Do you remember in Citizen Kane when the young, idealistic Charles Foster Kane was working on the first edition of his new newspaper? He scribbled out his “Declaration of Principles” for the front page, pledging to “tell all the news honestly” and to provide the people of New York with “a fighting and tireless champion of their rights as citizens and as human beings.”
That fictional script was set in the city’s gaslight era, but Kane’s principles could have appeared below the masthead of every Village Voice published since 1955. Still, we all know what’s happened to newspapers in the past decade — and especially over the last four years.
So when the Voice’s new owner, Brian Calle, recently told me that he was planning to print — on paper with ink! — actual copies of the Village Voice, on a quarterly basis, I burst out laughing. Then I thanked him for making this god-awful year (with the noted exception of November 3rd — no wait — November 7th) quite a bit brighter.
The sidewalks of New York have not seen a printed copy of the Voice since September 2017. And while the website has been presenting highlights from the archives, there hasn’t been much new coverage since late 2018. So the news that the Voice lives — yet again — is lighting up cell phones and filling email boxes far and wide. I’ve been at the Voice for 33 years and I’ve had many jobs: ad proofreader, print overseer, writer, editor, and now “content coordinator.” Hmmm. I can’t say the Voice was ever that great at coordinating anything. We barely got it out the door most Monday close nights. But if the Voice wasn’t always coordinated, it was nonetheless a chorus, different voices coming together — sometimes not all that harmoniously — to sing truth to power.
Is that why so many readers cherish (and get furious with) this publication, as if it were a friend, a family member, or a lover?
Well, as immigrant and painter Willem de Kooning once said, “It’s not so much that I’m an American; I’m a New Yorker.”
It’s the “so much” that New Yorkers understand so well. Of course we’re Americans. But as New Yorkers, we reflect so much that is best about this great democracy: our ability to tolerate each other even when swaying together on a jam-packed 4 train; our willingness to hear each other out — even if we can be a bit loud about it; our curiosity about whatever crazy visions we’re gonna confront in a Chelsea gallery or on an off-Broadway stage tomorrow (okay, more like next spring); our discretion when we overhear someone’s most intimate confessions in a crowded bistro (ditto on that spring thing); our flat-out caring for each other — whether rushing to help at Ground Zero in 2001 or wearing a face mask in 2020.
Maybe in 1961 you were a young playwright looking to voice your objections to the views of your elders. The Voice gave Lorraine Hansberry a platform to call bullshit on Norman Mailer, never mind that he was one of the paper’s founders and still retained a hefty financial stake.
It was the Voice that early on covered a mysterious plague killing gay men downtown — and then looked beyond the devastation of AIDS in our own city to report on the carnage the disease was spreading across Africa. Mark Schoofs’s reporting earned one of the three Pulitzer Prizes the Voice has won over the years.
It was the Voice that in January 1993 put not Bill but Hillary Clinton on the cover, realizing even then that she was the bigger target for right-wing disinformation campaigns — a demagogic assault on the facts that paid off beyond the wildest dreams of the Koch Brothers and Fox News 23 years later.
And now, four years further along, as we survey the wreckage to the city, the state, the nation, the world, and democracy wrought by Donald Trump, a revitalized Voice can once again be at the forefront of covering a local kid made bad.
I could go on and on: Michael Musto guiding us like Virgil through the downtown demimonde. Nat Hentoff educating us on the subtleties of jazz or the brute powers of the Supreme Court. Greg Tate opening ears and eyes, and probably some hearts, as he delved into Michael Jackson’s manias. Or Stanley Crouch arguing with Tate (and Guy Trebay) a half dozen issues later. Then there was Jill Johnston, writing about dance with the same rhythms and ecstatic verve she was seeing onstage. And did anyone ever write more movingly about the pain and shock of brutal crimes than Teresa Carpenter? Her Pulitzer winner on the murder of Dorothy Stratten makes sense out of what too many others saw only as senseless. And as recently as 2018, Aaron Gordon’s subway coverage scooped everyone in town — even the agency he was writing about.
If you need more names from the past, take a look here. It is a very incomplete list, and one that is destined to include some we haven’t heard of yet. And yes, we are long-time film buffs here at the Voice. So we know that Charlie Kane betrayed his principles, deciding that he wanted more comforts than ever and would be damned to let the pipsqueaks afflict him.
But his principles were fiction. The Voice has been a hard and fast fact going on seven decades now, and its track record of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable bows to no one. 2020’s almost done. Here’s to 2021. ❖