Writers with D and other publications have had a field day beating up on Michael Lacey, the alternative-newspaper mogul who was charged last week with “conspiring to commit pimping” at Backpage.com, the Dallas-based internet advertising site. The writers have whacked Lacey for everything from possibly trying to buy off potential witnesses in that case, to skewering one of them in a job interview for not having a beard or for looking like a guy who should have a beard but didn’t. (The point wasn’t all that clear.)
I have a different take on Lacey, who helped start the Phoenix New Times newspaper at Arizona State University, where he was a dropout and I was a journalism major and a freelance contributor to the paper. The thing is, I don’t know whether Lacey is guilty of pimping in the Backpage case. (His supporters contend the bust is a publicity stunt by a vote-seeking politician.) But I do know first-hand that, from the beginning, the guy has been a tough fighter for free expression and the First Amendment, which seem to me like pretty important and honorable things to fight for.
I did mostly entertainment stuff for Lacey’s startup paper, which was founded by him and a bunch of other anti-war hippie types who thought the Arizona Republic and the State Press, the ASU student newspaper, were too conservative. In addition to profiles of musicians like Jerry Lee Lewis for the New Times, I wrote reviews of movies—including one about a 1971 crime thriller called Klute. It starred Donald Sutherland as a small-town detective and Jane Fonda as a high-dollar Manhattan prostitute who Sutherland was helping protect from a murdering, cold-hearted businessman.
At the time, Fonda was already turning off many heartland movie fans because of her admiration for “small-c” communists and the socialist Black Panthers. So the last sentence of my review praised Fonda’s performance in the movie, and suggested that she could be much more effective as a political activist through her art—that she could “raise more consciousness” with her Hollywood acting chops—than she could by “picketing the grape rack at the A&P.” (The A&P was a popular supermarket in those days, and the labor leader Cesar Chavez had been pushing a table-grape boycott in support of farm workers’ rights.)
Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather when Lacey later confided to me that, “pasting up” (or producing) the newspaper late at night, several of the writers and editors had lobbied to delete my snappy last sentence about the A&P. It struck them as inappropriately critical of farm-worker rights, Lacey explained—and as unacceptably dismissive of left-wing activism. (I pleaded guilty to that last point.) However, he quickly added, he had overruled the censors, on the simple principle that the paper’s contributors had the right to express their views, even if others on the staff disagreed with those views.
I thanked him for that and never forgot it.
Along with publisher James Larkin (who’s also been charged in the Backpage flap), Lacey went on to amass an alternative-newspaper empire with nearly 2 million readers and more than 15 media properties in cities like Dallas, Miami, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. He also, famously, drew the ire of Maricopa County (Arizona) Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who arrested Lacey and Larkin after their Phoenix paper reported in-depth on Arpaio’s commercial real estate dealings. (The newspaper sued and eventually won a $3.75 million settlement.)
In a “farewell letter” to colleagues and others in 2012, after they’d sold the papers off to focus on the Backpage venture, Lacey and Larkin wrote: “For these past few decades, we have fought to ensure that our publications stood for the principles of unfettered speech, open government, accountability and freedom of the press. We have also challenged conventional wisdom, whether delivered by pontificating pundits or self-righteous scolds. You have given readers tales well told, whether unfolding an investigation, spinning a yarn, or venturing an opinion. Enjoy the hell that you raise.”
Regarding that part about “pontificating pundits” and “self-righteous scolds”: it seems like not that much has changed over the years.