No More Village, No More Voice: The Fall of Tony Ortega

When Tony Ortega “lost” his job as editor of the Village Voice in September 2012, it was more than a humiliating demotion. It was an unceremonious descent into obscurity, an involuntary downsizing to a laptop in a New York apartment, spinning stories and strangling truth on a little-read and virtually incomprehensible weblog.

Before being booted from the Village Voice, besides being known (and widely ridiculed within and without his own industry) for his obsession with writing biased and misleading stories about the Church of Scientology, Ortega was notorious as the poster boy for sex-trafficking ads. He planted cover stories that ran in the 14 papers of the Village Voice Media chain, using junk science to minimize the extent of the massive human rights violations and physical abuse inherent in underage prostitution.

As one researcher put it, Ortega may well go down in New York history as the man who hammered the final nails into the coffin of this alternative newsweekly.

Ortega took the helm of the Village Voice in 2007. His selection was widely criticized by members of the media for his complete lack of experience with New York—a total of three semesters at Columbia University before dropping out in the early 1980s.

Ortega—who emulated his boss with a foul and profane manner, belying the faux-intellectual pose he struck on his Twitter photo — had little familiarity or knowledge of what New York readers wanted from an alternative weekly.

He had come from an obscure South Florida paper, where he was editor of the New Times Broward-Palm Beach weekly, one of the 13 papers that occupied his boss’s stable.

He started his career with New Times at the then company flagship, the Phoenix New Times.

After a four-year stint as a staff writer, Ortega wrote for the New Times Los Angeles for three years before returning to become associate editor at the Phoenix New Times.

He then became managing editor of the New Times-owned The Pitch, in Kansas City, where he worked from 2003-2005 before becoming editor of the New Times Broward-Palm Beach.

Ortega brought one thing to the Voice, a willingness to do what his corporate bosses told him to do. That elevated him past better qualified and more committed journalists, a fact that soon became evident.

Prior to Ortega’s arrival, the paper was already struggling financially and many writers and others had already departed. Ortega fired or drove off what remained of the stable of Voice journalists who had formerly attracted readers, leaving the paper editorially if not financially bankrupt. Among the casualties were investigative reporter Wayne Barrett, veteran reporter Tom Robbins—who quit in protest—and longtime film critic J. Hoberman. With those departures, in a flash, 50-plus years of New York institutional knowledge was blown out the door.

There were further Ortega-mandated firings which soon became an annual event as Phoenix desperately tried to get its sinking revenues in line with costs.

Ortega – like many other Village Voice Media employees – was accused of taking blood money at the expense of underage girls victimized by Backpage.com. According to the Los Angeles Times, a Village Voice Media executive who asked not to be identified, said that the Backpage.com ads went for about $10 each which produced at least one-seventh of the company’s annual revenue.

As of September 2012, according to Editor Gregory Gilderman of The Daily Beast, Backpage was a significant source of revenue:

Backpage now posts nearly 100,000 ads for escorts and body rubs per month, collecting more revenue in its top 23 markets than its nine closest competitors combined, according to the consulting firm AIM Group. …The Backpage listings for escorts and body rubs—which account for a staggering 80% of all revenue generated by Internet sex ads, according to the AIM Group, are the site’s dominant source of revenue, and account for the bulk of its 3.5 million monthly visitors. That’s been a financial windfall for Village Voice Media, the otherwise struggling chain of cash-losing alt-weeklies that also owns the listings site, and has used its papers to aggressively defend Backpage.”

When HBO’s sister company CNN exposed Backpage.com and its exploitation of young women, Ortega used “junk science” from vested interest groups to make the sex trafficking of underage girls something much less than the national epidemic it is.

Ortega belittled those who exposed his dirty little secret, the upwards of $31 million a year that the company raked in from the exploitation of women and girls through prostitution ads placed on Backpage.com.

CNN reporter Amber Lynn personally felt Ortega’s wrath when he attacked her after her exposé of child prostitution and Backpage.com, aptly entitled “Uncovering America’s Dirty Little Secret.” Notorious sex trafficking apologist, Ortega wrote:

CNN leads the media’s mass paranoia. She has set out to take down a new target: Village Voice Media.”

He criticized the broadcast as a “sensationalistic piece,” that he labeled “manipulative” as well as Lynn’s “involvement in a semi-religious crusade.”

To make matters worse, on a visit to Ortega’s alma mater, Cal. State-Fullerton, where he gave a speech to a sparsely-attended gathering, he was met by a throng of protesters who reviled him for profiting through the sex trafficking of minors. In response to the protesters, a suddenly meek Ortega could only respond: “They don’t really understand what is going on.”

Ortega commissioned stories for the Voice, as well as the other Village Voice Media publications, that attacked widely held statistics on the scope of the national sex trafficking epidemic.

In claiming that child sexual trafficking is only a small problem, apologist Ortega focused on arrest statistics, ignoring that arrest figures are a mere fraction of the huge number of minors victimized by pimps on Backpage dot com.

His research claimed that underage prostitution arrests were a mere 800 per year for the entire country. But, the “research” the Voice produced was dwarfed by the numbers compiled by the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice which estimates the number of prostitution arrests of persons under the age of 18 in the United States at about 1550 per year.

The actual problem is much wider. Hofstra University published a study that claims there have been 11,268 human trafficking survivors in New York State alone since 2000. “We’re really just scratching the surface with our estimate,” Associate Professor Dr. Greg Maney said. “It really highlights how pervasive human trafficking is in the area and the scope of the tragedy.”

And that number includes only the survivors who have come forward. Maney said there are still many more left to be helped. Meanwhile, Mary Ann Finn, a criminal justice professor at Georgia State University, and Ric Curtis, chair of the Anthropology Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said the problem was how Village Voice harped on arrest statistics — just 827 for child prostitution nationally over the most recent decade.

It significantly undercounts the problem when you just talk about the arrests,” Finn said. She also said that Village Voice Media has “a vested interest in minimizing the problem.”

Toward the end of his tenure, a mostly silent Ortega faced pressure from the many groups that were fighting child prostitution and slavery including Groundswell (the social action group of the Auburn Theological Seminary), the Polaris Project “For A World Without Slavery”, the Rebecca Project for Human Rights “advocates for justice, dignity and policy reform for vulnerable women and girls”, the National Council of Jewish Women, the National Organization for Women, and a host of others as well as the National Association of Attorneys General, US Senators and Representatives and mayors from across the country.

When Ortega wasn’t warding off probes into his paper’s sex trafficking ads, he was indulging in his obsession with Scientology, boasting that from 2011 to his firing in September 2012 he had posted 465 anti-Scientology stories on Voice blog space. It was the compulsive anti-Scientology vitriol that ultimately pushed his bosses over the edge and led to his dismissal from the Voice. According to an ex-staffer, Ortega “had neglected almost all of his editorial duties at the paper—sometimes he wouldn’t even edit features.”

Capitalnewyork.com reported that, according to another former Voice staffer, “both the newsroom and the sales side of the Voice had become increasingly uncomfortable with the volume of Scientology coverage Ortega was churning out. ‘We thought it was destroying the Voice brand,’” the source said.

All of that led up to September 2012 and the announcement that Mike Lacey had decided to keep Backpage.com but to jettison Village Voice Media to a group of writers/editors. Among the first to go was Tony Ortega himself. It appeared that the new owners wanted to run a newspaper and not ride a favored hobby horse — whether it be promoting child prostitution or vilifying a religion.

 Meanwhile, Ortega is holed up in his underground bunker — with his former source and now wife, Arielle Silverstein — where he continues to indulge in his insane obsession. Clearly bigotry and underage prostitution go hand-in-hand with Tony Ortega, an individual with little or no moral fiber or scruples.

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