When it comes to Wayne Barrett, all the clichés ring true. They did break the mold. He was one of a kind. And “a force of nature” is exactly how you’d have to have described him, as he out-thought and out-worked just about everyone over the four decades during which he covered and conquered New York City, state government and national figures.
“Unstoppable” is another adjective that often ended up near his name. This Friday morning, as friends and even some former enemies mourn his passing and the nation prepares to inaugurate as president a man Barrett spent years exposing, that particular phrase might seem obsolete.
But–thankfully–it still fits. Barrett’s lifelong quest for truth continues to pay dividends because his work (at the Village Voice, for the Daily Beast and Newsweek, for the Nation Institute and the Daily News, and in his books) still resonates. You can still hear his gravelly and authoritative voice in the archives of WNYC. And you can watch the barn-burner of a speech he gave when he accepted the inaugural City Limits Urban Journalist Award in September. (The video is below; the text is here.)
On that evening, barely 90 minutes before the first presidential debate between the incoming president and Hillary Clinton, an ailing Barrett said much. This morning, one passage rings loudest: “I always told my interns and the classes I’ve taught at Columbia, Hunter and LIU that we are the truth-tellers. That ours is the only profession paid to tell the truth. Other professions sometimes tell the truth—doctors tell the truth sometimes, but they’re not paid to, and lawyers do sometimes–but reporters are paid to tell the truth all the time; they are the most honest profession.”
I’m honored to say that Wayne Barrett and I shared many things. He was born in the town I grew up in. He knew being a Red Sox fan was a sacred vocation, not a casual hobby. During the few months in 1998 when I was one of his team of interns, we shared the cultivation of a few of his hundreds of great stories. From 2004 into 2007, we were on the masthead of the Village Voice together. Mostly, however, we shared a two-decade relationship as teacher and student, and as friends.
As a result, I am uniquely unqualified to write anything objective about him. But that’s all right, because Barrett never tried to write anything objective, understanding as he did that taking sides is what truth-telling is really about. He strove to be fair, to be right, but never to be neutral.
The brief essay below, penned for the ceremony at which we honored Barrett this fall, is far from comprehensive. That’s because it’s impossible and unnecessary to tell Wayne’s full story. You can read it, and hear it, in his own words.
The 2016 City Limits Urban Journalist Award:
Born in New Britain, Conn., but largely a product of growing up in Lynchberg, Va., Barrett attended St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia and then the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He worked as a teacher in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district during the 1968 strike. He began writing for the Village Voice in 1973 and was given a column there in 1978.
Over the next 33 years, equipped with an allergy to all flavors of corruption and an inhuman commitment to the drudgery of muckraking, Barrett held accountable mayors and borough presidents, members of Congress and senators, presidents and governors, candidates and consultants, the heads of city agencies and state authorities, religious leaders, social-service providers, lobbyists, businessmen, unions, his fellow reporters and many more. He trained a legion of interns, many of whom went on to careers in reporting and public service.
With his mentor Jack Newfield, he wrote the indispensable City for Sale, a 1988 classic of urban history and investigative reportage. His biographies of Donald Trump (1992 and recently updated and republished) and Rudy Giuliani (2001) are essential reading for anyone seeking to understand those men and the city that produced them. The 2007 book Grand Illusion, written with Dan Collins, obliterated persistent myths about this city’s worst day.
After leaving the Voice in 2011, Barrett was a Nation Institute fellow and a contributor to Newsweek and the Daily Beast; neither Chris Christie nor Andrew Cuomo nor Bill de Blasio escaped his scrutiny in long-form articles for the Daily News. The change in byline didn’t altered Barrett’s approach to work: As he has for decades, Barrett continues to investigate the world from his home in Windsor Terrace, which he shares with his wife of 47 years, Fran Barrett, who serves as New York State’s Inter-Agency Coordinator for Not-for-Profit Services. His son Mac is a television interviewer and producer.
Though beloved even by some whom he has skewered, Barrett was not universally appreciated. Some attacked him: Barrett was arrested in 1990 for crashing a Donald Trump party in Atlantic City, and was assaulted by broomstick-weilding Bronx social-services emperor Ramon Velez in 1985. Others simply ran from him, or tried to. One political player eluded Barrett and intern Bill Bastone for weeks in 1984, until he was traced to Beth Israel Hospital. The man awoke from a post-operative nap to see the reporters standing at his bedside. The groggy patient could only croak: “You must be Wayne Barrett.”
“My credo has always been that the only reason readers come back to you again and again over decades is because of what you unearth for them, and that the joy of our profession is discovery, not dissertation,” Barrett wrote upon his departure from the Voice. “It was always the conduct that prodded me to write, not the person. And that is what I lived for, a chance to say something that revealed and mattered. To me, the story will always be the thing. It is all I can see.”