New York Civic: The Last Muckrakers By Henry J. Stern

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Stern_Henry J Ace Investigative Journalists, Wayne Barrett, Tom Robbins, are Leaving the Village Voice

On rare occasions, someone writes an article which I believe is so significant that I want to share it with you, our readers, without delay and with no need for linkeage.

This morning we received the following column from Wayne Barrett, announcing that after 33 years as a columnist for the Village Voice, he was leaving the weekly paper, which is now a throwaway (distributed free). This unexpected news is a great loss for the City of New York.

The New York Times blog reported later this morning that Barrett had been let go by the Voice to save money and that Tom Robbins, the only other name reporter in New York City coverage, had resigned in protest at the management decision to fire Barrett. The Voice has been bought and resold by many owners in the last thirty years. Barrett was its lead investigative journalist, but previous managers, including Rupert Murdoch, Clay Felker and Carter Burden, did not interfere with his column. Barrett had won many honors in his years at the Voice, and was responsible for uncovering numerous municipal scandals.

The Voice is now owned by a Phoenix, Arizona-based conglomerate of 17 weeklies around the country. The executive editor is Michael Lacey and the CEO of Village Voice Media is James Larkin. Neither man is widely known in New York. The founders of the Voice in 1955 included Daniel Wolf, the paper's editor, Edwin Fancher, a Greenwich Village psychologist, and Norman Mailer.

Over the years, Barrett has produced a remarkable body of work which should be made readily available to the general public. In my judgment, as far as New York politics and ethics are concerned, he is and has been the conscience of his generation. Although we do not always agree, and I think some of his judgments are too harsh, his fact-collecting abilities and those of his interns at the Columbia School of Journalism, where he teaches, are unsurpassed. 

If this dogged and painstaking reporter did not possess that unique combination of integrity, industry and intensity, he would not have been able to do the work that he has done so consistently and so capably for a third of a century. If the three levels of government had acted on more of the information he collected and presented, this city, state and nation would be better served. If other journalists had followed up on more of his stories, instead of ignoring them because they appeared first in the Voice, the results would have been beneficial to honest public officials and harmful to those who betrayed their trust. Nonetheless, his impact over the years has been substantial, and who can tell what wrongful conduct his columns deterred?

Barrett and Tom Robbins are two of the most knowledgeable writers about what really goes on inside New York's multi-layered cosmos of government, politics, real estate and big business.

The articles they wrote are part of a great legacy of reform journalism, initiated at the Village Voice by Daniel Wolf (1915-1996), and carried on by Mary Perot Nichols (1926-1996) and Jack Newfield (1938-2004).  We hope that Wayne and Tom continue to write, that New Yorkers continue to read, and authorities begin to take action on the events and issues that they have so courageously and unhesitatingly called to their attention over the years.

This is the column we received today. We are proud to send it to you.

by Wayne Barrett

January 4, 2011

Ed Koch and I were inaugurated on the same day in 1978. He became mayor and I became his weekly tormentor.

I had written a few pieces for the Voice before I took over the Runnin' Scared column that January, going back as far as 1973.

But I was now inheriting a column that Mary Nichols, the Voice's editor-in-chief, had made famous, and that had been written by greats like Jack Newfield, Ken Auletta, and Joe Conason. A country kid out of Lynchburg, Virginia, where I'd founded the Teenage Republicans, I was suddenly occupying the first two pages of New York's counter-cultural crier.

Since then, I have written, by my own inexact calculation, more column inches than anyone in the history of the Voice. These will be my last.

I am 65 and a half now, and it is time for something new.

If I didn't see that, others did.

The paper has always been more than an employer to me. I turned down other jobs that paid better three times to stay here. Though my mentor Newfield used to say we got our owners "from office temporaries," and though I worked for 14 different editors, the Voice was always a place where I could express my voice. And that meant more to me than larger circulations or greater influence or bigger paychecks.

It is called a writer's paper because we decide what we will write. That is not a license to spout and I never took it as such. Across all these years, I almost never wrote in the first person and, even when I did, the piece was still packed with reportage. In my extended family, I have become the go-to guy for eulogies and I report every one of them, learning more about my mother, for example, by interviewing her sisters than she ever told me when she was alive.

When I was asked in recent years to blog frequently, I wouldn't do it unless I had something new to tell a reader, not just a clever regurgitation of someone else's reporting.

My credo has always been that the only reason readers come back to you again and again over decades is because of what you unearth for them, and that the joy of our profession is discovery, not dissertation.

There is also no other job where you get paid to tell the truth. Other professionals do sometimes tell the truth, but it's ancillary to what they do, not the purpose of their job. I was asked years ago to address the elementary school that my son attended and tell them what a reporter did and I went to the auditorium in a trenchcoat with the collar up and a notebook in a my pocket, baring it to announce that "we are detectives for the people."

When the Voice celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2005, I said "we thought a deadline meant we had to kill somebody by closing time," and that, as a liberal Democratic paper, we were "better at goring one of our own." It never mattered to me what the party or ideology was of the subject of an investigative piece; the reporting was as nonpartisan as the wrongdoing itself. I never looked past the wrist of any hand in the public till. It was the grabbing that bothered me, and there was no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the loot.

The greatest prize I've ever won for the work I've done in these pages was when Al D'Amato called me a "viper" in his memoir. Chuck Schumer, who ended D'Amato's reign after 18 years, ascribed his victory in a 2007 memoir to a story I'd written a decade earlier that devastated the incumbent Republican. What Schumer didn't say was that as soon as Hank Morris, Schumer's media guru, went up with an ad based on my revelations about D'Amato, Arthur Finkelstein, who was running D'Amato's 1998 campaign, aired a commercial about Schumer's near-indictment and flashed my nearly two-decade-old clips breaking that scandal on the screen as well. I was the maestro of a commercial duel.

Even as my scandal stories skewered David Dinkins in the 1989 and 1993 mayoral campaigns, I chronicled the devolution of his nemesis, Rudy Giuliani, from hero prosecutor to used 9/11 memorabilia salesman.

As awkwardly as I felt about it, Carl Paladino's toughest shots at Andrew Cuomo this fall were garbled renditions of two 6000-word exposes I'd done here about Cuomo's HUD record. For a week in the 2009 mayoral campaign, I couldn't turn on the TV without seeing a Bloomberg commercial drawn from my expose of Bill Thompson's conflict-ridden home mortgage. But I'd delivered one cover-story blow after another throughout the cycle about everything from the mayor's culpability in the Deutsche Bank fire debacle to his own governmental incest with Bloomberg L.P.

It was always the conduct that prodded me to write, not the person. And that is what I lived for, a chance to say something that revealed and mattered. To me, the story will always be the thing. It is all I can see.

I believe I have much left to learn, still armed with my notebook, and thus much left to tell you. It may be books or blogs or something in between. I hope to bring my trademark interns with me because they have, for more than 30 years, helped me think young, especially when it comes to the climate and water crises. The city and state beat are precious to me, but what is happening to our nation is also a frightening pull on me, so I don't know what I will wind up writing in this new life.

I have loved my bond with you and have never traded an inch of truth for a moment, or even a season, of access. I tell the young people still drawn to this duty that it is the most honorable one in America, and that I have never met a corrupt journalist. I even met one, Tom Robbins, so brave that when he heard I was leaving, he quit himself and didn't even tell me he was. "I'm going out with the guy who brought me to the dance," Robbins told me after he resigned, crafting a lede with the very fiber of his life.

"If a newspaper writes the story of its city without compromise or calculation," I wrote in that 50th anniversary piece, "it is as breathtaking as a ballet, each detail another artful step. Put us together as bound volumes in the memory of this grandest of cities and the Voice reads like a classic, ever passionate and principled."

I will pray it always does.

Henry J. Stern writes as StarQuest. Direct email to him at Peruse Mr. Stern’s writing at New York Civic.  

Wayne and Tom, we salute you. The city is in your debt, more than most New Yorkers know. – Henry J. Stern


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eHeziNew York Civic: The Last Muckrakers By Henry J. Stern

Comments 1

  1. They don’t make journalists like Wayne Barrett any more. Now, journalists take dictation or write “he said-she said” columns.
    With Jack Newfield, Barrett wrote one of the great inside inside politics books: “City for Sale: Ed Koch and the Betrayal of New York.”
    He will be missed.

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