A Legacy Of Truth-Telling: Legendary Journalist Wayne Barrett, 1945-2017
On January 27, Our Lady of the Presentation Church in Brooklyn’s Brownsville community held a funeral service for the great investigative reporter Wayne Barrett, my cherished friend and longtime colleague at The Village Voice (and later at the Nation Institute). What follows is an appreciation of Wayne that I wrote for the Daily News, adapted slightly and reprinted here by permission.
When Wayne Barrett died on January 19, after years of debilitating lung disease, someone said that the impending inauguration of Donald Trump might just have been unbearable to him, the veteran investigative reporter who probably knew more about the new President than any other journalist in the country.
But troubled though Wayne was by the rise of a man he considered woefully unfit and unready for the Oval Office, he consistently rejected any sense of despair.
Instead, he reacted to Trump’s election in the same way that he had always confronted the stubborn persistence of inequality, bigotry, and corruption in our city and nation. After Nov. 8, he got back to work, even though illness often left him, at 71, exhausted and unable to leave his bed without assistance.
In fact, the last time I spoke with my old friend and mentor, just a week before he entered the hospital with a bout of pneumonia that proved fatal, he confided that he was working hard on yet another “very interesting story” about Trump.
His exceptional work ethic, combined with the highest standards of reporting and research, had cast fear into generations of politicians during his decades at the Village Voice. Hearing Wayne’s footsteps behind them made public officials — mayors, legislators, judges, bureaucrats — and their private patrons very nervous. They knew he would toil indefatigably until he uncovered the evidence for an exposé.
Wayne famously despised political grifting and bribery, but he wasn’t merely a “reformer.” As a social justice Catholic, he believed that society and government should lift up the poor and vulnerable, reject all prejudice and treat everyone as equals in full dignity. He had earned his social consciousness the hard way, living and working in Brownsville, one of the city’s most impoverished places.
But while he could write an impassioned column on education or hunger, and often did, he was focused on facts, not rhetoric. What he wrote required deep sourcing, or “human intelligence,” and deep research, or “data mining” — skills he acquired back when reporters had to go out and talk to people, root around in dusty archives and persuade clerks to hand over documents.
At first quite hostile to cell phones and laptops, he eventually came to accept them. But vindication of his traditional methods came in recent years, when dozens of younger journalists from around the world arrived at his Brooklyn brownstone to comb through Wayne’s Trump files — the physical artifacts of intense labor on Trump: The Deals and The Downfall, his classic 1992 biographical warning (updated and reissued last year).
Those damning facts could never have been uncovered by browsing the internet.
Over the years, Wayne’s dogged legwork required more and more legs, which meant training scores of interns. He would draw up long lists of reporting chores on a yellow legal pad, then dole out assignments — and woe to the intern who returned with excuses instead of information!
Yet if he was a demanding and occasionally frightening taskmaster, those interns came to idolize him, because he led by example. Many of them moved on to earn top positions in journalism, and they have helped to make Wayne a legend in New York and beyond.
As he matured, Wayne grew more judicious and less judgmental in his attitude toward some former political targets, including Sen. Chuck Schumer and the late Mayor Ed Koch. (Others will stay forever in Barrett purgatory.) But he grew increasingly impatient with the laziness and timidity of the modern media, especially in the still dominant realm of television.
Last September, just before the first Trump-Clinton debate, Wayne spoke at a gala dinner where City Limits magazine honored his unparalleled reporting on urban issues. In those remarks he denounced the ratings-driven race to the journalistic bottom that elevated Trump to celebrity status, ignored the most important aspects of his record and allowed him to lie with impunity over the public airwaves.
“I always told my interns and the classes I’ve taught that we are the truth-tellers — that ours is the only profession paid to tell the truth,” he declared. “I can’t say it anymore.”
Wayne Barrett left behind a legacy of truth-telling that should inhabit the conscience of every journalist in America. It is a legacy we must keep alive, even though he is gone.