Village Voice editor Tony Ortega has a Rodney Dangerfield problem: he can’t get no respect. The latest in a revolving-door series of editors at the Voice since its acquisition by a giveaway tabloid chain in 2005, Ortega was snatched from obscurity at the New Times Broward-Palm Beach freebie weekly to fill the chief’s chair at the free-falling Voice in 2007. At the New Times, his accomplishment centered on the repetitive reprinting of a story so improbable and so sordid that no reputable publication has given it a squirt of ink: the Bruce McMahan “incest” fairy tale so dearly prized by the South Florida trailer parks that once comprised his readership.
But being the editor of the Voice is not what it was, and neither is the Voice. And Ortega, whose skin is remarkably thin for someone so routinely offensive, gets petulant when his credentials and credibility are questioned. When Wikipedia deleted a self-promoting article he attempted to insert on Wiki’s site about his McMahan fable, he complained with admirable candor that “According to one of their minions, I’m a ‘hack.’”
When Louis Black, editor of The Austin Chronicle, criticized some unnamed “alternative” publications for pursuing a more commercial direction, Ortega took it personally, writing one of his “Memo” attack pieces at Black, replete with the pseudo-homeboy argot and out-of-date hipster jargon that typifies his prose:
“…it was great to hang out with you in Toronto….” (Does anyone over the age of 30 really “hang out”?)
After this disarming start, Ortega goes on to say:
“It’s pretty clear that you’re talking about my company when you deride ‘alternatives’ becoming far less alternative” and that ‘”specialize in ‘gotcha’ journalism.” Ortega then lists the industry association tin plates his editorial staff just collected with the pride of a 1950s midwestern mommy hauling out her childrens’ ribbons from the local 4H livestock show. He concludes:
“Just sayin’. I look forward to reading your next installment about what a hack I am.”
“Just sayin’?” Sigh. Was there a virtual fist-to-heart thump included in that?
(For a longer sample of Ortega’s writing, see his only recent contribution to actual reporting, “Memo to Bruce McMahan,” which he resurrects for the fourth or fifth or sixth time. The only story he has ever published that attracted any meaningful attention, as billionaire incest stories tend too be few and far between, imaginary or not, the original story was actually written by a staff reporter, but Ortega, knowing a prime piece of sleaze when he saw it, quickly lassoed it for his own. Even so, his “Memo” largely quotes the original reporting, with witty original lines like “Think again, Braveheart boy” thrown in for added effect.)
Surprisingly, Ortega’s sensitivity to complaints doesn’t extend to the people he smears. When a recent fiasco where a Voice writer’s crude insult (“how [is Dobkin] gonna feel with Jimmy Dolan’s cock in his mouth?”) resulted in Dolan’s Cablevison canceling a million dollars in Voice advertising, Ortega responded:
“I don’t know Dolan well enough to understand why he’s so sensitive about his penis,” Ortega says. “All this because Jimmy Dolan didn’t like a joke that mentioned his (metaphorical) dick…. For this, he tries to cause serious harm to the Voice.”
Wait a minute. You mean Dolan not only has to take this kind of crap lying down, but he has to pay you for printing it? It is a strange world that Ortega inhabits, to be sure, but this sounds a little unreasonable even by his standards. (And it’s a stranger world still where we find ourselves defending Dolan, but even he deserves protection from this kind of insanity.)
Like most bullies, Ortega has two responses when when someone fights back;
First he whines. “For this, he tries to cause serious harm to the Voice.” Well, if not for that, what exactly justifies causing serious harm to the Voice? Would claiming that Dolan had slept with his daughter qualify?
Then, he starts with the threats:
“We have our work cut out for us. Jimmy Dolan is obviously trying to get our attention. And I’ve [sic] of a mind to give it to him,” he says. “Let’s get to work.” Where have we heard this before? Oh, yes — the usual caterwauling of the loser: “This ain’t over….”
So much for Ortega’s sense of justice, and for his prose style as well. But he wasn’t hired to write. What about his editorial cred? Who, actually, is Tony Ortega?
According to the Voice itself:
“Ortega lived briefly in New York City as a freshman at Columbia University in the early 1980s….He left after three semesters, in debt and disillusioned.”
Hardly an auspicious start. Given that he attended Columbia on a John Jay scholarship, his departure was not occasioned by an inability to meet his tuition bills, which were already covered. But according to Ortega himself:
“I loved living in New York. I had a Mohawk at the time, and I remember riding the subway home at three in the morning from the Pep Lounge.”
Doesn’t really sound like “disillusionment,” does it? Spending your nights at “the Pep Lounge” until the wee hours of the morning probably doesn’t do much for one’s GPA — so we entertain dark suspicions about the real nature of his departure from Columbia.
But he did eventually graduate — from Cal State-Fullerton, and then, after a stint as an English instructor (!), he worked his way up the New Times corporate ladder, holding various positions at weekly publications located in key news centers like Phoenix and Kansas City. Again, according to the Voice:
“After a four-year stint as a staff writer in Phoenix, Ortega wrote for the New Times Los Angeles for three years before returning to become associate editor at the Phoenix New Times. He served as managing editor of The Pitch in Kansas City from 2003 to 2005, when he became editor of the 70,000-circulation New Times Broward-Palm Beach.”
Well, now we can understand Ortega’s resentment. Heck — 70,000 readers. None of whom paid a dime. Does this sound like the career path of a hack?
Finally, the corner office at the Village Voice. Tony Ortega now struts down the hallways once peopled by Sidney Schanberg, Nat Hentoff, Robert Christegau, Jules Feiffer, and a lot of other eminent names in American letters whose awards came not from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies but from names like Pulitzer, Guggenheim and the NEA. But he still can’t get no respect.
Why? Because people still write articles that ask: what is this guy doing running the Village Voice?
Well, there are two answers.
First, this is not the Village Voice you knew. The fabled names have all gone away, quit in disgust or fired because they were too expensive for the new, slimmed down, sleaze-for-no-charge VV. The Tiffany of American alternative journalism is now nothing more than a street bazaar of faux-investigative exposes, a few remaining real writers (Robbins, Musto) and a ream of ad pages, including teasers for pictures of Brett Favre’s thingie. The fact is, given the Voice’s breathtaking plunge into the tawdry, Ortega is probably the right guy for the job.
Second, the Voice ran through five editors in two years before it finally resorted to Ortega. As you may imagine, future H. L. Menckens were hardly lining up outside the publisher’s door for this slot, and Village Voice Media was not in a position to be picky, especially with an editorial budget constrained by impending bankruptcy and supported by back-page sex ads (“Village Voice Sued For Aiding And Abetting Sex Trafficking”, Online Media Daily).
Why do we care? What’s Tony Ortega to us?
We’re cannibals. And when we see someone chasing someone else with a meat cleaver in his hand and a hungry look in his eye, motivated by nothing but an immoderate greed and an unhealthy appetite, it just naturally gets our attention. After all, we have too eat, too, and our thirst for blood, while perhaps a bit more restrained, is no less powerful than theirs. Since turnabout is fair play, we pick up our own cleaver, and — well, you know the rest.
So Mr. Ortega’s musings interest us — in particular, one thing he wrote in his most recent McMahan revival:
“See, Bruce, when you’re doing this kind of journalism, you do your best to get documentation on things, interview people for their perspective on the facts, and do what you can to draw conclusions on hard data.”
Now, Mr. Ortega, that’s not quite true in this case, is it?
And that’s something we’re going to be going into in some detail shortly. We know something about your approach to “facts” and “hard data.” Some new information has come to light. We’ll be sharing that soon with our readers. Yours too.
In fact, this whole episode — the one you have built your career on — is rent with holes big enough for elephants to samba through. (See related stories, “Fear and Fraud at the Village Voice“ and “The Village Voice: Out of Stories and Out of Time.) It may have played in Broward County, but — “this ain’t no Mudd Club, no CBGB — this ain’t no foolin’ around.” That Super Trouper xenon spotlight is about to turn your way. Are you ready for your closeup?
In the meantime, we leave everyone dangling with this final quote from Ortega, also from his “Memo to Louis Black:”
“We made a decision some time ago that the only way we’d continue to stay in this game was to focus not on the same old political essay writing but on original reporting, surprising our readers by not being predictable, and by doing our best to piss off everyone — right, left, and center.” [Emphasis ours.]
“By doing our best to piss people off….” We tired of this kind of fratboy bravado a long time ago. This man, who bristles at the word “hack,” seems to produced nothing that is not hackneyed. And frankly, what does he hope to accomplish by “pissing people off?”
Ortega may have trimmed his Mohawk, but beneath his hairstyle, the punk lives on — crudely reckless, aggressively careless , hopelessly trite — and at this point, maybe more than one toke over the line.
As for us, well — in Ortegas’s own words, “We have our work cut out for us.” The last time Ortega came to New York, he left with his tail tucked between his legs. This time he may not have a tail to tuck. We’re thinking about — oh, I don’t know — maybe it would go well with some fava beans and a nice little Chianti.