Friday, January 07, 2011

Wayne Barrett's and Tom Robbins' departures from the Voice remind us how unvalued a calling investigative journalism is


Hard as it is to imagine the Village Voice without Wayne Barrett
(or Tom Robbins), can it be said to be the real Voice anyway?

by Ken

A couple of days ago I came late to the story of Wayne Barrett's severance by the Village Voice. By the time I started poking around the story, it was finally possible to sort out what had earlier seemed confusing positions.


Fair enough. I've been feeling queasy since noticing a reply to a tag of one of my recent posts about disgraced NY Times reporter Judy Miller's reemergence in the right-wing media (Fox Noise and now Newsmax). "Who's Judy Miller?" the person wanted to know. I guess it's easy for those of us who can't escape media immersion to forget that it's not a universal condition. And I guess really outside New York there's no reason why people should know who he is. As he notes in his farewell column, he has been writing the paper's high-profile "Runnin' Scared" column since 1978. "I was now inheriting a column that Mary Nichols, the Voice's editor-in-chief, had made famous, and that had been written by greats like Jack Newfield, Ken Auletta, and Joe Conason. A country kid out of Lynchburg, Virginia, where I'd founded the Teenage Republicans, I was suddenly occupying the first two pages of New York's counter-cultural crier."

I think "muckraker" would be a fair term for the person sitting in the "Runnin' Scared" chair, and it's particularly local. This is actual investigative reporting, vigilant to discover what "they" -- people occupying positions of power and/or public trust -- think they're getting away with, and usually do except for bulldogs like Wayne. And: "It never mattered to me what the party or ideology was of the subject of an investigative piece; the reporting was as nonpartisan as the wrongdoing itself. I never looked past the wrist of any hand in the public till. It was the grabbing that bothered me, and there was no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the loot."

One way to think of Wayne Barrett is as the anti-Judy Miller, if that's any help.

Back to the story of Wayne's departure from the Voice, which he makes clear in his farewell wasn't his idea. And then, in a tweet heard 'round the progressive blogosphere -- and even beyond (heck Politico covered the story!), NYT media writer reported that the Voice's other storied investigative reporter, Tom Robbins, had quit the paper "in protest." Which drew howls of protest from Voice editor-in-chief Tony Ortega, who was outraged that Peters had gone a-tweeting without calling him.

I confess that this confused me. Was there any particular reason for Peters to have called Ortega? Isn't this a Tom Robbins story, not a Tony Ortega story? And Robbins didn't seem to feel misrepresented. In fact, he seemed to be telling everyone who asked what he told New York Observer "online staff writer" Kat Stoeffel: "I think it's a tragic mistake that the paper couldn't find room for Wayne Barrett, and therefore I should probably not be part of it."

The decision, it appears to have been entirely Robbins' (Wayne says he not only didn't ask, but tried hard to talk Tom out of it), and seems to have been pretty straightforward. The message Wayne's firing sent to him was that the Voice no longer supports the kind of journalism the two of them are committed to.

In case you're wondering, and I hope you are, Wayne wasn't fired for doing anything wrong -- unless you count failing to contribute to a congenial environment for selling advertising as doing something wrong. Once upon a time it might have been pointed out that hey, the guy sells papers! Only the Voice doesn't sell papers anymore. It's been given away free for years now, and so is in essence a (modestly) glorified shopper. It's decline predates that transformation, though. The endless changes of management and editorship were already tracing a distinct downward drift. Of course there are people who'll tell you that the Voice has been going downhill since, well, more or less its creation. And they'll have a point.

What Wayne was fired for was having a job at the paper. It seems to have been an ax wielded from above, aimed at eliminating a salary. Of course the willingness to eliminate this particular salary says you don't much value the contribution of the person pulling down that salary. But first and foremost the severing was a cost-cutting action.

Which brings me back to the strangely vehement, seemingly intensely personal howling of Voice editor Ortega. And it all appears to come down to the NYT's Jeremy Peters' claim that Tom Robbins quit "in protest" of the Barrett dismissal. And in fairness, Robbins told Kat Stoeffel that he was leaving on good terms and wished the paper well. In fairness too, as Ortega points out, didn't he let Wayne publish his farewell piece? This is a legitimate point. In the media world, when you fire somebody, you don't usually allow them further access to your readers or viewers.

Ortega was at pains to say that being Wayne's and Tom's editors has been one of the great pleasures of the job, which isn't hard to believe. Somehow, though, that puts the thing into focus for me. Ortega seems to really want to believe that he's the editor-in-chief of the Village Voice. Well, I suppose in a technical sense he is. But even apart from the question of how much actual authority he has -- no one seems to dispute that the axing of Wayne Barrett was decided above his pay grade -- that leaves the question, authority over what? Sure, the thing he oversees looks almost like the actual Village Voice (just a lot thinner), but of course it isn't, and hasn't been much longer than Tony Ortega has been on the scene.

Maybe the real question is what on earth Wayne and Tom have been doing in recent years writing for the present-day Voice. And maybe Tony Ortega's touchiness is professional as well as personal, in that he has to maintain the illlusion that the paper he has presided over since 2007 is a going entity despite its severe financial difficulties and is still a serious media outlet. Jeremy Peters concluded his (post-tweet) NYT report:
Despite losing both men, Mr. Ortega said his staff was highly capable and well equipped to carry on the paper's proud tradition. Mr. Robbins will eventually be replaced, but Mr. Barrett will not. "People are just going to soldier on and do their stuff," Mr. Ortega said.

Wayne Barrett, whose last day was December 31, is going to the Nation Institute. In his parting post he wrote:
I believe I have much left to learn, still armed with my notebook, and thus much left to tell you. It may be books or blogs or something in between. I hope to bring my trademark interns with me because they have, for more than 30 years, helped me think young, especially when it comes to the climate and water crises. The city and state beat are precious to me, but what is happening to our nation is also a frightening pull on me, so I don't know what I will wind up writing in this new life.

Tom Robbins remains on the job through January, and apparently doesn't have future plans yet. (That's right, he quit without a job offer to fall back on.) You figure he's too good a reporter not to be hired by somebody. You don't want to think that maybe's he's too good a reporter to be hired by somebody. Once upon a time the Village Voice would have been the perfect place for him to be. But that Voice is gone.



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