Voice Over?

Is the Village Voice, after several years of increasing irrelevance, pulling itself together at last-- or is the noise we hear simply the sound of a once-proud liberal icon falling apart?

Published February 11, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

over the past few weeks, culture scouts have been spotting smoke and cinders in the vicinity of a certain liberal bulwark on New York's steamy Bowery. Is the Village Voice in revolt again?

Contrary to what you may have heard, not all of the paper's famous in-house skirmishes culminate in violence. Only once did an editor get popped by a writer, and that was over 10 years ago. Nevertheless, the latest eliminations, terminations and related maneuvers have industry wags sniffing for blood. The weekly cartoon page -- featuring Matt Groening's "Life in Hell" and Lynda Barry's "Ernie Pook's Comeek" -- has been unapologetically scrapped to make room for a sports section. Humorist Cynthia Heimel, whose biweekly column has run in the paper for 17 years, has been given the gate. The long-standing confusion at the Voice Literary Supplement far predates the new editor-in-chief's arrival. That mess is straightened out, too, much to the dismay of some -- but not all -- of the parties involved. Last but not least, another freshly fired columnist, Hugh Pearson, is talking lawsuits.

Is this war? "There was no carnage," says new Editor in Chief Don Forst, with his customary finality.

From a distance, though, it sure looks bloody. Heimel, for her part, suggests she was sacked in retaliation for an indiscreet Internet comment: a post on a Well conference suggesting that as the new Voice editor Forst was acting like an old fart trying to be hip. "I feel like I've walked into a Kafka novel where old stupid guys get to fire you," she told the New York Post's gossipy "Page Six." Don Forst may not be everybody's Valentine, but Heimel's shot seems to have gone wide. Doug Simmons, the voluble, roll-with-the-punches managing editor, tells me that "the joke around the office was that Forst read the Post item and looked up and said, 'What's the Internet?'"

Forst says there was nothing malicious about his decision to boot Heimel's long-running column. "I wanted someone who's living in New York," he explains simply, noting that Heimel lives in California and frequently appears in Playboy and Los Angeles magazine. Simmons agrees: "It was one of the purest editorial decisions I've ever seen," he says.

The Hugh Pearson case is, admittedly, a bit stickier. On Feb. 3, The New York Observer's regular feature "Off The Record" reported that Pearson, who had recently been hired as a Voice columnist, reacted a mite strongly to an editorial suggestion to alter his work. Miles Seligman, the editor in question, reported that Pearson threatened to come down and "kick his fucking ass." After a reportedly heated discussion with the managing editor, Pearson was fired, and is now threatening to sue the paper for breach of contract. Asked to comment, Forst merely remarked that the Observer's version of the fracas was accurate, and that "the policy of the paper is not to discuss personnel."

Further down the totem pole, opinions were a little less circumspect -- at least off-the-record opinions. "Nobody has guaranteed creative control over a column, nobody. Who has that kind of power?" fumed one source, stung by Pearson's insistence that his dismissal was motivated by racism. Said another, "He didn't want to be edited. That's just freaky."

Not so fast, Pearson tells me. He already had an editor he liked just fine, but that editor left for a five-week vacation, leaving Pearson in the clutches of someone (Seligman) whose working methods were, Pearson says, amateurish and stifling. Seligman "mutilated" one of his columns, and Pearson returned it nearly to its original state. "I've always been very lightly edited," he says.

There's plenty of disagreement over what constitutes too-heavy editing, and what, if anything, being promised "creative control" of a column really means. One thing's for sure, though: Pearson definitely did threaten to kick Seligman's ass -- and from there on things went to hell at a rapid clip. "We can't raise our voices to white guys," fumes Pearson in his melodious bass-baritone. "They always think we're trying to kill 'em." Is Pearson a big, scary guy? "I'm 6-1," he says. "And some people say I'm very handsome."

Pearson doesn't think being bounced by the Voice will hurt his reputation. "For years, the Voice has been known as the insane asylum of journalism," he comments, obviously not afraid of burning bridges.

Forst, formerly of New York Newsday, is unsentimental about the changes he's making. "The articles are shorter; they're more timely," he explains. Did the former Voice have a problem being timely? "It's not a problem, it's an attitude. They didn't think it was necessary to be timely." How did he see the direction the paper was headed in when he took over? "The Voice had stopped being meaningful to me," he replied. "There was a lot of navel gazing."

Nobody really disputes the logic behind Forst's decision to cut the comics page -- or, at least, that there was a logic behind the move. There were no official complaints about the quality or content of the art; the editors wanted the space for sports, and that was it. What kind of a loss is this going to be? Well, neither Barry nor Groening have any material connection with the Voice other than being syndicated there; no desks to clean out, though there may be wounds to lick. Still, some Voice-ers thought it was high time. The two former underground heroes were just phoning it in, said one. "Lynda Barry stopped drawing five years ago," another critic snapped.

Staff writer and "Press Clips" columnist James Ledbetter is quick to point out that "more staff writers have been put on the masthead in the last five months than in the last five years" -- among them Thomas Goetz, Jennifer Gonnerman and the now-departed Pearson. "That's lots and lots of hires, many of them people under 30."

Of course, this doesn't mean more hands in all departments: Joy Press, the brand-new editor of the Voice Literary Supplement, will have to make it with a skeleton crew of one, a configuration that was not arrived at without a certain amount of pain.

Her predecessor, Lee Smith, lasted just over a year before he walked last August, complaining that his section was being forcibly shrunk. (Once monthly, the VLS was cut to a quarterly, though the Voice promised more space to books in the regular Voice.) For a time, the department was bobbing in the water without a captain, leaving temporary editorial replacement Kerry Fried to whip together the fall and winter issues as best she could, and to keep pace with the larger weekly requirements. Exhausted by the effort, Fried was nevertheless not given the editorship in the end. Reached at her apartment, she was philosophical. "Even though the experience with management was, er, tense, there were a lot of people I really loved working with, inside and outside of the Voice, and it was a thrilling experience from that point of view." She paused. "I'm hoping to remember that aspect in the years to come."

There's little doubt that the Voice will emerge from its current turmoil a rather different creature. Everybody with a professed affection for the paper has his or her own idea of which of its habitual devices are worth preserving and which ones should be ditched. With the arrival of the no-nonsense Forst, have we seen the last of such honored traditions as gangsta glorification, the pernicious use of the word "diva," letters to the editor that begin, "As a ..." (fill in the blank), ideologically opposed writers referring to one another as Nazis and Fascists, and ever-more-interplanetary adjectives to describe the sound of electric guitars? Stay tuned. The left may be chasing its tail these days, but according to Doug Simmons, the avant-garde paper of record is headed in the right direction. "The Voice is 42 years old, exactly as old as I am," he says. "It's gonna outlive me, and I'm gonna live a long time."

By Sally Eckhoff

Sally Eckhoff lives in upstate New York. She is a regular contributor to Salon.

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