Amid a controversy over censorship, this piece by editor-in-chief Evan Serpick was published 2/27/14 by Baltimore City Paper and has mysteriously disappeared. Sources at the recently-sold alternative weekly said that outgoing owner Times-Shamrock took the post down. We reprint it in full. – Fern Shen
On page three of the current City Paper, in the table of contents, it says “Mr. Wrong…4.” But turn to page four and you will find only ads, including a Mr. Wrong-column-sized one for City Paper Dating, an advertising project that the editorial team has nothing to do with.
So where was the beloved Mr. Wrong column, a City Paper staple written by creative director Joe MacLeod since 1998? City Paper‘s outgoing owners, Times-Shamrock Communications, who still control City Paper until March 5th, censored it.
The censored column had the headline “This Might Be the Last Chance I Get to Do This,” and consisted entirely of one word. We’ve been ordered not to publish the column, even on-line, but here is a sample:
Fuck fuck fuck, fuck fuck, fuck fuck fuck fuck, fuck-fuck, fuck-fuck-fuck, fuck-fuck. Fuck, fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck, fuck? Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck, Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck, fuck (fuck) fuck fuck fuck fuck, fuck fuck, fuck fuck. Fuck fuck fuck? Fuck fuck fuck (fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck) fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck, fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck: fuck.
Fuck, fuck fuck, fuck fuck fuck fuck-fuck, fuck fuck, fuck fuck, fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. Fuck fuck fuck (fuck) fuck fuck.
Well, it consisted almost entirely of one word. In the 17th of its 20 paragraphs, it included this: “…fuck fuck, fuck fuck The Sun fuck fuck-fuck fuck fuck…”
The column was to complete a trilogy of Mr. Wrong’s “one-note” columns. The first was from 2004, the second in 2008. Each, including the most recent, censored one, contained one deviation from its singular vision. We’ll leave it to readers to seek out the other two, if you’re so inclined.
In the case of this week’s column, after being told by Times-Shamrock that they would not print the column and our digital director was ordered not to publish it online, we sent an alternate version. This one had the headline, “This Week’s Column Was Censored By The Man,” and was otherwise entirely blank. This time, we were told Times-Shamrock would not run the column because people would assume we were referring to our new owners at The Sun as “The Man.” We quickly and happily offered to substitute “Times-Shamrock” for “The Man” in the headline for the sake of clarity, and were again shut down.
So while we at City Paper fret over the future of our editorial independence under new ownership, it’s worth remembering that we are not entirely “independent” under current ownership either.
And while we’re on the topic of editorial independence, now is as good a time as any to own up to another case of censorship in recent City Paper history. On Feb. 4, we posted a review of Jason Aldean’s Feb. 1 show at the Baltimore Arena by Travis Kitchens, a local writer and filmmaker who recently took over City Paper‘s Strum und Twang country column. The review was overwhelmingly negative:
Baltimore Arena smelled like the inside of a Spearmint Rhino Saturday night. Reams of rednecks streamed in from every direction across Baltimore Street and it took a half hour to get through the line and inside to will call. They all came to see Jason Aldean. You might not recognize his name, but that’s ok, because you probably wouldn’t recognize his music either, or at least not be able to distinguish it from anything else on country radio.
About a week later, several days after the piece had stopped generating much traffic on our website, the editorial team heard from City Paper‘s general manager that two of our biggest advertisers complained that the review was “not objective” and swore they would never advertise with City Paper again unless we took the review down. For two days, both the general manager and I resisted, pointing out the principles of editorial independence and the inherently subjective nature of reviews (!). And though we shouldn’t have had to, we also forwarded links bolstering Kitchens’ bona fides as a country expert (he’s working on a documentary about Zane Campbell, nephew of Ola Belle Reed) and noted that we had run a large picture of Aldean previewing the show as the opener to our weekly calender in the print edition, with totally neutral language (“The country star swings through town in support of his platinum-selling 2012 album, Night Train.”)
Ultimately, our efforts were in vain and the advertisers stuck to their demand. Our general manager, my boss, after explaining to me that the loss of revenue would be equivalent to one or two peoples’ salaries, sent me an email telling me to take the review down. My options as editor, as I saw them, were to take the review down or to quit my job. I considered both options seriously, and ultimately decided to take the review down. I informed the editorial staff of my decision and everything that led up to it. I regretted the decision almost immediately – it’s easier to be brave in retrospect – and have debated whether or not to come forward with the story. A call from Fern Shen at the Baltimore Brew asking about the incident led to my decision to air the dirty laundry.
I honestly don’t know how I will react if such a situation arises again. I truly hope it never does, whether I remain editor of City Paper or not. As I said in the editor’s note of this week’s paper, I’m hoping to take Baltimore Sun Media Group publisher, president, and CEO Tim Ryan at his word when he says, “We want the paper to remain a valued alternative, independent voice in Baltimore.” As these incidents demonstrate, we haven’t been batting 1.000 in the “independent” column under current ownership. Hopefully we can do better under new ownership.