The old-school journalism of Wayne Barrett

Photo © 2016 R. Schultz. Courtesy of 50 Eggs

When New York investigative reporting legend Wayne Barrett died last week at the age of 71, he may have been the only practicing journalist in America who never owned a cell phone.

For that matter, he didn’t become truly adept at using a computer until his last years at The Village Voice, where he logged a 37-year career, establishing himself as the city’s foremost muckraker.

Barrett graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism in 1968 and until the day he died he kept his contacts on a massive Rolodex wheel likely manufactured around the same time. He kept his files in 14-inch manila folders, their outside covers filled with the crisp, looping handwriting he was taught in the Catholic schools of Lynchburg, Virginia, where he was raised.  Stacked atop each other, the piles of folders often grew into small mountains. Every now and again, they’d be stuffed into a bankers box and deposited in the basement of Barrett’s Brooklyn home.

When Wayne and I both left the Voice at the end of 2010, I suggested to him he try scanning some of his voluminous files rather than packing them up and carting them away. You could search them easier, I said, and they’d weigh nothing. Nah, he responded, this works fine for me.

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Indeed it did. Despite his boycott of most of the tools now considered essential to the 21st century journalist, Barrett did pretty well for himself. He was the first reporter to spot Donald Trump as a worthy investigative target in the late 1970s, when the brash young developer was just starting out. After New York’s entire press corps had thoroughly combed through the life of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, it was Barrett who discovered that Giuliani, who had prosecuted the mob as a U.S. attorney, had his own Mafia skeletons hidden away in the family closet, including his father’s prison stretch for armed robbery. His 1988 book with Voice colleague Jack Newfield on the scandals of the Ed Koch administration, City for Sale, remains a classic of urban investigative reporting. For years he turned out a weekly column based on his diligent examination of city budgets, contracts, and campaign donations, resulting in scoops few could match.

He did, however, have a few things working for him. One of the biggest was his rotating stable of interns, often a half dozen at a time. He dispatched them daily into streets, courts and government offices in search of records and interviews. Sometimes the order of the day was to simply keep watch outside an official’s home or office, a stakeout where the goal was information rather than an embarrassing photo or ambush interview. It was a kind of boot camp for journalists-in-training, presided over by a drill sergeant who looked a little like Robert Duvall and often barked as fiercely as The Great Santini.

As several veterans of Barrett’s intern brigade recalled in reminiscences after his death, it was woe to those who fell down on the job. Matt Taibbi recounted in Rolling Stone how Barrett dispatched him three times in one day to the old federal records repository in Bayonne, New Jersey, in search of documents the boss needed.

Being a Barrett intern was an all-inclusive post. The chief not only doled out orders, he inquired into their lives, attended the birthday parties, and–to his greatest delight–helped arrange a few marriages. You never stopped being a Barrett intern. Even long after they’d moved on, the calls still came, asking for some bit of research he was sure they could easily acquire. Veterans of that tribe are today sprinkled throughout the galaxy of American journalism, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, New York magazine, Bloomberg View, ABC, NBC, Inc, NPR, The Washington Post, City Limits magazine, The Jewish Channel, The Wall Street Journal, and Fast Company. They founded TheSmokingGun.com and work in think tanks as government policy analysts and as public defenders. They have written books on Italian-Americans,food habits, atomic warfare, jazz musicians, the murders of nuns in El Salvador, nerds, and yes, Donald Trump. For a long stretch an English-language newspaper in Cambodia boasted an all-ex-Barrett intern staff.

The interns often joked about how Wayne’s instructions were often relayed via conference calls. He spent much of his day working the phones at home–a pair of land lines between which he constantly toggled back and forth. But he was a firm believer in witnessing the events where power brokers gathered and big decisions were made. Before the lung ailment that ultimately felled him made it hard for him to get around, he made it a point to attend big presentations by governors and mayors, campaign kickoffs and political fundraisers. He wanted to see the faces and watch the mingling. That’s what got him arrested in 1990 when he tried to sneak into a Trump celebration in Atlantic City. He was clapped in handcuffs again in 1996 when he and a fellow spirited reporter insisted on seeing which fat cats showed up to deliver checks for a governor’s campaign kitty.

Likewise, his preferred interview mode was in person and up close. He would knock on the doors of those he was pursuing, often in the evening, asking if he could come in and talk. More often than not, he was ushered inside. He had once seriously considered becoming a priest, and in high school he was a national debating champion. Despite his well-earned reputation for having a lion’s roar, he was usually quietly persuasive behind closed doors.

Barrett firmly believed that the business of journalism was best conducted collaboratively. There were too many stories for any one reporter, he reasoned, and if he couldn’t tell them, then someone else should. For him, the competition was the political hacks, the grafters, and the fixers, not other journalists. A reporter with a good story in that day’s paper might well expect a Barrett call offering praise and suggesting an angle for a follow up. As many thousands of articles as he churned out over the years, there were thousands more that he farmed out as tips and advice to others.

Many national journalists have cited Barrett’s remarkable generosity in allowing them unfettered access over the past year to the vast files he compiled while writing his 1992 biography of Trump. Reporters from around the country made the pilgrimage to Barrett’s basement to go through those old bankers boxes.  But such open-door sharing had been his practice for years. When Giuliani mounted his own brief run for president in 2008, Barrett did the same thing, pointing visitors to ways the stories he’d uncovered could be made fresh again. If he acquired an investigative treasure like a wired politician’s telephone log or schedules, he passed it along to the next reporter who showed a similar passion for nailing the culprits. 

For him that sort of group effort just made sense: as he explained to his son Mac’s grade school class years ago, reporters were detectives for the people.

If so, Wayne Barrett deserves his gold shield. 

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Tom Robbins is investigative reporter in residence at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He worked with Barrett at the Voice from 1985-88 and 2000-2010.