The New York Times’s Michael Powell leapt from the metro pages to the business section this May—a place he never saw himself while a student at the Columbia J-School in the early 1980s. Now on the national economics beat, the fifty-three-year-old writer known for covering the nation’s most powerful leaders and its most downtrodden citizens for the Times, The Washington Post, and New York Newsday says he hopes to cover the collapse with an eye toward those it has most affected. CJR assistant editor Joel Meares sat down with Powell at the Times building to discuss his hopes for the new beat, the career path that led him there, and his time spent covering Giuliani, Obama, and 9/11. The second part of this interview is here.
You were a community advocate before you got into journalism. How has that helped in your reporting?
I had been a tenant organizer before I got into journalism, and I found that good training to be a journalist. For one thing, I was working in a West Indian neighborhood, and it forces you to get out and talk to people from many different parts of life. You end up researching mortgages, learning who the drug dealers are in the neighborhood. My first journalism was often very about these sort of issues. I got into journalism out of two desires. One: to change the world. The second: to write, and write, and write. I succeeded in the second of my goals and rather dismally in the first.
How did you go from that kind of reporting to the rather cushy job you had in D.C. on the Post’s Style section?
I did the usual gypsy route from Burlington, Vermont, to The Bergen Record, to New York Newsday where I spent eight years, and then, when New York Newsday folded, killed by the Times Mirror Company, after a brief interregnum at the New York Observer I went down to Washington D.C. I covered Marion Barry there for The Washington Post. I like to say I covered the two most psychopathic mayors in America, Marion Barry and Rudy Giuliani. Albeit very different pathologies.
In Washington I went on to cover national politics for the Style section, which was really one of the great gigs in American journalism. You have all of the access and enormous room, both in terms of the voice and in terms of the length. You were given great freedom to go anywhere you want in the country and cover whomever you wanted. It was a wonderful gig, which for reasons that are probably vaguely obscure I then left after a couple of years, to become New York bureau chief for The Washington Post.
Were you glad to be returning home?
I convinced my wife that this was going to be a wonderful move because we were finally going to have a chance to chill a little bit, and I wasn’t going to be on a beat and we were going to be able to see theater. She and the kids arrived on September 2, 2001. Nine days later came the attack on the World Trade Center, and I then worked more or less twenty-four-seven along with every other journalist in New York for the next year or more.
What was it like to coordinate the coverage of something so big?
I was New York bureau chief for five or six years, and 9/11 shaped much of my time there. The country changed overnight, at first to a very frightened place, then to a rather militant one, and then to a rather confused place. And I say that with sympathy for all three. I think I felt some of those same emotions myself. Much of my time was spent writing about recovering from an attack, and what that is emotionally, sociologically, anthropologically. And then also looking at the crackdown on Arab and other communities, not just in New York, but in the whole northeast.
Did you get to see any theater?
Very little theater and a lot more terrorism.
Is there a story you wrote that sticks out for you from that period?