Tales of the City

There’s something symmetrical about the conviction of yet another boss of the Brooklyn Democratic party and the nearly simultaneous celebration of the Voice‘s 50th anniversary. We can always count on Brooklyn, or its clubhouse equivalents elsewhere, to give us reason to go on, to serve up big targets as transparent as they thought our notch-on-the-belt motives were.

The godfather of our city political coverage, the recently deceased Jack Newfield, used to do annual Thanksgiving tributes to a select group of genuine local heroes. We might just as well have ritualistically thanked the rogues and wire-pullers, the campaign givers and takers, who’ve made this investigative job of ours such a canned hunt for so many years. In the old days, starting in the ’60s, Newfield’s clanging manual typewriter could take down any machine skel overnight, beating him into indictment, resignation, or cooperation, sometimes with verbs alone. We thought a deadline meant we had to kill someone by closing time.

Every news desk has something unique that makes it tick, a twist all its own. Ours has always been piñata politics. We could not have been happier that Ed Koch got 12 whole years at City Hall; we got to write every last truthful and troubling thing we ever thought about him.

When Rudy Giuliani was term-limited out after two terms, we just kept writing about him anyway, squeezing as much copy out of him as his multimillion-dollar consulting firm was squeezing out of 9-11. It helped that we never got answers to our questions while Rudy was in office, so things felt much the same when he was gone. For that matter, we believe no one can top our record of George Pataki exposés—from his bodyguard to his family vegetable stand—and yet he has never so much as spoken to anyone who works at this paper, proving how overrated access may be.

To us, Meade Esposito, the ex-boss of Brooklyn also on the tab of at least three crime families, morphed into Clarence Norman, who’s now faced with twice the number of criminal cases (four to Meade’s two), but is charged with stealing gas and tolls on his way to Albany, which Esposito ruled from a bar on Court Street. Esposito once forced me to tell him why we hated him, and when I said it was because he’d “corrupted an entire judiciary,” his baffled reply was: “What else?” How could you not keep writing that story as long as it begged to be told? Same with Liberal Party plutocrat Ray Harding. Our best work on him, which put his son and Giuliani high stepper Russell in jail, helped push his 50-year- old party into ballot oblivion.

We’ve always gotten up in the morning, at least in part, to bag a bad guy. Al D’Amato called us vipers in his autobiography, as coveted a journalism prize as a Pulitzer any day. In the middle of his criminal trial, Stanley Friedman, once the most powerful party honcho in the state, demanded to know what he had to do to get a decent sentence—”I’m not looking for a paragraph,” he said—in the
Voice, and we just laughed. Koch branded us “wackos” so we invented our own Emmys, the annual Wacko Awards, and gave them to every stuntman and bad actor on our set, especially Ed’s gang.

If one of us had a sacred cow, somebody else milked it, so that even the “great liberals” on the city beat have taken pages of well-deserved punishment, from Mario Cuomo, John Lindsay, Bella Abzug, Al Sharpton, Mel Miller, Chuck Schumer, Geraldine Ferraro, and Eliot Spitzer to Hillary Clinton. We’ve never let politics-in-common silence a good government grudge. In fact, as quiet as it is kept, though our local politics has always been decidedly liberal, we’ve long been better at goring our own. We like to think of ourselves as equal-opportunity garbage collectors, as nonpartisan as the wrongdoing itself, never looking past the wrist of any hand in the public till.

The issues have been our only allies, and here are the ones that have mattered the most: the empowerment of the city’s nonwhite majority, respect for those living with disadvantage, full gender and orientation rights, a

public ethic without self-serving conflict, and a justice system that is, at least occasionally, just. We have fielded an army of reporters who have also been advocates for these principles, letting their revelations do the advocacy for them. Prolific Jarrett Murphy and Jennifer Gonnerman are our newest champions of this tradition, with National Book Award finalist Gonnerman winning many prizes for her Rockefeller drug law stories and other reporting.

Remember, if you can, the Voice men and women who preceded them on the city beat: Ken Auletta, Russ Baker, William Bastone, Mary Breasted, Jim Callaghan, Joe Conason, Paul Cowan, Tim Crouse, Michael Daly, Paul DuBrul, Joe Flaherty, Richard Goldstein, Jeff Greenfield, Pete and Denis Hamill, LynNell Hancock, Nat Hentoff, Mark Jacobson, Maria Laurino, Sharon Lerner, Julie Lobbia, Fred McDarrah, Mary Perot Nichols, Peter Noel, Eve Ottenberg, Robin Reisig, Tom Robbins, Jim Sleeper, Geoffrey Stokes, Phil Tracy, and Clark Whelton.

Some left indelible marks on specific issues over years: Bastone, the mob; Hancock, schools; Lobbia and Robbins, housing; Stokes, media; Goldstein, gays; Hentoff, civil liberties; Noel, police brutality; Nichols, community preservation. Conason and Newfield covered this slice of the earth with far-ranging copy that spanned decades and proved that a strong will in print was sometimes enough to change the law or a political leader. “Ten Worst Judges” and “Ten Worst Landlords” became a staple of New York life, launched by Newfield and, in time, his 10 best collaborators.

There have been those who’ve faulted our coverage. We have been too white and too male for too long, earning the title of “white boys” thrown at us 20 years ago by our arts enemies within the paper who were fighting for front-of-the-book turf. Our attacks on the pols have mostly been right, but we haven’t been as careful about praise, never fully acknowledging, for example, that punching-bag Koch had actually succeeded in transforming the housing stock of the city’s poorest communities. We have been called predictable, which is a synonym for both boring and consistent, one of which can be a positive attribute. But there are story lines that run counter to liberal orthodoxy: Hentoff on abortion, Whelton on almost everything, and a persistent questioning by many of municipal labor unions.

Mostly, though, the Voice‘s city pages have taken readers down the road less traveled, spoofing the tabloids and taunting the Times. We have not so much presented an alternative New York reality as reflected one. When we were the only newspaper in the city to endorse Mario Cuomo for governor in 1982, everyone else spellbound by Koch ascendant, we were shocked to discover that we actually embodied a majority of New Yorkers. When we were the only newspaper to stand up to Giuliani for so long, we waited until the rest of the city caught up with us, as they did by September 10, 2001. We were the shrillest voice in the city on the local politics of two wars, one early in our half-century and one late, and eventually we became the mainstream.

If a newspaper writes the story of its city without compromise or calculation, it is as breathtaking as a ballet, each detail another artful step. Put us together as bound volumes in the memory of this grandest of cities and the Voice reads like a classic, ever passionate and principled.

Research assistance: Jessica Bennett, K. Emily Bond, Ben James, Lee Norsworthy, Xana O’Neill, and Nicholas Powers

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