Village Voice Turns the Pistol On Its Past?

Remember when Village Voice editor Tony Ortega ran sex ads on the front of his newspaper in an oblique attempt to poke fun at various puritans who had suggested he clean up his classified section?

Well, although he says it ain’t so, last week’s cover story about the health risks facing WTC rescue workers sure does make it seem like Mr. Ortega is at it again.

Compare and contrast: here’s last week’s cover and here’s one that ran on Nov. 28. Kind of similar! Also the articles are about the same thing.

The similarity appears to owe something to the paper’s recent large-scale staff turnover. According to Mr. Ortega, last week’s cover was designed by new art director Chris Sauvé. Mr. Ortega said Mr. Sauvé had not seen the old one—“Frankly,” he added, “I don’t know if I’ve seen it myself.”

The accompanying stories both deal with the same topic, but beyond that, they really couldn’t be any more different: the earlier story, written by reporter Kristen Lombardi and published during the brief tenure of editor David Blum, was all about how exposure to the rubble was giving Ground Zero rescue workers cancer (it was called “Death by Dust”).

Last week’s article, by Graham Rayman—entitled “Clearing the Air About 9/11’s Toxic Dust and Cancer”—argues that research on the topic is murky, and that “even in the best of circumstances, it is extraordinarily difficult to prove that a specific source has caused cancer.”

Mr. Rayman’s article does not refer to the Voice’s earlier story directly, but reads nevertheless like an unequivocal attempt at refuting its claims.

Why would the Voice want to discredit its own reporting—especially considering Ms. Lombardi’s piece was just recently awarded first place in the investigative reporting category for 2006 by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies?

Thing is, by the time Ms. Lombardi received that award in June, Mr. Ortega had fired her. And so, one wonders whether he farmed out last week’s story to Mr. Rayman as a way of placing distance between his Village Voice and the old one.

Mr. Ortega denied that charge. “There was no conscious effort to ‘tie’ this cover to anything,” he wrote in an e-mail. “New editor, new writer, and a new look at an evolving story. Call it weird if you like.”

Mr. Ortega explained that he’d noticed “a lot of reporting in various publications, including the Voice, making claims about what sorts of diseases could be connected to the 9/11 clean-up effort.

“With another anniversary coming up, I asked Graham to take a new look at those claims, and examine the quality of the evidence, not just the numbers of people claiming to be sick.”

Mr. Ortega went on: “The piece he wrote does contradict what has been written by other journalists, and what the Voice has written in the past. But that’s the nature of journalism—we’re always gathering new evidence and trying to make sense of what we find.”

New York Press owner Tom Allon, who recently made Mr. Blum editor-in-chief and is apparently eager to start a crosstown newspaper war with the city’s other free weekly, sees it differently: “I’ve never heard of a publication winning first place in a journalism competition for a story they try to debunk six months later. What are they gonna ‘revisit’ next?”

Village Voice Turns the Pistol On Its Past?