This Is Why We Need a Free Press

The Village Voice ceased online operations last month, a year after ending its print edition. It was the end of the line for the laborious, gritty investigative reporting that was the heart and soul of the paper.

The muckraking for which the Voice was known has become an endangered species.

According to an article in the New York Times last week by John Leland, the Daily News cut its already reduced staff by half in July; the website DNA Info, which picked up much of the local slack, closed last fall; former troublemakers like The City Sun and New York Newsday are long gone; the New York Post and The New York Times have both cut back on local staff, though The Times’s new publisher has recently said he is “seriously committed” to local coverage.

As part of the New York Times article, it paid tribute to seven of the greatest hits of The Village Voice. As I read the stories it became apparent how important it is to have a free, independent press keeping tabs on those in power, and exposing corruption when it is found.

Here’s a quick summary of the seven stories:

  • In 1955, when The Voice came into being, Robert Moses, the Power Broker, was planning to build a highway through Greenwich Village, including through Washington Square Park. Four years after the first Voice editorial opposing the highway, the city board of estimate voted not to build it, and to close the park even to the traffic that was then allowed. The paper had won.
  • During the same time as it was battling Moses, The Voice found another powerful enemy: Carmine DeSapio, then the boss of Tammany Hall. In an editorial urging residents to mobilize, Dan Wolf declared “the battle for New York City” and called for “the political demise of Carmine DeSapio.” By the middle of the ’60s, after a series of defeats, DeSapio was out of office, and Tammany Hall, which had ruled New York’s Democratic Party for its own enrichment, was dead.
  • Among the many scandals exposed: a councilman from the Bronx who enriched himself through running anti-poverty programs and scandals at the Parking Violations Bureau which crippled Mayor Koch’s third term and kept him from a fourth.
  • a March 1969 article about a speakout at which 12 women described their experiences with abortion — illegal in New York at the time — helped put radical feminism and the local abortion rights movement on the map.
  • The Voice began compiling an annual list of the city’s worst landlords, helping to identify the types of abuses that people were suffering from.
  • The paper provided access to the “raw rage” then fomenting among many black New Yorkers, exemplified by the rise of Al Sharpton.
  • In February 1971, The Voice ran an article that began, “New York is the world’s biggest outdoor dog toilet.” An anti-poop movement arose, but it wasn’t until years later, when the reporter joined the Koch administration as a speechwriter, that mayor signed a law requiring dog owners to clean up after their pets.

If you’ve got a few minutes, I’d highly recommend reading the full article.

As the article also points out, investigative reporting still endures in NYC  neighborhood weeklies, on public radio station WNYC, or on nonprofit websites like City Limits and Gotham Gazette. But people are no longer getting hard-hitting local journalism where they also find their apartments or discover the next cool band.

RIP, Village Voice. You are gone, but your legacy, and your work continues.

*photo from the New York Times

2 thoughts on “This Is Why We Need a Free Press

  1. My AECM tidbit
    Jim Borden: This Is Why We Need a Free Press —

    Jensen Comment
    Time and time again both small towns and big towns tend to be led by corrupt politicians prone to accepting bribes, nepotism, and extortion. In countless instances the first line of defense in the USA has been investigative reporters for the free press. This is what saddens me so about taking so much revenue away from local newspapers It’s not NBC, CBS, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News investigative reporters muckraking on the streets of Chicago and Detroit. The muckrakers time and time again are reporters from the Chicago Tribune and the Detroit Free Press. Television networks and Internet blogs aren’t paying the salaries of the investigative reporters. Those reporters are being supported by town and city newspapers.

    When the town and city newspapers can no longer afford the investigative reporters criminals seeking to run our towns and cities will breathe a sigh of relief and the television networks and Internet blogs will run out of material to comment about. I don’t know that there’s any way to save investigative reporters for newspapers. They will no longer be “free” if the government tries to pay their salaries. One solution will be for government to instead greatly expand its whistle blowing rewards programs. Those are not salaries for investigative reporters, but those are rewards for insiders to dig out and report corruption to authorities. The problem, however, will be to keep the “authorities” from becoming corrupt.

    This is why we need a free press. But we’re probably not going to keep the free press.


    1. Bob, thanks for your insights. It seems as if investigative reporters are a dying breed, but I’m hopeful that people will realize the value of such reporting and come up with innovative ways to fund such reporting.


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