The New York Times, which still doesn’t print curse words, likes to call itself a family newspaper. But over the weekend, a front-page metro story called “Behind the Red Door” detailed, as politely as possible, the backroom sex at an underground “strip club” unofficially called Bliss Bistro — more accurate, a brothel for “professional men.”
Some prudish Times readers were, of course, outraged at the “anonymous titillation” — the proprietor, a self-proclaimed former heroin dealer was identified only as Tony — and public editor Margaret Sullivan acknowledged today, “the article’s subject matter, some of its description and the red-toned photographs of women in garter belts and fishnet lingerie are not the usual Timesian fare for Sunday morning.” (“There’s nothing inherently bad about that, although it may startle some readers,” she added. “In fact, stories that take us to an underground world can be intriguing and worthwhile.”)
But more awkward for its author Mosi Secret, the paper’s first-ever “sin and vice” reporter, was that he happened to be visiting his godly parents when his debut on the unholy beat came out. “I tossed the paper up to my mom and told her that I had a story, and then I went to brunch,” Secret said at a Brooklyn bar last night. “She didn’t remark on it at all, subsequently.” His father, a criminal defense attorney, settled for a congratulatory text message.
Secret — real name — was the first of three children born into a family of Pentecostal Baptists, but his parents converted to Islam when he was a kid. “I’ve always been in a very moral environment. My grandmother on my father’s side was very much involved in the Pentecostal Church hierarchy,” he said. “In some ways, I was very sheltered. That has long since fallen away.”
Secret now identifies as agnostic. “It wasn’t a rebellion. It was an intellectual departure,” Secret insisted. “I’m not bullshitting you, but I don’t really get into too much trouble.” Asked for the seediest place he’d ever been while not working, Secret cited Club Platinum, the strip club outside of Durham, North Carolina, known for its role in the Duke lacrosse scandal. “It’s like as raunchy as it gets,” he said.
The boyish-looking 34-year-old reporter, a Harvard alum originally from Atlanta, spent the last three-plus years covering social services and courtrooms for the Times before being tapped (at the company holiday party) for the creative gig, an idea cultivated with editor Dean Chang. Trained in the world of alt-weeklies, Secret envisions his new job as writing about everything from high-stakes poker games to religious hypocrisy, Chinatown’s underworld, and bankers misbehaving.
“I really did, in the very beginning, just write out the seven deadly sins,” he said. “To me, lust is the low-hanging fruit. That’s why this was the first story, because it’s easy to access. Things like greed and gluttony, those will be the harder ones to tackle that I’m a little more interested in.”
“I think there are fight clubs in New York,” he added.
As for the criticism of his opening salvo, “I think that as journalists, part of what we do is tell people about the world around them and get into places that readers might not see and tell them what’s happening,” said Secret, anticipating the complaints cataloged by Sullivan. “I think this falls within that category. We cannot do it gratuitously or purely for the sake of voyeurism.”
Unsurprisingly, the brothel story, along with being controversial, was also the most popular of his career so far. “I had a big week on Twitter — I think I got, like, 500 followers in three days,” said Secret. “I hope it’s not as simple as sex sells, but maybe it is as simple as that.”