Q & A: New York Times Reporter Michael Powell, Part Two

"As you continue to mature intellectually, you start to become much more comfortable in gray."

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?

It’s hard to say because the media is such a large, ungainly beast. But I do think it’s generally true that the media, as with American society, handles race gingerly, and often not terribly honestly. And I don’t mean that every white’s a racist or that every black is a nationalist. It’s a complicated business to unpack. Yet to write about it I’m always struck by this vitriolic reaction you will often get. Even at the Times, which is a pretty sophisticated readership, the comments when I’ve written about this often are striking. I think that makes people sometimes retreat into sappy bullshit about race rather than writing about what’s out there. I also think we both shy from race coverage and it also tends to be ghetto-ized. I’ve often thought we’ll know when we have arrived when a white guy or woman is doing the race beat and a black man or woman is doing the Wall Street beat.

The statistics you’re responsible for handling are the unemployment figures. How do you deal with the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports?

Every one of those statistics has a narrative written behind it. And what’s kind of fun, a challenge for that day, is to try and piece it together. You’ve go to try and tease out what it means. And I think what it means recently is quite grim for the future of the economy and for Americans. The Thursday before they come, I and my colleague Motoko Rich—also new to the beat—will start calling around to economists, smart people, academics. So you spend the day reading up, looking at what happened the previous month; if you’re conversant on what happened the previous month you’ll be able to more quickly make comparisons.

I’ve been lucky—and I use that word advisedly—in the sense that the arrows in the most recent statistics point rather clearly to what you write about. The murkier the numbers, the harder it is, because you have to wrestle with the story. The risk there is that you get one of those articles that doesn’t really say anything; it’s just kind of a hash of “some say this and some say that.” As much as you can, you try to impose a take. Then the great risk is that you impose your take, and it doesn’t arise from what you see.

You’re known for writing with a take, and a strong voice. Is it difficult to write the way you do in a large and traditional institution like the Times?

I’ve been given a lot of freedom, and other writers have been as well. I think that reflects a change at the Times. Twenty years ago there were some terrific writers here with a lot of freedom, but it was a smaller group. The aperture has been widened. It is an editor-intensive paper. But as long as you do it respectfully, you can argue with the copy editor, you can push, you can have that discussion. And they’re very smart. I’ve been saved many more times by copy editors here than I can justifiably blame them for doing anything to my copy.

One of the worries, though, at a place like the Times, because it is very editor-driven, is that younger writers can feel constrained to write like the Times, whatever the Times style is. That’s a real tension here, and it was at The Washington Post, to a somewhat lesser extent. I think the editors need to be aware of that and they need to be aware that you’ve got to give people a little bit more leash and encourage people to throw themselves off cliffs occasionally, stylistically, to take chances. I sometimes see young writers who come here and I think, “No, go further, take more chances.” That’s always the risk at a place like this, that a young writer comes here and gets smaller rather than bigger.

Was it a dream of yours as a younger writer to work at the Times?

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.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.