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Nick Sylvester and the Village Voice- who's to blame?

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Friday, Mar 3, 2006

While it would be pretty easy now to pounce on senior associate editor Nick Sylvester for his now-disgraced Village Voice cover story about dating (‘Do You Wanna Kiss Me?’), a deeper look at the whole incident is warranted to figure out what went wrong, who’s really to blame and what the impact might be.
  
You could start with the Voice’s mea culpa, where NS is much more humble than he usually is in print.  Gawker has been extensively tracking this whole circus and eventually spoke to Voice honcho Doug Simmons about this.  Simmons basically clarified that he’s still in charge and that he feels back for NS, speaking about him in a fatherly way:


“I just adore that kid,” Simmons told Gawker, reporting that his review, currently in progress, is not turning up problems beyond the fraudulent conclusion. “The thought of firing him is a painful one for me. I hope this review can bring an understanding to the paper and to Nick ё about the boundaries of journalism.”


That indeed is a good lesson hopefully to be learned.  But the way that Simmons words this speaks to what the heart of the problem is or at least part of it.  When Sylvester was hired and then was raised up on a pedestal, it looks like he might have been coddled too much by his bosses. 


That isn’t to say that Sylvester himself should be let off the hook: he is not some naive, innocent little babe-in-the-woods.  True, it isn’t the usual briefer music review that he does but there were the obvious examples of Mr. Blair, Mr. Glass, Mr. Frey and many other recently disgraced fabricators who had their rear-ends handed to them when they were exposed.  To think that he would be any different isn’t ignorance, it’s arrogance.  Also, this wasn’t his first Voice piece and he had done plenty of writing for Pitchfork also. 


... which brings us back to the editors.  They’re the ones who green light (or assign) stories and ultimately decide what’s going to be a feature or THE feature of each new issue.  If they have a writer that they feel fatherly about and are grooming him as a star, sometimes there’s no stopping the process.  The same thing happened to Jayson Blair at the New York Times: his bosses also loved him and worked to get him pushed up the food chain when he clearly wasn’t ready for that.  You could say that the same thing happened to Sylvester. 


And what happen to the fact checking?  I’ve written letters to the editor of the Voice where they’ve called me to fact check it.  Let me repeat that- they called me to fact check a letter that I had written.  Are you going to tell me that if they care that much about such minutia, they’re not going to bother to fact someone’s first cover story?


And true, he didn’t help lead America into a foreign war or expose any CIA operatives but what he did do is to help disgrace one of the finest alternative papers around.  Remember, this was a cover story that he did and that’s a much bigger deal than a mere feature, hence all the hub-bub about the article (which has been taken down from the Voice website but will no doubt be circulated online otherwise). 


Because of this, the Voice takes a direct hit- this hurts its reputation a lot, which is also why this is a much bigger story than just Sylvester’s problems.  Just as Blair and Glass gave black-eye’s to their publications, the same is happening now with Sylvester and the Voice.  The Voice is a paper that rightfully prides itself on exposing political parlor games and also acting as a watchdog with regard to the rest of the media.  As such, this makes the paper look hypocritical went it points out others’ wrongdoings.  Hopefully, this won’t last for long but rest assured that not only Republicans will be sharpening their knives over this- other publications will come after them for this as well.  In general, this also becomes exhibit x, y or z as to why many people are led to believe that the media is not trustworthy.  The frightening end result might be that there will be more timid reporting and cowering before the powers that be.


Or maybe not.  This is not going to sink the Voice but it is a body blow that they’ve taken now.  They’ve already started a good clean-up process by admitting their mistakes and investigating what happened.  What they need to do next is report back about what they found out and explain what measures they plan to take.  This isn’t the first or last time this kind of thing has happened but doesn’t mean that they (and other publications) can’t take more careful steps in the future to avoid this.  Tweaking my favorite example, Dubya never likes to admit mistakes or learn from them and look how popular he is right now.


I care about the Voice not just because I’m a contributor there but also because I’m a long-time reader who has a lot of respect for the paper.  This incident doesn’t cancel out the fact that they’ve published some amazing article and that there are still a lot of good, bright people working there who will continue to do fine stories.  The Voice already took a big hit recently with the change in management, which meant (more) layoffs, people quitting and new mandates about articles.  Hopefully, this lesson will teach them that breezy or sleazy narratives still need to be somewhat grounded in reality, especially when you’re at a pub with a reputation like the Voice’s.


And what about Sylvester himself?  Since his bosses are circling the wagons, it’s doubtful that they’ll turn his suspension into a lay-off unless there’s a huge public outcry (actually, some people outside the Voice are rushing to his defense).  They’ll probably keep him on low-key duty for a while and hope that he can build himself back up.  There’s probably dozens/hundreds of pubs chomping at the bit to have him tell his story about this, where he could maybe point out how much or little of it was actually made up. 


While some are ready to pronounce him dead and in all likelihood glad that he’s gone (because they’re jealous or they hate his writing), he could easily come back again if he plays it right.  He established a name for himself before this happened and good or bad, this incident increased his visibility.  If he does indeed learn from the incident and does better reporting and writing, then I say good for him.  If he’s smart (which I think he is, though sometimes too much for his own good), he’ll do just that and eventually, he’ll have the last laugh at his naysayers. 


If it’s inconceivable that he’ll bounce back, just remember how Judith Miller’s stock at the New York Times quickly rose and fell over her pre-war reporting and the CIA leak investigation.  Going back further, author Doris Kearns Goodwin was busted for plagiarism in ‘02 and as of late has rebound as a popular talking head for the news programs.


One last thought.  If you do see the piece floating around somewhere (it’s still available in print for now), read the actual article itself and see what you think.  Regardless of whether you like the story or not (I didn’t actually), ask yourself a question.  Does some of the material fit in just a little too neatly?  One important rule of publishing: if the facts of a story seem almost too good to be true, you might have a problem there and owe it to yourself to delve in further to check out the facts.

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