Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Village Voice jettisons Wayne Barrett, fellow investigator Tom Robbins resigns, local journalism loses (for now) institutional memory, watchdogs

Yesterday, just a few hours after I finished the amazingly (and disturbingly) detailed 1988 book, City for Sale: Ed Koch and the Betrayal of New York, by Jack Newfield (R.I.P.) and Wayne Barrett, did I learn that Barrett had been laid off from the Village Voice for budgetary reasons and that Tom Robbins, the other Voice investigative reporter with deep knowledge of the city and state, had resigned in solidarity.

(Voice editor Tony Ortega disagrees with the latter interpretation.)

Wrote Barrett in his valedictory:
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.

The greatest prize I've ever won for the work I've done in these pages was when Al D'Amato called me a "viper" in his memoir. Chuck Schumer, who ended D'Amato's reign after 18 years, ascribed his victory in a 2007 memoir to a story I'd written a decade earlier that devastated the incumbent Republican. What Schumer didn't say was that as soon as Hank Morris, Schumer's media guru, went up with an ad based on my revelations about D'Amato, Arthur Finkelstein, who was running D'Amato's 1998 campaign, aired a commercial about Schumer's near-indictment and flashed my nearly two-decade-old clips breaking that scandal on the screen as well. I was the maestro of a commercial duel.
I've cited Barrett and Robbins periodically, including Barrett's amazing (and criminally ignored) report on Democratic Mayoral candidate Bill Thompson's reason for never getting tough on Mayor Mike Bloomberg (that museum Thompson's wife leads and Bloomberg has funded), or Robbins's description of Bloomberg's "Velvet Coup" in getting term limits overturned.

Neither turned their attention to Atlantic Yards, rich if complicated fodder, and that's another piece of luck for Forest City Ratner. (Was it because of lingering sympathy for ACORN? Too many other juicy targets?)

Their role at the Voice

I've been inspired by Barrett and Robbins, who come to conclusions and opinions--unlike reporters constrained by journalistic convention--but only after doing the reporting.

“The reporting I do I believe is very objective,” Barrett told WNYC. “After I’ve reported a story, I am allowed, unlike people at dailies, to frame the reportage in a piece that contains opinions. But it’s the reporting that shapes the opinion. It’s not the opinion that shapes the reporting.”

And institutional memory is important. "Tom and I do things on the beat that are very valuable to it," Barrett told the Observer. "We can read a news story that every other reporter has read and we can bring a new set of eyes to it, see it as a pattern of conduct, grasp the history, put in context. We bring a body of experience that is important to this beat. I don't feel like I can do that on a national level."

New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer echoed that. "It is a colossal loss," he told the Observer. "There is more historical knowledge about city government and politics between those two guys than you find in most newsrooms. So much of what we know about power in the city comes from those two guys."

"You can't monetize investigative journalism," Dwyer added. "You can only protect it."

Observed New York Civic's Henry Stern:
Over the years, Barrett has produced a remarkable body of work which should be made readily available to the general public. In my judgment, as far as New York politics and ethics are concerned, he is and has been the conscience of his generation. Although we do not always agree, and I think some of his judgments are too harsh, his fact-collecting abilities and those of his interns at the Columbia School of Journalism, where he teaches, are unsurpassed.

If this dogged and painstaking reporter did not possess that unique combination of integrity, industry and intensity, he would not have been able to do the work that he has done so consistently and so capably for a third of a century. If the three levels of government had acted on more of the information he collected and presented, this city, state and nation would be better served. If other journalists had followed up on more of his stories, instead of ignoring them because they appeared first in the Voice, the results would have been beneficial to honest public officials and harmful to those who betrayed their trust. Nonetheless, his impact over the years has been substantial, and who can tell what wrongful conduct his columns deterred?

Why now?

The Voice, like other media properties, has been evolving, and is under serious budget pressure, and apparently they calculated that Barrett was not necessary to the bottom line.

Alt-weeklies have been changing in the web era. (The Chicago Reader laid off the legendary John Conroy, exposer of police misconduct, who finally landed a job at the nonprofit Better Government Association, which does not have a New York City counterpart.)

Observed Gawker:
Barrett and Robbins are both great reporters. But these days, when a single photo of a cat dressed as Lady Gaga can get more hits than a months-long political corruption investigation, great reporters have less job security than ever, unless they have a very photogenic cat.
Click to enlarge the graphic below and see the most viewed stories on the Voice web site, as of mid-day yesterday.

The list:
  • Does The New Yorker Have Girl Problems? Reader Demands Gender Balance or a Refund
  • The 20 Most-Read Village Voice Stories of 2010
  • Deadspin Photos of Brett Favre's Penis Are Going Live Tomorrow (UPDATE)
  • The Runnin' Scared Gift Guide: 100 Presents for the Drunks, Exes, Neurotics, Sex Fiends, and Loved Ones on Your List
  • More Sexy Spying: Topless Anna Chapman Graces the New York Post
Secondhand photos of a topless spy and breath-bated anticipation of a quarterback's equipment may be entertaining, but--I suppose this sounds old-fashioned--wasn't the First Amendment justified in part to ensure the press could criticize government?

We get the media we pay for, right?

Barrett wrote that he may work on books and has landed, for now, at the Nation Institute; let's see where Robbins lands.

Flashback, October 2009

As I wrote in October 2009, Robbins, in a piece headlined The Mayor's Press Pass, provides some context about Mayor Mike Bloomberg and, I'd suggest, Atlantic Yards:
One reason for the remarkably charmed life of Mike Bloomberg's administration as he sails toward re-election has been the waning of the city's news business.... When this city enjoyed four fat daily newspapers, editors clamored for strong, tough copy to fill them.

...These days, the papers are onion-skin thin, and exposés are catch as catch can. Newsday, which once gave rival editors panic attacks every morning, doesn't even have a city edition anymore... Nowadays, to fill their meager space, editors prefer colorful yarns to investigations. Until this month, one newspaper carried an entire column about empty rooms. We have the Web, with all of its many hardworking blogs, but most of these spend their energies keeping political scorecards with all the obsession of fantasy baseball addicts: Who's on first, and what coaches are in the dugout? The business of government and its many failings goes largely unexamined.
Yes, largely unexamined, but Robbins at least could have noticed the Atlantic Yards issue, which has generated an enormous amount of homegrown media in response.

There's no business model here, however.

2 comments:

  1. You're right. Beautiful job of pulling the facts together, Norman. I can remember the early days of the Voice, and recently I thought the work of those two men might permit the Voice to rise again from a trashy bottom. Not so likely now.

    The blogs--well, your blog, anyway--have become the foundation for informed citizenship.

    But ultimately we need more than reports on the day-to-day and the political process, we need reporters with the freedom and the time to take the long view.

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  2. The rise of content farms and the decline of print media is proving Plato's criticisms of raw democracy to be accurate.

    In a 'clickable' world our appetites and desires get the best of our reason. And the news turns into little more than a forum for public gossip.

    Someday we will find a bottom. And reason and knowledge will regain a foothold.

    One nice thing about the internet is that it preserves facts. Even if it covers them in a cloud of noise. Always nice to find blogs like this, where people still look for them.

    ReplyDelete