Imagine turning on 60 Minutes one Sunday to find that Morley Safer, Katie Couric and Andy Rooney had been fired, Mike Wallace and Leslie Stahl had quit, and they had all been replaced by no-name hacks from the backwaters of broadcasting?  That’s pretty much what happened to another iconic name in journalism, the Village Voice, when its new owners – a pair of pitchmen-turned-publishers from Phoenix named Larkin and Lacey – bought the Voice, folded it into their New Times Media supermarket tabloid giveaway chain, and turned it overnight from America’s leading name in alternative media into a freebie dishrag with cheap sensationalism masquerading as journalism.

Nat Hentoff – Guggenheim fellow, other honors too numerous to mention, one of the most respected names in musical criticism?  Too expensive.  Fired.  Jules Feiffer?  Pulitzer Prize winner and for decades one of America’s best-known satiric cartoonists?  Ditto.  History.

Sidney Schanberg?  Pulitzer Prize winner for his reporting on the Khmer Roug in Cambodia, which served as the basis for The Killing Fields?  “Resigned as columnist for the Village Voice in protest over the editorial, political and personnel changes made by the new publisher, New Times Media,” according to Wikipedia.

James Ridgeway?  Head of the Voice’s Washington bureau, its leading investigative reporter, and author of more than 20 books?  Again according to Wiki, Ridgeway reported that 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.”

I wonder how long they had to think about this one?

Now, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, with Lacey and Larkin dodging bailiffs from Monterrey to Miami, the Voice is reduced to running articles like “White America Has Lost Its Mind,” in which the author asks:

“Is there any hope? Can the white mind be cured? And what—other than a massive lobotomy—can salvage it? It’s hard to imagine a cure when, at this point, the patient doesn’t seem to realize that he’s sick.”

(As for the lobotomy option, we suspect that most white people might demur, however admirable the author may think the idea, and when the “patient” is treated to the kind of spectacles the politicians on both sides are treating us to these days, he/she might be forgiven for making serial retching noises without the disapprobation of nitwits like this shrill excuse for a social scientist.  But that’s the kind of thing the Voice has to offer these days; when your best writers have been supplanted by crayon-wielding kindergarten scribblers, what you can’t supply in content, you replace with sensation and race-baiting.)

Which brings us to Tony Ortega, the Voice’s current editor-in-chief.  Ortega is the latest occupant of the fast-changing Editor’s chair at the Voice, and, judging from his taste and skills, the Voice’s owners have now scraped through the bottom of the barrel and are auguring into the mud beneath.

Need we explain?

Ortega, who, clearly under pressure to do something – anything – to make readers pay attention to this rapidly-sinking scow, has resurrected, now for the sixth or seventh time, what appears to be his only story:  the one that catapulted him from obscurity as the editor of the Broward-Palm Beach New Times – yup, another one of the Village Voice’s regional tabloid giveaways – to the editor’s chair at the Voice.  (Actually, the story first ran under the byline of one of his Palm Beach reporters, but Ortega latched onto it like a dung beetle on a cowpie, and hasn’t let it go since.)

In his wonderfully inept, unintentionally hilarious gum-snapping valley girl prose style, Ortega alternates a series of playground taunts and Fagin-like whines to once again accuse one Bruce McMahan of bigamy and incest in a remarkably self-incriminating lead article published a few weeks ago in the Voice [see related story, “Fear and Fraud at the Village Voice”] .

The Voice’s evidence in support of these bizarre allegations comprises:

  • A photograph of two hands
  • A scrap of paper masquerading as a “DNA test”
  • Photocopies of forged or altered emails

and the allegations of two admitted extortionists, including McMahan’s disaffected daughter, who launched this fairy tale after being fired by McMahan for behavior too tawdry to describe, and his ex-wife, who has denied under oath that she ever spoke to anyone, including the Village Voice and/or  its corporate sisters, regarding this topic or her marriage to McMahan.

But this was enough for Ortega to launch a series of articles aimed at pumping up the sagging readership of the Voice/New Times tabloids, and if this meant destroying McMahan in the process – well, the newspaper game is not for sissies.  In fact, Tony moans in print about the fecklessness of his fellow journalists, who have shown a strange reluctance to pursue the Voice’s vendetta – the fact that no reputable media outlet will touch this editorial fantasy with a barge pole is dispiriting to Mr. Ortega.

Ortega is further disheartened by Wikipedia’s delisting his patchwork of fables and fantasies from its website.  According to Ortega:  “Wikipedia’s reason for not wanting a McMahan page? According to one of their minions, I’m a ‘hack.’”  He goes on to accuse Wikipedia of caving into pressure from McMahan, citing  “an electrical engineer in England” as his source.  In Ortega’s world, one supposes this qualifies as “scientific testimony.”

Ortega’s bosses, Jim Larkin and Michael Lacey, are not without their interesting aspects, either.  But that’s a subject for a later post, so we’ll just give you a little teaser from Mark Jacobson, writing in New York Magazine:

“Michael Lacey, Jim Larkin, and their New Times papers offer much potential fodder for traditionalist Voice fear and loathing. First off, there was…the troubling “cookie-cutter” nature of the New Times model, the fact that NT publications in such disparate locales as Broward County and Dallas tended to bear a strong resemblance to each other…Bruce Brugmann, editor of the independent San Francisco Bay Guardian, summed up NT’s stance to the current political landscape as “frat-boy libertarian, leering neoconism. They don’t endorse political candidates. To them it is one big, cynical joke.”

Add to that a conviction for price-fixing, a notorious episode involving Lacey’s use of the word “nigger” in reference to a deceased colleague at his memorial service, pornography charges filed by a San Francisco teenager, and now topped off by the unusual practice of running the same story in different guises a half dozen times or more (it’s hard to keep track of how often Lacey, Larkin and Ortega resurrect the McMahan fraud) over a four year period – well, you start to get the picture.  These are not people that you would invite home to meet the family – unless your family were the Sopranos.

So how has all this worked out for the Village Voice and Village Voice Media?  Well – not so well.  There is a judgment for $21 million against them from their price-fixing conviction, and they already owe the Bank of Montreal $90 million.  Their circulation declined 11 percent in the six months through June 2009 to 213,358, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations’ most recent figures.  This suggests that whatever it is that Ortega and his cronies are up to, it’s not playing very well with their market.   While most other newspapers have also suffered circulation declines, note that the Voice is free.

And now they can’t even give it away.