The (Ex) Voice of the VillageChester Higgins Jr./The New York Times
Published: February 25, 2011
WAYNE BARRETT wants to say nice things about people. He wants to, but he finds it so hard.“We haven’t had bad mayors,” ventured Mr. Barrett, the muck-raking investigative reporter who has made a career of hounding New York City’s chief executives. “They’ve all done some really good things,” he added, “though you probably wouldn’t know it to read my copy.”
To review: “Bloomberg’s first term was, I think, the best I’ve ever covered, but since then he’s treading water. I think the job bores him.
“I was very enamored of Rudy Giuliani when he was U.S. attorney, but as mayor, he poisoned the atmosphere, and he doesn’t get better over time.”
How about Edward I. Koch, who took office in 1978, shortly before Mr. Barrett became a columnist at The Village Voice, and stayed 12 years? The man about whom Mr. Barrett spilled more ink than about any other — 90 percent of it negative, by his own estimate?His greatest professional regret, Mr. Barrett said, is “that I didn’t write more positive pieces about the things Koch did well.”
“Koch’s work on improving the housing stock in poor neighborhoods had enormous, lasting benefits.” Pause. “But he did embrace the criminal class that ran the Democratic Party.”In 37 years of prolific writing for The Voice — 32 of them as an investigative columnist — and in four books, Mr. Barrett has become the unrivaled master of long, dense articles about the unsavory side of New York’s political culture. He has passed decades digging through government archives, court transcripts, property records, police blotters and campaign filings, weaving tales of corruption and hypocrisy involving union leaders, neighborhood power brokers, real estate developers, mayors and governors.
That ended in December, when he was laid off without explanation (he suspects budgetary reasons), prompting laments about the future of The Voice, of the city, of journalism itself.“It’s like trading DiMaggio,” said Donald H. Forst, who was editor of the paper from 1996 to 2006. “It really won’t be the same without him.”
Finding himself unexpectedly unemployed at age 65, Mr. Barrett never stopped working. He walked out of The Voice with half a dozen ideas that he described excitedly, sure that each would blow the lid off someone or something. And every day, newspapers provide new inspirations.
He is at work on an article for The Nation (no, of course he will not say about what) and has a deal with an affiliated group, the Nation Institute, which commissions reporting and finds places to publish it. He is reporting another article for Tina Brown, newly named editor of Newsweek (something about celebrities, but, he promised, “the story has inherent value”), perhaps the start of a relationship.
Mr. Barrett, then, is doing fine, thank you very much. He even wants to say something nice about the editor of The Voice. Though he finds it a little hard.
“Tony Ortega is the hardest working editor and the most skillful editor of copy that I’ve ever had,” Mr. Barrett said. “But I’ve never liked him very much.”
Then again, Mr. Barrett has never had much use for editors. “I don’t think there was a single time I did a story an editor asked me to do,” he said. “It was extremely rare that they asked me, and every time they did ask, I didn’t do it.” It’s not that these editors had ideas that were bad, Mr. Barrett added — just that his were better.
One of the earliest ideas, back in 1978, was, as Mr. Barrett remembers it, something like “Ed Koch’s War on the Poor.” In the mid-1980s, there was the revelation that Cardinal John J. O’Connor was registered to vote as a Republican, and one of the earliest stories about AIDS being spread by intravenous drug use.
When Senator Alfonse M. D’Amato was assailing his 1998 challenger, Charles E. Schumer, for missing hundreds of votes in Congress while on the campaign trail, it was Mr. Barrett who dug up the documents showing that Mr. D’Amato had done essentially the same thing 18 years earlier.
“An enterprising reporter helped save us,” Mr. Schumer, who went on to win that race, wrote later.
Mr. Barrett uncovered the criminal record of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s father, who had committed armed robbery and went to prison during the Depression. As the former mayor was running for president in 2007, Mr. Barrett was the first to report that Mr. Giuliani owned four Yankees World Series rings, which had never been made available to the public, and that he had paid far less for them than they would have fetched on the open market.
Mr. Barrett and his Voice mentor, Jack Newfield, wrote “City for Sale,” the definitive account of the contracting scandals in the 1980s that were the darkest stain on the Koch administration and that sent several officials to prison.
If, as his targets and even some former colleagues say, Mr. Barrett was sometimes too quick to draw damning conclusions from the facts he unearthed, the facts themselves were solid.
“Did he write stories that I believed were unfair?” former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo asked in an interview. “From time to time, and I told him so. But he was also valuable and admirable. You weren’t going to frighten him or bargain him out of a story.”
Writing for a more mainstream publication with a larger circulation might have given Mr. Barrett’s work more exposure, might have made people take it more seriously. But he stayed at The Voice, he said, because it provided nearly total freedom to do what he liked. It was not until the last few years, he said, that editors even asked that he run his projects by them before getting started.“I’m a spoiled brat,” he admitted. “I know I’m never going to have that again. I have to get used to the idea that an editor like Tina Brown is going to have her own ideas about what I should be doing.”
Wayne Barrett is not what you think, certainly nothing like an effete snob, as seen in the conservative caricature of the liberal news media.
A veteran of 1960s activism and the alternative press, he has seen several sexual and chemical revolutions unfold, but Mr. Barrett and several friends testified that he had never so much as tried marijuana, and he barely touches alcohol. He calls himself “a country boy from Lynchburg, Va.,” where he grew up the second of six children under the thumb of a strict father who was a nuclear engineer.
Journalists tend to be (or, at least, like to think of themselves as) relentless skeptics, mistrustful of institutions, authority and belonging. Yet Mr. Barrett held the same job for more than three decades, through more bosses than he can count.
His goal as a young man was to become a priest: he briefly went to a seminary and remains a practicing Roman Catholic — albeit one who has no more kind words for the church than he does for politicians.
“I respect authority almost too much, I think,” he said — another statement sure to raise eyebrows. “I’m not an angry guy. There’s just a lot to be outraged about.”
He is cheerfully ignorant of much culture, high or low: he does not watch movies, and his favorite television channel is NY1. A combative contrarian living in New York, his favorite team is, naturally, the Boston Red Sox. His taste in food runs to hamburgers; he forces himself to swallow the occasional green vegetable but, he said, he has “a total phobia of fruit.”
Mr. Barrett refuses to use a cellphone, insisting that people are not meant to always be in contact with one another; he is more animated and long-winded about this pet peeve than about any of the political corruption he has covered. He refused to use e-mail for years after it had become standard, insisting that his interns deliver their memos on paper to his home in Brooklyn. After he relented, it had to be explained to him that “.com” was not spelled “d-o-t-c-o-m.”
No one thinks Mr. Barrett is easy to deal with, least of all Mr. Barrett, which may be one reason he rarely went into the Voice newsroom in Manhattan. Instead, over the phone, he fought bitterly with editors who wanted to make even the slightest changes to his articles, each of which he viewed as a tightly woven pattern of facts that would unravel if one thread were pulled.
“Battling with Wayne Barrett has been one of the best experiences of my career,” said Mr. Ortega, the current editor of The Voice. “You work with the guy, you’re going to get into fights. I’ve found in my career that the people who are doing the best journalism are a challenge to work with.”
Back in the days when Mr. Barrett spent more time at the office, “he would critique us on the way we did interviews on the phone,” recalled LynNell Hancock, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, who worked at The Voice in the 1980s.“He taught me everything I know about investigative reporting,” she said. “But everything with him turns into a debate, and you can’t debate him. He’s better at it, he’s more relentless, and he’s bigger and louder.”
That mix of exasperation and affection, intimidation and loyalty, creeps into every conversation with former colleagues. “He’s the scariest, sweetest man alive, and I know that sounds like a contradiction,” said Jessica Bennett, one of a legion of his former interns, who now writes for Newsweek. “He was kind of a dad to all of us, took an interest in our personal lives. But you also had to write down his instructions verbatim, because if anything was slightly different, there would be a public berating of the intern.”
Interning for Mr. Barrett became, over the years, a coveted boot camp for aspiring investigative reporters. Veterans have endless tales of the lists of things he wanted them to pursue without explanation, and woe to the youngster who interrupted to ask who Vander Beatty or Ramon Velez was.
“For years I was his de facto intern wrangler, interpreting him to them,” said William Bastone, a Barrett intern in the 1980s, who became a staff writer for The Voice and then an editor of the Smoking Gun, the investigative journalism Web site that is probably best known for revealing that parts of a best-selling book billed as a memoir, James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces,” were fabrications. The site’s bread and butter is making public legal documents and government records, often involving famous people.
Barrett alumni from later days recalled getting off the phone with him and frantically doing Google searches for every name he had dropped.
“Working with him was an incredible education that you couldn’t get anywhere else,” said Mr. Bastone. “He turned a lot of people on to that kind of journalism — and probably as many people, he showed them that they’re not cut out for it.”Mr. Barrett kept in touch with interns long after they had moved on, helping them land jobs in the nation’s most prestigious newsrooms and taking particular delight in marriages between former interns.
As Ms. Hancock put it, “Wayne manages to be endearing and obnoxious at the same time.”Or maybe Mr. Barrett is exactly what you think. His approach to his work goes beyond obsession — to a monomania that influences every facet of his life, in which gathering information trumps all else.
Fran Barrett, his wife since 1969, calls herself “Wayne’s liaison to the planet Earth.”“He’s brutally honest, at work or at home,” Ms. Barrett said. “If I buy him a shirt and it’s not what he likes, he says, ‘Oh, I hate this kind.’ Or if you exaggerate something, he’ll jump in and say ‘Well, that isn’t exactly what happened.’ ”
Over the years, Ms. Barrett, who works for Atlantic Philanthropies, a charitable foundation dedicated to what the left would call social justice issues, has learned not to worry too much about the sketchy characters, the threats, even the occasional physical assault her husband suffers in pursuit of an article. It is often she who is left to deal with the politicians, mobsters, informants and journalists who knock or call at all hours (one of these, former Governor Cuomo, advised her several times that if she ever wanted a divorce, he would represent her).
“One night, two different guys called, anonymous sources, who said, ‘Call me X,’ and I’m taking messages,” Ms. Barrett said. “I told the second one, ‘I’m sorry, X is taken today. I’m going to have to call you Y.’ ”
When they met, Mr. Barrett was a Goldwater Republican at St. Joseph’s University, a Jesuit school in Philadelphia. But by the time he graduated from Columbia’s journalism school, his politics, like many of his peers, had veered hard to the left.
To Mr. Barrett, there were two models of the leftist in that era: Tom Hayden, who wanted to work within the political system, and Abbie Hoffman, who mocked it.
“I very much identified with the Hayden types,” Mr. Barrett said. “I took the politics extremely seriously. I wasn’t interested in satire.”
After a brief stint as a reporter, he signed on as a New York City public school teacher in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, to avoid the draft. He joined a different kind of battle, going to work in the newly created Ocean Hill-Brownsville district in Brooklyn, a racially charged experiment in letting communities exercise some control over their schools. Administrators in the poor, mostly black district dismissed a group of teachers, and the mostly white teachers’ union went on strike. Mr. Barrett crossed the picket line.
The Barretts lived in Brownsville for more than a decade. It was there, he said, that he learned how charlatans and crooks could control the flow of money in a low-income neighborhood.
His lifestyle is, in its own way, deeply countercultural, upholding another stereotype about journalism, that it is a refuge for people too off-kilter to make it in a 9-to-5 office job.He never takes vacations. Ms. Barrett ticked off a long list of faraway lands she has visited without him, including Ireland, where she went this month. Even when they go to their beach house in Ocean City, N.J., he works.
Ms. Barrett remembers driving to get a kitten for their son, Mac, who is now 30, only to have Mr. Barrett spot a car belonging to a politician he was tracking. He followed the car, and they never made it to the animal shelter. Another time, Mr. Barrett called from a remote spot in upstate New York; he had run out of gas following a legislator who he was trying to prove did not live in his district.
Their living and dining rooms are lined with books, all of them nonfiction, all of them read. Mr. Barrett cannot remember the last time he read a novel, and when asked if he felt he was missing something, he said, “Nyah.”
He has never used an A.T.M. “I don’t spend any money,” he says. “Fran gives me $20 on Monday, and I give her change on Friday.” She buys his clothes, too, and sometimes tells him which ones to wear. “None of that stuff interests me,” he says. “What does is the next story.”
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