Best Of '99: Controversial Blaze Editor Fired

Magazine won't say why, but editor reportedly blames his support of friend recently acquitted in murder case.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at 1999's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Thursday, March 18.]

Jesse Washington, the controversial editor of the hip-hop magazine Blaze, was fired Tuesday, according to Blaze spokesperson Audrey Addison.

The editor, who in less than a year on the job had publicly accused two rappers of threatening or attacking him, was dismissed for "a number of reasons," Addison said. She declined to elaborate, citing company policy.

But Washington was quoted by the Associated Press as saying he was let go after writing an editor's note in support of Montoun Hart, a close friend who recently was acquitted of charges that he participated in the May 1997 murder of Jonathan Levin, a popular New York high-school teacher. Levin's father is Gerald Levin, chairman of the Time Warner media conglomerate, which owns Blaze.

Washington had also hired Hart, 26, as a paid intern at Blaze, according to the AP report.

The editor's note was never published, but a Blaze source, who asked to remain anonymous, provided a copy. In it, Washington claimed police forced Hart to sign a false confession to being an accomplice in the murder of Levin, who was bound, gagged, tortured and shot. Corey Arthur, 20, was convicted of the murder last year.

Washington told AP the editor's note was killed by the magazine's upper management, and he wrote another editor's note condemning management for doing so. The second note wasn't published, either.

Vibe/Spin Ventures, which publishes Blaze, issued a statement disputing Washington's stated reasons for his firing.

"We disagree with his characterization of the reasons for his termination," the company's statement said. "We are fully comfortable with the decision to terminate his employment." But the statement said company policy prevented the disclosure of more details.

Washington did not return calls for comment by press time.

In his first editor's note, which was headlined "Manifesto: Set It Off," Washington mentioned his friendship with Hart and forcefully defended him.

The editor, a former Associated Press bureau chief, conceded that "Montoun told a few different stories about what happened" the night of Jonathan Levin's murder.

But, he wrote, "one aspect of his story, the part I believed, remained consistent: the dead teacher was the son of one of the world's most powerful men. The police were under tremendous pressure to solve such a high-profile case -- and they forced Montoun to sign a confession of their own invention."

Washington's dismissal marks the end of an editorship that was plagued with trouble and controversy from the beginning.

In an editorial in the magazine's debut issue, dated August 1998, Washington accused rapper Wyclef Jean of the Fugees of pulling a gun on him because of a negative record review that was slated to appear.

Jean denied the charge and accused Washington of trying to drum up publicity for the magazine. Allen Gordon, an editor at the rival Rap Pages, later backed up Washington's account. The negative review of Canibus' debut album, which Jean produced, was pulled.

In November, Washington claimed he was beaten by a group of men that allegedly included Deric "D-Dot" Angelettie, a rap producer associated with Sean "Puffy" Combs. Washington claimed that Angelettie was angry because Blaze had printed a photo of Angelettie and revealed that he was the voice of the supposedly anonymous Mad Rapper.

Angelettie and another man were charged with second-degree assault and fourth-degree possession of a weapon; both pleaded not guilty. They're due in court in New York on March 29 for a hearing.

Last month, R&B singer and Sugarhill Records founder Sylvia Robinson sued Vibe/Spin Ventures, claiming Blaze defamed her by running an article that claimed she "jerked" artists on her label. That suit is pending.

"Despite all this craziness, despite the danger that's out there, I'm still very enthusiastic about this job," Washington said late last year. He said he had hired a staff whose resumes "literally range from Yale to jail," and he intended to revolutionize hip-hop journalism.