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.
Part one of this interview was published here on Friday.
How did you transition from Obama to economics?
Since the campaign, much of my writing has been caught up in the foreclosure epidemic, which had hit other parts of the country first but was hitting New York with a savagery, particularly in black and Latino neighborhoods. That led me in an unplanned way to my present beat. The business section has several national economics writers and a good friend of mine, Peter Goodman, was moving on. He suggested my name to Larry Ingrassia, the editor, and he came to me in February and asked if I was interested in doing this. Frankly, I had never ever thought of working in a business section of any paper. Though, to a certain extent that’s a conceit, and one that I had jettisoned along the way.
As you grow up in your views, if you’re lucky enough to work for a section that makes larger connections, you start to realize the extent to which all the great schismic issues in this country go back to class and to economics. Certainly, in the last few years it’s hard to imagine a bigger story than the collapse of the American economy. Their pitch to me—which was the only pitch that would make sense given that I came in with no particularly deep knowledge of economics—was to writer broadly about how the economy is affecting people on the ground. The interplay between the economy and people’s lives, the interplay between the economy and race, and the interplay between the economy and politics. So I started the beat in May.
What did you, and do you, hope to bring to the beat?
I like to write with voice, and I like to have the voices of people in my pieces. I also like to write, where possible, with some sense of humor, and, where possible, with some strong sense of place. I think that’s what I hope to do. Also, you hope still to right wrongs and see where there are people in a lot of pain and write about that. The great challenge in year three of the crisis is to write about this stuff with an urgency and in a way that is also not so predictable. There is a worry that people just become immune to this thing.
It’s still early days, but do you think you’ve brought some of that?
The first big piece I did, which I had started before I came to business, was a piece on Memphis, which is sort of ground zero for the effect that the foreclosure crisis in particular, but also the larger economic crisis, was giving on the destruction of black wealth. It looked particularly at the problematic role a number of the big banks, most spectacularly Wells Fargo, had had with irresponsible lending in that area. It’s just wrecked black wealth with enormous implications for those often lower middle class, working class families, going forward. I think the Memphis story works. I hate to use all those Nielsen meter metrics, most-e-mailed and that stuff. But I was struck by the depth and how sustained the reaction to that was, in part, because I think race is still such a sore point in American culture, history, consciousness.
We’ve certainly seen that in the last few weeks. How do you think the media handles stories involving race?