10/8/13

Hacks and Outcasts in Iowa

It's been about a month since I departed the DC bureau of Mother Jones and landed back in Iowa, where I've taken a few weeks off to contemplate some harebrained Hawkeye State ideas that were gathering dust in my notebook. One of those ideas—if I stick around Iowa long enough—is relaunching the Ames Progressive, the politics and culture zine my friends and I wrote in college, with a co-authored book chronicling its history.

I've envisioned loosely modeling the book's layout after The eXile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia, the book by Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi about the outlandish expat newspaper the pair used to publish together in Moscow. Ames and Taibbi authored alternate chapters detailing the paper's history. In the final chapter, "Hacks," Taibbi wrote about Wayne Barrett, the first boss I had after leaving Iowa for New York about three and a half years ago:
When I was seventeen, I worked as an intern for the Village Voice. I shared a tiny office with the novelist Tom Robbins,* a young wiseass named Bill Bastone, and my boss, Wayne Barrett. Barrett was one of the most boring writers in the city, but also one of the most feared investigative journalists around. He was also a horrible-looking guy, balding, with long brittle copper hair, crooked teeth, and always dressed in half-tucked-in yellowing Arrow shirts. He was obsessed with unraveling municipal scandals like Queens Borough President Donald Manes's suicide, the Parking Violations Bureau scam in the Bronx—stories that took weeks of digging around in grim public records halls and hundreds of phone calls a week to make any progress at all on.
...
Barrett and Bastone never had a good word to say about anyone. They abused me savagely every time I came into the office, usually for nothing in particular, but violently if there was so much as the slightest reason. Once, after telling them I'd been an All-Star baseball player, I actually struck out at a Voice softball game. I heard about that every day for the next two months, at times as often as every five minutes. Those guys hated everyone. Photographs grew on the walls like moss and were instantly defaced the instant they were up there, particularly if they featured public officials or women. It was my understanding then that this was a healthy atmosphere for a newsroom. My father told me it was normal, nothing to worry about.
A few years later, I worked as a stringer for a little newspaper in New Bedford, Massachusetts, called the Standard-Times (my father called it the "Substandard-Times"). I worked nights, covering town meetings and other little bullshit community news events. The night editor there was a young guy named Chris who sat at his desk with his ear pressed up against the police radio, swearing at everyone who passed near him. One night, he came up to me wringing his hands and grinning from ear to ear. He wanted me to go to nearby Marion, the town with the highest per-capita income in all of elitist Massachusetts.
"They've got some problem with their water," he laughed. "This is great. I love it when those rich fucks get E. coli in their water!"
Taibbi went on to write: "I later realized that if, as a consumer, you want good newspapers, you're not going to get them if the reporters are people who only reluctantly tell you the truth. Ideally you have a bunch of people who are outcasts, even sociopaths, who get off on telling people the blunt truth, because that's the whole point: The other parts of society—government, business, etc.—have to be able to function while trusting the public to know the worst."

I wouldn't ever try to emulate the eXile itself, as much as I like certain aspects of it. The paper is probably best known for hitting the New York Times' Moscow bureau chief in the face with a horse-sperm custard pie after deeming him a particularly despicable hack. And the paper was frequently criticized for its extreme brand of racist, misogynist, misanthropic satire.

And there's a lot of good journalism happening in Iowa. Last week, I traveled to Iowa City to attend a fundraiser for the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, an online investigative news outlet co-founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Stephen Berry. It's doing a great job of training up-and-coming journalism students whose classwork, in Berry's words, "is better than an A."

But there's no shortage of hacks, either. Quality alternative news in Iowa, outside of blogs, has been more or less nonexistent since the end of the Iowa Independent and decline of Des Moines alt-weekly Cityview, a paper I dreamed of writing for growing up but that has since turned into an embarassing rag of self-promotion and conspiracy theories. I don't consider myself a sociopath, but I've had no problem taking on an outcast role to criticize the paper here, here, here, and here. If the Ames Progressive is ever reborn, it would ideally serve as an alternative, investigative news outlet in the tradition of the Village Voice (the nation's original alt-weekly) as well as a media hack watchdog.

In the meantime, I've emerged from my self-imposed exile and plan to begin freelancing soon, so keep an eye out for my bylines. I'll also be updating this website on a more regular basis.

* Taibbi got his Tom Robbinses confused here. Robbins the (now former) Village Voice reporter is a veteran journalist, not the novelist of the same name.

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