Yes and no, if I’m being honest. I grew up in New York, so I grew up reading the Times. New York Post in the morning—then the liberal tab that everyone read on the Upper West Side for the sports and the columnists—and slowly, as you got older, you’d read the Times. So yes, there’s some degree to which you always want to work for the times. On the other hand, I competed against them for eight years at New York Newsday. There’s an enormous number of ex-New York Newsday people working here now, and we cut our teeth and took great pride in beating The New York Times And we did. And we beat them rather consistently.
Then the Times rose to that challenge and had wonderful city coverage by the time New York Newsday went out of business in 1995. But during that whole period there was a great sense of sticking it to this place—they were big, they were slow. We were the guerrillas and we were going to do grittier, coverage. Some of that is a conceit, of course, that sustains you. So it’s always been kind of a love/hate thing. For a long period while I was at The Washington Post, the Times didn’t have much success hiring people from the Post, because it gave you great freedom to write and report and follow your nose. It was really only when the Post started to contract, both in its ambition and its money—money first!—rather depressingly, that the Times then started hiring a great flood of talent from the Post.
You came to journalism from tenant organizing. Has it been hard not to bring that activist spirit to your writing?
At first, honestly, yes. The first couple of years I was in journalism, I wrestled with finding the sense of outrage that can drive any great investigative piece—a sense that you’ve found a wrong that needs righting, a voice that needs to be heard—but modulating it in a way that didn’t become one-dimensional or too much advocacy. I have great respect for advocacy journalism, but as that wasn’t the path I chose, I had to learn to modulate the voice without, I hope, losing the passion.
And speaking for myself, as you continue to mature intellectually, you start to become much more comfortable in gray. The gray between the black and white of an issue becomes a more interesting place to hang out and to examine. Whether that’s foreclosures, or race, or covering Rudy Giuliani, most people are very complicated, combinations of high and low, of good impulses and base impulses. To the extent that you can start to get comfortable in there then you start to move away from where I was in 1985. It doesn’t mean I don’t still care about those issues. It’s just that you start to write about them in a little more three-dimensional way.