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?
I’m a New Yorker, I grew up here, and my wife is also a New Yorker. When we first moved back, she was not particularly enthusiastic about coming back. But I remember a couple of weeks after 9/11 that she said that she felt very defensive of the city. In a sense, almost tender towards the city. As a New Yorker, you’re kind of accustomed to having a permanent love/hate relationship with the place. There are aspects of the city where you see in it things you don’t like in yourself. You get crazed, and Type A, and all this sort of thing. But this brought out this incredible diversity in the city. And the way in which the city pulled together was very moving and interesting to chart. I wrote a long piece for the Style section of The Washington Post on post-terror New York about three months out that I was very happy with.
Another story I wrote was about an Algerian guy who’d been arrested up in Buffalo right after 9/11. He had been held for a couple of years without charges being brought, without any suspicion, other than the fact that he happened to be an Algerian. For whatever reason nobody paid any attention to this. Then a judge wrote a blistering opinion saying this man had been held for no good reason, and he was the longest held person post-9/11 without charges being brought against him; it was utterly baseless. So I went up and I interviewed him and did a long investigation of his case.
One of the things you always worry about, particularly at a time like that, is your assumptions. Because—9/11 “truthers” to the side—there was an actual attack. Two actual buildings went down, planes crashed, lots of people died. You don’t want to fall into the trap of assuming that anyone who is picked up is automatically a victim. Nor, of course, do you want to make the assumption—which at that point was quite a bit more the dangerous one—that they’re all terrorists. In this case I did a very long piece, which ended up in part helping him get released. I look back on it and that was one of the pieces I was proudest of.
When did you move from the Post to the Times?
I came to the Times in the spring of 2007, hired on to Metro to write large enterprise pieces about the city and the surrounding area. But I was almost immediately put on the presidential race. The first eight months I was there I wrote biographical, investigative pieces on Giuliani, whom I had covered as bureau chief [for the Post] and for New York Newsday and who I had a quite contentious relationship with, frankly. Though, if you did your job covering Giuliani you were going to have a contentious relationship with him. His dislike of reporters was bred in the bone and intense.
Did he express that dislike to you?
There was one case I was told of when I was at Newsday. A friend of mine was a press guy for one of the commissioners. They were in the morning meeting that Giuliani had and somebody said, “Michael Powell at Newsday wants to know X.” Giuliani ignored it and kept going. Towards the end of the meeting, someone asked him again how are we going to deal with this thing Michael Powell wants to know. Giuliani turned around and he said, “Fuck Michael Powell.” It’s a memory that I cherish to this day.
That said, he was a great character to cover. He had some real accomplishments as mayor—I think he did behave well in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. As I say, I had a contentious relationship while covering him, but if you see somebody as purely just a creep, then frankly they’re not very interesting to cover. Deeply flawed characters—and I would certainly put Giuliani in that category with his operatic highs and operatic lows—make for great coverage. So what I did for the Times was a series of very long biographical pieces on him. I was trying to kind of parse out what it is that makes this person tick.
Did you end up discovering what it was?
It’s a challenge, because Giuliani didn’t talk to me; he talked to me all of three minutes over the course of eight months. But one piece I particularly enjoyed writing involved his radio show. Giuliani had a weekly radio show, much as the present mayor does. But the present mayor’s show is soporific and you could fall asleep listening to it. With Giuliani, it was like this bubbling seething id that just held court. He would mock people and he would knock people and he would rip into them. It was riveting.
I had written back in the day about this, but I went back into the city archives and they had every tape. I found an old tape recorder—because that’s all they had, none of this was digitalized at all—and I listened to endless hours of these shows and put together a fun piece. It was just a wonderful window into his id and ego.
And when he eventually fell, you shifted to cover then-candidate Obama. You’ve spoken about the freedom to report. Was it limiting to be part of the entourage following a candidate around?
I’ve always tried to avoid being on the plane, in the bubble, throughout my career. It’s suffocating. My fear coming in [to the Obama campaign] was that you get caught up in the daily story. And, though it’s perfectly collegial and many of the people from the other papers became friends of mine, you’re in this sort of sweaty competition at the same time. I had done this at New York Newsday years before with City Hall and it’s just not me. My tendency is to want to go longer, to zig rather than zag. Part of it’s temperamental. I don’t want to hold myself above it. There are people like Peter Baker, whom I worked with at The Washington Post and who now covers the White House for the Times, who are superb at it, I think. It’s just not something that’s particularly energized me, having done it for a while at City Hall.
How did you approach Obama, about whom and whose campaign so much had already been written?
I became interested in how he was playing in white working class Democratic districts. I picked one county in western Pennsylvania, Beaver County, which is an old steel mill county—it had once been ninety percent Democratic but is now sort of fifty-fifty. The Times gave me the freedom to do it. I went there two or three times during the election for a week, knocked on a thousand doors, just followed my nose and wrote pieces about this stuff. I explored race there, because it was a predominately, though not entirely, white working class area, and people were enormously candid. For better or worse. And honest.
One of the truisms, I think, of covering either working class or poor, white and black, is that people have less the built-in defenses. If I went to talk race on the Upper West or Upper East Side, I would have great difficulty getting an honest sentence out of anybody. That’s not to say they’re all racist, but they recognize a third rail and they don’t want to touch it. I came away from Beaver somewhat depressed by the extent to which race still dominated for people, but, on the other hand, with quite a bit of respect for how these working class men and women were wrestling with it. And I came away from the last piece I did there thinking McCain was not going to win in Pennsylvania. And Obama took 49.5 percent of the vote in Beaver, a huge victory for him. If he could hold his own in these counties, and then, of course, run up in the cities, he was going to win the state. And he did. In that sense, doing this fine-grain work in an area did give you this broader view on the macro.
You spoke about the differences between reporting on people in the Upper West Side and people in Beaver County. And you’ve reported a lot on the poor and marginalized. Is there ever the concern about exploitation when dealing with people who are perhaps less media savvy?
The further down the class scale you go, the less sophisticated people are in dealing with the press. They just don’t have the experience; there are exceptions, but as a group they tend to have less defenses and they’re, to some extent, used to speaking plainly. Then, if you go down to the very poor, very often because they’re used to talking to social workers and caseworkers and the like, they’re used to keeping people abreast of their strikingly personal information. I think what you owe people in that situation is just to deal with it honestly. It was interesting in Beaver because these were guys who had grown up in steel mills where a lot of their buddies were black. In some respects they’d had a far more intimate experience of race than most white upper middle class people in New York, which is a strikingly segregated city. They were conflicted in interesting ways. I don’t want to idealize this, though, there were some stone cold racists, it’s all God’s children, at every level. But at its most interesting, there were great complications.
Obama is a complicated character. What was your approach when you sat down with him?
Obama’s a very challenging cat to cover. He’s a writer himself, and a quite perceptive writer. So he tends to look at himself and everything around him with a writer’s eye. And also therefore tends to have defenses up in interesting ways. Interviewing him is a challenge, trying to pull him out of that and get him talking about something.
As often happens, I got him out of that with some luck. I got talking to him about what he reads and was telling me about these different policy tomes. And I said, “Well, yeah, but come on. I’m out here on the campaign trail with you, you’re up even earlier than I am, and I’ve been carrying around this Philip Roth book with me for two months and I’m yet to even crack it.” He actually laughed at that point, and said, “Yeah, you have very little chance to really read. I basically floss my teeth and watch Sports Center.”
But he’s a great fan of Philip Roth, so we got talking about him. I was reading The Human Stain, which is about race. And frankly, because I had hardly opened the book, I didn’t realize quite how intensely it was dealing with race. That then led to a very interesting discussion where through talking about Philip Roth and others he started getting into something. It had nothing to do with what I necessarily sat down to talk to him about. I just went with it because it’s far more interesting to use your time that way than to try to get him to talk about Pakistan. Then he’s going to retreat into talking points.
The second part of this interview is here.