still proud on corrupted federal-housing programs, racial violence in Boston’s changing neighborhoods, and politicized hiring in a major federal jobs program. (A personal high point came when Leonard Downie of the Washington Post included me in his book The New Muckrakers.)

Nonetheless, I look back on all that Voice-inspired reporting with ambivalence. The Voice and those it inspired minted advocacy journalism. The essential tone was one of good guys and bad guys, not tough issues and imperfect people. When the Phoenix covered the mass demonstrations aimed at closing a New Hampshire nuclear power plant, there was no discussion of trade-offs, of who would pay the bills for the facility’s construction if it were closed. Newfield wrote regularly about New York’s worst slumlords but would never have linked rent regulation to their disinvestment in their own properties. And, of course, Vietnam was an imperialist war and nothing else. We provided play-by-play and color commentary for the counterculture and antiwar and anti-draft movements. It was all supported by ads for movies, records—and sex, in the classifieds.

It should all be familiar today to readers of, say, the New York Times, which diligently chronicles the Trump “resistance.” The Voice has closed but its era continues, and has gone mainstream. Just as the Left consolidated its hold on the university, so has it completed its long march through the mainstream media. Good “fact-based” reporting—it’s telling that this has become a phrase—continues, of course, including in the New York Times and Washington Post. But there’s also lots of advocacy journalism: good guys versus bad guys, crusades to be mounted, victims to be celebrated—and complexities to be overlooked. Much of it started with The Village Voice. It will not end with The Voice’s demise.

Photo: Beyond My Ken/Wikimedia Commons

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