The Freaks Came Out to Write: 
The Definitive History of the Village Voice, the Radical Paper That Changed American Culture

By Tricia Romano
Hachette Books, 608 pages, $35

In May, when a Manhattan jury convicted Donald Trump of 34 felonies related to his falsification of business records, it should have been front-page news for The Village Voice. After all, the Voice, the pioneering alternative weekly newspaper turning 70 next year, was the first publication to scrutinize the dodgy transactions of its hometown anti-hero, as Tricia Romano recounts in The Freaks Came Out to Write, her exhaustive oral history of what Playboy once dubbed “the unofficial organ of Greenwich Village.”

As Romano notes, Voice reporter Wayne Barrett began tracking Trump in 1979 with an in-depth account of the art of Trump’s deals a decade before his self-mythologizing book Art of the Deal. Barrett described the 32-year-old Trump as the “brash, streetwise son of Brooklyn’s largest apartment builder,” who muscled his political connections into private profits at the public’s expense.

More than four decades later, Trump is the victor in the battle of man versus alt-weekly. While he is on track to become president again, the modern Voice is a shadow of its former self, a quarterly print publication with low circulation and sparse online stories (a review of Camp Snoopy, anyone?). On Trump’s historic day of becoming the first felon ex-president, The Voice published a blog post that dryly recounted an overview of the verdict, published a few random photos with sarcastic captions, and called it a day. No one noticed, because the coverage was inessential at best, the journalistic equivalent of Mike Tyson’s abortive attempt to squeeze into his old trunks recently to box Jake Paul. Some aging institutions are better off staying in retirement.

However, it would be a mistake to assume that the Voice’s drift into irrelevance is due to failure—quite the opposite. The real question raised by The Freaks Came Out to Write isn’t, “Where is today’s Village Voice?” Rather, it’s: “Where isn’t the Voice?” 

The Village Voice was founded in Greenwich Village in 1955 by a trio of World War II vets: Norman Mailer, Dan Wolf, and Ed Fancher. It was initially envisioned as something like the anti-New York Times, the button-down version of the Grey Lady for the iconoclasts of New Journalism and nonprofessionals, such as Don McNeill, a homeless writer hired to pen columns about his friends in the hippie scene—“Buddhists, Diggers, street‐people, runaways, speedfreaks, and acid‐heads,” as a New York Times review of his journalism put it.

“What it wasn’t was reflexively liberal or leftist in its perspective.”

It’s a “little New York journal which energetically does its iconoclastic push-ups,” William F. Buckley quipped in 1968. These “push-ups” often meant thoroughly scrutinizing unexamined power in New York City; one of the paper’s popular features in the early days named and shamed the top-10 worst landlords and local judges. What it wasn’t was reflexively liberal or leftist in its perspective. “We didn’t want to be seen as a left-wing newspaper particularly,” said Wolf, one of the co-founders. “We wanted to be seen as an independent newspaper. We published quite a few conservative articles. The idea of the Voice was independent journalism. And that idea is either lost or forgotten.”

The Voice also tended to attract what Mailer described—in his infamous 1957 essay, “The White Negro”—as hipsters: young people who felt a sense of existential dread after witnessing the horrors of the atomic bomb and postwar suburbanization. Of course, these rootless divorcees from society weren’t just located in Gotham. They were all over America, and hipster intellectuals inspired by the Voice and the counterculture’s rise to prominence in the 1960s and ’70s started alt-weeklies in dozens of cities across the country, including The Stranger (Seattle), the Chicago Reader, the Washington City Paper, and more. 

If you’re like me and have never lived anywhere close to the Big Apple, you might be familiar with the Voice or its reputation from the Reagan-Bush years as the Scribes of Chic. That’s when it was owned by—believe it or not—Rupert Murdoch and distributed nationally, where it doubled as something like the East Coast’s answer to Rolling Stone. The news coverage of the Voice in the 1980s and early ’90s became less local, dropping landlord investigations in favor of cultural criticism written by acerbic writers like Robert Christgau and Colson Whitehead. This was when a cynical capitalist realism conquered youth culture; when rabble-rousing scenes in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Seattle got exported to MTV and the growing infotainment ecosystem—and got rich doing so. The cocaine parties some Voice staffers indulged in, as described in Romano’s book, were just part of the victory laps.

The party didn’t last forever, however, at least for the publications themselves. Romano’s book has attracted a new round of obituaries for the alt-weekly. These analyses are incomplete. The eulogists lament how Google, Facebook, and Craigslist destroyed their advertising business without mentioning their existential editorial problem: Your father’s counterculture has become the dominant culture of today.

In its heyday, from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s, the Voice had a hand in popularizing and canonizing punk rock, hip-hop, and disco, as well as visual artists such as Andy Warhol and indie auteurs like Spike Lee. Politically, it promoted the Stonewall uprising, Pride parades, women’s liberation, the deregulation of street drugs and sex work, and identity politics. What was once marginal then has now been woven into the cultural fabric of today’s urban America. We call this hodgepodge of ideas “progressivism.”

Even the voice of the Voice has been mainstreamed. What was a pioneering house writing style in the 1950s and ’60s—opinionated, conversational, snarky, and self-righteous—has been co-opted not only by journalists at former rival papers like the Times and alt-weeklies in another form (Vice, Gawker), but also by big corporations. The Voice “was the template for what everything is now—what has become the hot take and the deep dive on the web,” as Ann Powers, a former Voice editor-turned-NPR critic, put it.

“Numerous celebrated journalists and top take-havers got their start in alt-media.”

In other words, the internet killed alt-weeklies in more ways than one. No one seems to have received the Mission Accomplished memo, however. The 2010s was when alternative media’s disruptive “freaks” of the past fully emerged as establishment insiders defending what was quickly becoming the new status quo. Numerous celebrated journalists and top take-havers got their start in alt-media. For instance, years before he was christened as liberals’ patron saint of anti-racism and got cozy with Barack Obama, Ta-Nehisi Coates freelanced for the Voice and was a regular at Washington City Paper. The latter publication operated as essentially a farm team for establishment liberal media: CNN’s Jake Tapper, Big Tech whisperer Kara Swisher, and a host of New York Times, New Yorker, and old Gawker staffers all were City Paper alumni. Roxane Gay ran a literary magazine, PANK, for several years before becoming a feminist writer of note. Lindy West was a film critic for The Stranger before becoming an opinion columnist for the Times.

Timing was critical to the emergence of this trend. The rise of this cohort coincided with a period when Millennials, especially graduates of elite schools, made crowded pilgrimages to gentrifying “creative cities” to work in the culture industries, with fake mottos about changing the world—me included. This narrow demographic dominated early social media, and soon, everyone adopted the politics and tastes of the Voice’s bread-and-butter demographic: childless 20- and 30-something Brooklyn-based liberal-arts grads.

Indeed, by the time I became a staffer at the Chicago Reader in 2014, the city’s print-media world had already come to resemble the Midwest branch of this New Brooklyn. Then Trump got elected in 2016, and nearly all its denizens collectively lost their shit and lost what little appetite they had for those who weren’t die-hard progressives who embraced the ethos of the identitarian cultural left. This was the apex of the overblown media panic about microaggressions, rape culture, “manspreading,” and cultural appropriation.

 Soon, civil wars broke out in establishment outlets like The New York Times and inside the alt-weeklies, pitting the older regime against the New Brooklynites. The former tended to resign or get pushed out in the name of inclusion.

At the Reader, management hired editor Elizabeth Anne Moore to replace an editor-in-chief fired for a racially insensitive cartoon that offended J.B. Pritzker, then well on his way to the Illinois Governor’s Mansion, and the new regime shifted wokeness into overdrive. Soon, we had agonizing meetings about new “sensitivities”; a No White Guys on the Cover policy was instituted; and calls for articles about the most obscurely marginalized groups of people possible. “Do I know anyone that can write intersectionally on puppetry and circus?” Moore asked. “Who can write about disability and food and ethnicity?”

Things got even weirder in late 2021. That’s when Reader owner Leonard Goodman, a Bernie Bro defense attorney with a habit of funding Chicago-based left-wing media, wrote a reasonable column questioning Big Pharma’s Covid vaccines and the utility of vaxxing his 6-year-old daughter. Not only did Chicago’s Brooklyn World rebel against this rather milquetoast take, but so did the Reader’s staff. They portrayed Goodman as a selfish plutocrat, “a mediocre white guy,” as one staffer put it, with dangerous opinions on public health. 

The dispute eventually led to an in-person uprising—the Reader’s union and others picketing outside of Goodman’s home. Goodman buckled and sold the paper soon after the rally. This was but one example of many of a once-rebellious alt-weekly forgetting their commitment to free speech and speaking truth to power. Instead, they came to serve power by demanding draconian Covid mandates, for example, or handling Chicago’s bumbling and deeply unpopular Mayor Brandon Johnson with kid gloves. 

The Reader of yore might have closely investigated Johnson’s laundry list of face-planting flubs and published an in-depth series similar to what the Voice did with Trump nearly a half-century ago. But there is no swaggering defiance left, just stenography for whatever people wearing N95 masks and Gaza pins are up to these days—queer quilting, I guess.

Like a wide swath of corporate liberal press that co-opted them, our country’s remaining alt-weeklies seem content to rage on behalf of the Democratic Party machine instead of against it. So what’s the alternative to the alternative?

Ryan Zickgraf is a Compact columnist based in Atlanta.


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