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Wayne Barrett, 1945-2017

What follows is my preface to Without Compromise: The Brave Journalism That First Exposed Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and the American Epidemic of Corruption, published on Sept. 29 by Bold Type Books. Among the many revelations in this new anthology of the work of Wayne Barrett -- my longtime friend and reporting partner at The Village Voice -- is the fundamental nature of Trump's character that Wayne discovered more than 40 years ago. But the work of this legendary investigative reporter goes far beyond the story of one very bad man who became president. MSNBC's Chris Hayes described it as an "instantly classic collection by one of the greatest reporters New York ever produced, and one of the greatest of his era."

By the end of his life, on the day before President Donald Trump's 2017 inauguration, Wayne Barrett was already a legendary figure in American journalism. His tenacious investigative reporting on New York City politics and corruption had made him the scourge of City Hall, the bane of several mayors, and an essential member of New York's pugnacious press corps. He had published a hard-hitting biography of Rudy Giuliani as well as an eye-opening book on that mayor's failures and omissions leading up to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Barrett had been covering Donald Trump since the real-estate scion turned reality-TV personality first began lining up public subsidies for private gain in the 1970s. He had published a scathing biography of the man in 1990, during one of Trump's periodic financial collapses.

The rise of his old nemesis to the American presidency lent historical drama and even a touch of glamor to a life spent in relentless toil. The unscrupulous businessman and the conscientious journalist who chronicled his corruption had lived on opposite sides of a profound moral chasm. In the years following his death Wayne would continue to haunt Trump, his byline invoked by a legion of reporters as they pursued the 45th president down trails he had blazed.

Wayne's lifelong project was to muster journalistic truth on behalf of the downtrodden and against their oppressors. Pursuing that goal, he developed a method that produced some of the most rigorous, purposeful, and dogged investigative reporting ever written. It is a method worth revisiting now, when essential facts often fail to penetrate public consciousness -- even amid a deadly pandemic -- and cable pundits seem to outnumber working reporters.

He didn't deign to hide his point of view. His writing was propulsive, emphatic, even damning, and always candid. As a champion scholastic debater he knew that rhetoric can inspire, but he also learned that facts matter more. His approach to reporting was exhaustive, requiring the assistance of literally hundreds of former interns -- who eventually went on to distinguished careers after months of checking off Wayne's impossibly long lists of interviews, document searches, archive visits, data crunches, and stakeouts. He never stopped believing in the evidence-based inquiry that spurred America's founders and undergirds every functioning democracy.

Wayne first achieved notoriety for his scathing investigative profiles of celebrated figures in politics and business. Among the earliest Barrett targets was Donald Trump who contrived his initial venture into Manhattan real estate with enormous state subsidies via connections with the shadiest elements in Brooklyn and Queens clubhouse politics. Indeed, Wayne scorched nearly every important politician of either party who crossed his path, from Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani to Mario and Andrew Cuomo.

While he enjoyed dueling with politicians, however, Wayne brought equal passion to probing the faceless forces that immiserated the city's most defenseless communities. He had a deft touch with the personal interview and, despite his ferocious reputation, could charm almost any source into talking too much. But he was just as keen to spend hours poring over public budgets, city records, and all the eye-glazing data points that reveal how brutally society treats the most vulnerable – as in his classic series documenting Koch's "war on the poor," or his pioneering dissection of the original "poverty pimp," Bronx political operative Ramon Velez.

He was born on July 11, 1945, and raised in Lynchburg, Va., where he attended Catholic schools with his two brothers and two sisters. His father was a nuclear physicist and his mother became a librarian. He became editor of his high school's newspaper and led its debate team to second place in a national championship, a performance that earned a full scholarship to Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. (Some might observe that Wayne was very much the product of a Jesuit education.) There he met a Philly girl named Frances Marie McGettigan, whom he married in 1969. By then, he had graduated from Columbia Journalism School (where he later taught for more than 30 years) and moved on to teach school in Brooklyn's impoverished Brownsville community.



Like many bright young people who grew up in the 1960s, Wayne underwent a radical transformation even before he arrived in Brownsville. Going off to college as a Goldwater conservative who despised student leftists, he emerged as a long-haired Vietnam war protester and supporter of black liberation movements -- although unlike his hippie peers, he never smoked a joint and, for that matter, scarcely ever drank alcohol. If his teaching job began as a means to escape the draft, it quickly turned into a lifelong commitment to that very poor, highly segregated, and heavily African-American neighborhood.

It was in Brownsville that Wayne came to understand investigative reporting as his instrument to confront inequity, injustice, and corruption. With a group of local activists, he founded a small newspaper called The People' Voice, aiming its mimeographed fusillades at the predatory landlords, failing schools, uncaring bureaucracies – and crooked politicians.

Within a few years, Wayne's exposes of local corruption drew the attention of Jack Newfield, the Village Voice's premier political columnist and investigative chief. Jack brought Wayne into the Voice, where he published hundreds of articles over the next four decades -- frequently in partnership with other reporters (including me). We both joined the paper as staff writers in 1978, just after Ed Koch was sworn in for his first term as mayor.

Our mission at the counter-cultural Manhattan weekly was not so different from what Wayne and his fellow activists had tried to do in Brownsville, except on a much broader stage, with substantial resources, top editors, and thousands of paying readers. We exposed the real power relationships in a city where real estate kingpins like Trump routinely greased elected officials – and exercised an unwholesome influence over policy and budget decisions.

Although the Voice's circulation was smaller than the city's major dailies, the passionate engagement of savvy readers endowed us with clout. The dailies paid us the compliment of routinely lifting our stories, with or without credit. And in that era, before the Internet and social media, newspaper stories mattered – even in an "alternative" weekly.

From a warren of cramped, rather nondescript offices and cubicles below Fourteenth Street in Manhattan, we scoped the political landscape of city and state, holding elected officials accountable for their deviations from political integrity and public interest. Working at a "writer's paper," as the Voice was known, meant that we set our own course, pursuing stories that reflected the electoral calendar, the urgent issues of the moment, and the enduring priorities of our politics.

Every year, for instance, we shamed the city's worst landlords with a list that named names and catalogued atrocities. We spent months as a team in 1980 to produce an exhaustive three-part series on Republican corruption and mob influence in Nassau County – our bouquet to its favorite son, U.S. Senate candidate Alfonse D'Amato. (He won that election, but Wayne finally took him out with a devastating story on his absentee voting record almost two decades later.)

We pursued this vocation with a certain ferocity, nobody more so than Wayne. As he explained on the occasion of the Voice's 50th anniversary in 2005, "we thought a deadline meant we had to kill somebody." He was only half joking. Every public figure in New York had good reason to fear and respect him.

Wayne expected the same fierce determination from everyone who worked with him, whether colleagues or interns. Scratching out scores of tasks on a yellow legal pad, he could get quite testy if someone failed to match his formidable work ethic. A caring friend with a wonderful sense of humor, he was also known to torment his editors and didn't always tolerate disagreement well, to put it politely. When we were producing a two-page news spread every week, he would occasionally stop speaking to me – and for a couple of days I could only communicate with him via messages left with Fran.

Of course he could be lighthearted and funny, too; he loved to banter and gossip, and over the years he attracted a wide circle of friends that was even larger than his impressive list of enemies. But he was tough because he took the work seriously, and he kept working until his last day. He never stopped believing that investigative reporting could reveal wrongdoing, provoke outrage, spur reform, and change people's lives for the better. And after four years of a lying president who has done so much to damage people's lives – and the vulnerable most of all – that faith seems more essential than ever.

With his innate consciousness of mission, Wayne defied the cynicism that too often infects modern journalism. Even as he grew into a highly sophisticated analyst of elections, media, finance, and government, he nurtured an idealism about democracy and the role of the press that could sound almost naïve. The tragedy is that we lost him just when we were about to need him most.

As a devout believer in the Church's social justice doctrine, he naturally had lived in a state of perpetual indignation. The prayer card at his funeral, held in a Brownsville church where he remained a parishioner, displayed a cartoon of Wayne preparing to pepper the Almighty with tough questions. Even in the afterlife, he would surely hold the most powerful to account.

What follows in this book is a collection of that indefatigable sleuth's most compelling and salient adventures. What stands out in every single one is his drive for justice, which he charged us all to carry on.

This article has been excerpted from Without Compromise: The Brave Journalism that First Exposed Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and the American Epidemic of Corruption by Wayne Barrett, edited by Eileen Markey. Copyright © 2020. Available from Bold Type Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.


Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons and one novel. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.