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By Jeffrey Felshman

When Work Disappears

As reported by Michael Miner in this space a few weeks ago, James Weinstein, publisher of In These Times, is retiring to write a book and maybe live a little more of the good life. But publishing is like the Mafia–you don’t get out so easily.

In May Weinstein was attacked in the pages of the Nation by Alexander Cockburn. Weinstein wrote a letter defending himself in June–and was attacked by Cockburn again.

What was the fuss about? Weinstein had fired an editor. Cockburn wrote that In These Times culture editor Josh Mason “has received the order of the boot from Jim Weinstein,” claiming that it was because Mason had “accepted an article by Russian left oppositionist Boris Kagarlitsky that had dared raise the name of Leon Trotsky.”

Weinstein fired somebody for being a Trotskyist? Hell, Weinstein fired somebody? I’ve known Weinstein for 20 years, and I could think of only one person he’d fired–Alexander Cockburn. And Weinstein hadn’t really fired Cockburn; he’d fired his syndicated column.

Weinstein says he’s actually fired three people in 21 years and has gotten grief for it every time. But it’s his mag. He can fire anybody he wants.

Cockburn attacks everybody–that’s why we love him. But reading his column is akin to reading a racing form–you know the fix is in there somewhere. So Weinstein should have known better than to fire back at Cockburn. In a letter to the editor that ran May 5, he called Cockburn “lazy, untruthful.” In his reply, which was longer than Weinstein’s letter, Cockburn wrote, “The trouble with Jim Weinstein is that…he hates to read anything….Everything he says about my column is a flagrant lie.”

At the end of his letter Weinstein wrote, “As for Josh Mason, for his own protection, not to mention his future employability, it would be better to keep the reasons for his firing private.” Hard words, especially for Mason. Weinstein’s retiring, and Cockburn’s so popular he’ll get all the work he wants regardless of what’s said about him. Mason is 25 and just starting out.

But Mason says they’re both wrong. He says he lost his job because he and Weinstein “have different visions of the magazine.” Weinstein, he says, likes to compare In These Times to a popular turn-of-the-century leftist journal called Appeal to Reason, which spoke to the masses and had a massive circulation. “That’s a legitimate mission–but it has nothing to do with reality.”

Mason went on, “I wanted to do longer, more in-depth pieces. In These Times’s readership is about 50 percent academics, according to their own surveys. I thought we should write for people who are actually reading the magazine, challenge their assumptions. We should be aggressively critical with our received ideas, critique liberal icons instead of trying to popularize them.”

Mason says he took heat for doing just that–by running, among other things, the Kagarlitsky piece and an article by Daniel Lazare that was critical of Thomas Jefferson. But he says it wasn’t Jefferson, Kagarlitsky, or Leon Trotsky who got him fired. He maintains he was told to start walking after he ran a review by Robert Fitch that was highly critical of William Julius Wilson’s When Work Disappears.

Fitch argued that Wilson’s book had ignored the devastating role of local real estate interests in the disappearance of jobs from the inner cities, and suggested that Wilson may have overlooked this because he depends on foundations, which depend heavily on developers. “It was a legitimate point at the end of a long article,” Mason says, “but Jimmy said it was ‘infantile leftism’ to suggest that where someone’s money comes from could affect their thesis.”

Weinstein will say only that the When Work Disappears review, which ran in December, played just a small part in Mason’s dismissal, though he does lambaste Mason for printing “a gratuitous attack” on Wilson. He says of Cockburn, “Alex is totally irresponsible. He’s talented, very smart, but destructive. He has a lot of good stuff, but you never know if it’s true.”

Says Mason: “Cockburn had the essential story right but got the details wrong.” That’s because Cockburn wrote the column before speaking to Mason–he heard the story of Mason’s firing from a mutual friend.

Let the Sniping Begin

Ten years ago the smart money said that Tracy Baim would never last. She and Jeffrey McCourt had started Windy City Times together back in 1985, but two years later she left, taking some of the staff with her, to start Outlines as a weekly in direct competition with McCourt’s paper. Baim says there’d been name-calling, most of which she felt was directed at her because she was a woman. “The sexism was really difficult to overcome,” she says, “but [the split] had nothing to do with gender and everything to do with editorial integrity.”

A nasty battle between the two papers ensued, with each claiming the other was unstable, about to fold, and worse. After seven months Outlines backed off and became a monthly.

In September Outlines will go weekly again. “It’s time,” Baim says. “I’ve wanted Outlines to be a weekly for ten years. There’s room for a Sun-Times-Tribune competition.”

Since her strategic retreat, Baim has amassed a small empire. Her company, Lambda Publications, also publishes Nightlines, a weekly guide with regular columns and listings of goings-on around town; Blacklines, a monthly targeted to black gays; En la Vida, a Latino-oriented monthly that’s mostly in English; Clout!, a gay-business quarterly; and Out!, a telephone book. All of these will still be published, Baim says, but some of the Nightlines columnists will move to Outlines. “There will only be about a 10 percent overlap.”

The sniping has already begun. Windy City Times has been the gay weekly of record since 1985, but Baim says it ignores significant chunks of the community. “My feeling is that there’s been huge gaps in Windy City’s coverage, either on purpose or by accident,” she says. “With us being weekly we can fill in those gaps.” She calls Windy City Times conservative in its coverage of politics and of local people. “They hardly cover blacks, and there’s a great deal of local entertainers that they ignore.”

Often covered by both papers, Rick Garcia, executive director of the Illinois Federation for Human Rights, says he likes two-newspaper towns, but he defends Windy City Times, pointing to the role it played in exposing the underfunding of AIDS programs by the city back in 1992. “They keep activists on their toes. Windy City Times has been critical of lesbian and gay organizations, and they’re not afraid to air dirty laundry–and that’s good for the community.” He adds that McCourt “has some of the worst public relations of anyone in this community–worse even than me–and yet he’s done more for this community than anyone.”

But is Windy City up for the fight? The paper’s managing editor, Dan Perreten, is leaving in August, and no replacement has been hired–though it’s rumored that the job’s responsibilities may be divided up among current staff. Some former employees say McCourt, an occasional theater producer, doesn’t give the paper enough attention. Certainly McCourt has spoken about selling the paper numerous times in the past few years, though not lately.

Repeated calls to McCourt were not returned. When asked the fairly innocuous question “Is the gay community big enough for two news weeklies?,” current Windy City staff members answered, “No comment.” o