Eat The Press

voice smear ii.JPGLast week, the Village Voice aired its dirty laundry in public. Village Voice Media under-boss Bill Jensen — whom editor-in-chief David Blum had publicly stared down last month — was in town for a visit. A few days and contentious flare-ups later, Blum was out, and a few more days later, the Village Voice had hired Tony Ortega, its fifth editor in less than two years. In this business, sometimes that's how it happens. But did it all have to go down so nastily?

First, it must be said: Ortega sounds like a great choice, the perfect balance between alt-weekly journalistic chops, attitude (mohawk + clubbing = alt-cred), and New Times company man (an essential, as it turns out). Let's hope for everyone's sake that fifth time's a charm.

This isn't about Ortega, though, and it's not even about whether or not Blum was wrong for the paper, which, according to Village Voice Media executive editor Mike Lacey, Bill Jensen, a number of off-the-rec staffers, Gawker, and a whole whack of letters to the editor, he was. That's the risk of the top spot, though; others know that well. Here it must also be said, as previously dislcosed, that Blum assigned and edited my cover story in November, and the experience was a terrific one, and I learned a lot. So, bias declared. But I don't think you need to declare much of a bias to credibly make the case that Village Voice Media gave him a raw, raw deal.

Reports of David Blum's dismissal from the editorship last week all mention his remarks made at a staff meeting last Wednesday, from Gawker's initial report breaking the story to the AP's report describing the routine story meeting as "a staff meeting on concerns about racial diversity," as attributed to Voice spokesperson Maggie Shnayerson (who went on to clarify that "Dave Blum is not a racist," a denial that wouldn't have been necessary if that narrative had not been put forth). Several outlets have reported that Blum's comments were "found offensive" by staff and "deemed racially insensitive," but that was only news for one reason: In his address to the staff, Bill Jensen cited them as the reason for Blum's dismissal. Here's what was printed on Gawker:

A meeting took place at 5:15 p.m. today at which staff were told that Blum was "no longer the editor of the paper" because he'd "made comments that were unacceptable."

(It's also because that version was leaked to Gawker, within minutes of the meeting, complete with actual quotes. Since Gawker tips are anonymous it's impossible to know what person or persons might have leaked that. (Though that's becoming a bit of a trend.) But that was the storyline that was publicized.)

This isn't about Blum's remarks, which everyone interviewed on and off the record seem to agree were not racist but most agreed were clueless (including Blum, who admitted that he'd put his foot in it: "I said too much," he told me. "I spoke when I should have listened"). Even so, it is necessary to look at their context, and their dissemination, as part of the larger story. Per Gawker, the only outlet to have quotes from the meeting in question (on Friday, ETP provided more details, but no quotes; the Gawker version was generally reflected in coverage by the NYT and the AP; today's NYO has a fuller version). Per Gawker:

According to one staffer present at that story meeting, nothing "outrageous" was said. According to another staffer, Blum was called on his heavily white hiring; Blum said he made no apology about being a "white male Jew from the Upper West Side," and was sorry he couldn't reach "Joe Jones from Flatbush."

Based on multiple sources, it seems clear that the "Jew" remark was taken as Blum's acknowledgment of the limitations of his experience and the comment about reaching "Joe Jones from Flatbush" was in the context of there being no Voice distribution boxes in Flatbush to reach "Joe Jones" or anyone else. It also seems clear that Blum's response to complaints about the lack of staff diversity were perceived as "defensive," and that it was made worse when he responded to the one black staff member at the meeting, deputy managing editor Adamma Ince, who said she felt "alone" (the two other black staff members were not present at the meeting). According to sources, Blum responded that there was only so much he could do in the face of an industry-wide shortage of qualified applicants, hotly competed over by many outlets with similarly vanilla staffing, and that journalism schools were overwhelmingly white, borne out by his own experience Columbia, which was "98% white." Some staffers felt his remarks reflected a narrow viewpoint. Some felt that particularly strongly. We do know that some sort of complaint was filed with the union following the meeting; we do know that it was expanded to include the dismissal of minority staffer Corina Zappia the next day; we don't know it's current status. Numerous sources said that the matter had been resolved and dropped between Blum and the staffer who had originally filed the complaint, Adamma Ince; other sources corroborated Lacey's comment that Blum's apology had "made it worse." (There was disagreement on this point; Ince did not respond to our request for comment.)

Though the version leaked to Gawker said that Blum had been "called on his heavily white hiring," sources at the meeting said that the issue was raised as a general concern with diversity at the Voice. It was a problem that pre-dated Blum's arrival, first in the first post-merger sweep of changes and firings, and then in the axing of eight employees two weeks before Blum started, last August, three of whom were minority: Ed Park (Korean), Jorge Morales (Puerto Rican) and Minh Uong (Asian). Blum himself hired film critic Nathan Lee (Asian), deputy copy chief Deanna Martin, and editorial administrative assistant Lori Payne (his assistant). (He did, however, fire a number of staffers last October.) As editor-in-chief, Blum had not been explicitly charged with diversifying the staff; after the Zappia firing, spokeswoman Shnayerson told me: "[T]he Voice does not make personnel decisions based on race or image." (Whether there exists an active duty on the part of any editor to maintain a diverse newsroom reflective of the population it serves is another question entirely, one with which the industry as a whole is grappling on a number of fronts — right, Harper's?) Either way, on the eve of his departure, and on the heels of the reaction to the meeting and Zappia's dismissal, Blum accelerated talks with a black Voice freelancer on tap for a staff writer position, encouraged by Lacey to fast-track the hire. (As far as ETP knows, that deal has not yet been solidified.)

All of this is necessary background to understand that this was a narrative that got out because it was put out, by the Village Voice. Whatever happened to, "It didn't work out, but we wish him well?" Instead the official line was "he made comments that were unacceptable," "[t]he incident...brought to a head concerns that the newspaper's management had for a period of time," and "David Blum is not a racist," suddenly switched over to basically "we didn't like the job he was doing" as Lacey told new Voice media columnist Keach Hagey yesterday. Lacey was the one who fired Blum, so he should know why, but it's curious that his reason is at odds with what Jensen told the staff...and what was leaked to the press. No mention was made of any other reason at the meeting. Said one staffer: "The weird thing is how [the storyline] switched from "racist' to 'bad editor.'"

Meanwhile, there's the matter of Jensen just "happening" to be in town (which Shnayerson swears up and down was a coincidence, citing his initial 3-day reservation — at the Chelsea Hotel, which funnily enough is more customary for longer-term stays — a postponed return flight, and a lack of a change of clothes), and the super-fast Ortega turnaround (he was apparently offered the job this weekend, according to the Observer and also to Shnayerson in an email message). Coincidences happen, sure, but leaving aside Ortega's availability and Blum's unfortunate remarks, we're still left with after-the-fact knowledge that this had been brewing for some time, and yet still, the official storyline was one of smear. "Mr. Ortega's hiring the next business day does an excellent job of proving to people this was premeditated and not abrupt-racism-related," said one Voice staffer. "No one thinks that's why Blum was fired."

Related:
Voice Publisher Rousts Its Editor After Bumpy Ride [NYO]
David Blum Out As Village Voice Editor [ETP]
Breaking: David Blum Out At Voice [Gawker]

Previously:
Can The Village Voice Survive Without Its Lefty Zetz? [NYO]

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