Remembering Wayne Barrett, the Journalist Who Saw Trump Coming Decades Ago
Adapted from without compromise: the brave journalism that exposed Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani and the American corruption epidemic for the first time.
Wayne Barrett didn't say a word about the Trump administration. He died the night before the 45th President took office. But as the many scandals of the Trump presidency began to unfold, Barrett's basic coverage of the New York real estate developer was almost ritually cited, with Barrett inevitably identified as "legendary investigative reporter Wayne Barrett."
Barrett wrote in the Village Voice nearly every week for nearly four decades, a steady accumulation of knowledge that turned into hundreds of thousands of inches. Here are just a few of those articles summarized, accompanied by reflections from journalists who have shared and continued his work. I tried to select pieces that in their entirety illustrate something of his craft and tell stories that should be remembered on this long journey. The pieces contained reveal the prehistory that shaped our present and the methods of a dogged reporter whose trading portfolio was never conjecture or polemics, but an inexorable flood of facts. Wayne Barrett believed in facts.
I'm pretty sure he didn't believe in ghosts. His mind was clear and rational. But when I pulled this volume together, I threw myself into a New York filled with the ghosts of another city, a country we sold, a robust journalism that is now piled in microfilm drawers. I took over this project at the request of Fran Barrett, Wayne's wife, because I wanted to make sure we didn't forget it. I wanted to save something of how you were taking a photo of a burning building so that you could remember what you had. It's not just about the past. Memory is also about the future and about what could still be possible. My research began with a visit to the remaining offices of the Village Voice. Like so many American newspapers, the voice died a few years ago. But what remains is a remnant, two men in an office that once housed a bunch of unruly journalists who worked like medieval monks to preserve the knowledge that the voice created. I went up the wooden stairs (the elevator was out) to the seventh floor. Jazz was great. On the fire door was a page from the newspaper, circa 1985: a Jules Feiffer cartoon about distracted media and Donald Trump, and a letter from a crooked Bronx Pole to the editor complaining about Wayne Barrett.
To prepare this book, I was preoccupied with digging, first in the map catalog, which sits in a niche with glass doors of the almost empty Voice office and holds more cryptic secrets than the Sphinx, then in bound volumes of paper, and finally in The Special Collections at the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin, where the pages that once filled the cramped second-floor office of Barrett's Brooklyn townhouse and sprawled into his basement are now neatly sorted. I amused myself thinking of Barrett in his terrible tank top and dad jeans, blinking in the shadowless Texas sun, folders under his arm, bouncing gait bigger than you thought, laser-focused and eager. It would be more fitting if the records were in a corner of Brooklyn where people are still talking out of the corner, or in some crazy city archive. But no. There are 294 boxes of New York history in Texas. You are what Wayne Barrett knew (at least what he wrote down. A library died with him).
Like a hundred other people between the early 1980s and 2016, I was a Wayne Barrett intern. He taught us all to dig. He taught us that the facts were knowable, could be acquired. That they were written down and filed somewhere. These steadfastly collected facts could reveal what was hidden and act as agents of justice. To be a journalist meant to be an honorable person, a detective for the people (not for their enemy). He was a notoriously tough boss, but also generous and kind to his protégés: he bought us dinner, listened to our worries, trained us, enjoyed our successes, offered visits to his beach house, checked in, connected us with jobs , opened doors forever. So I went to Texas without knowing what I was looking for, just to understand why that old print reporter was so important to so many of us and how it relates to what has become of our country and our profession.
I searched the boxes, followed his mind, hoping to find the right clue. I wanted to understand what drives him, what drives him so crazy. Somewhere here would be the answer to why he worked the way he did.
Most of the time, I found printouts from Nexis searches. Lawsuits and deposits and grand jury reports that shouldn't be seen by anyone. Audits and voter registration cards, presentation reports and Donald Trump's real estate license. The vulnerability study for Rudy Giuliani's mayoral campaign in 1993. Manila folders and yellow notepads with lists scribbled on them.
This is how Barrett worked: a to-do list that started out like a Hebrew Testament genealogy and findings. The results would eventually merge into a pattern of facts. And then you had a story.
The files showed that while his method was known to be document-driven, it relied heavily on physical contact. He didn't get what he learned from email inquiries to publicists. He got it from years of relationships, source and confessor, a gruff voice on the phone and the man on your doorstep. He was ready to dig and jot pay slips, knock on strangers' doors, and treat financial reports as a beach read to find out the truth. Almost none of it was online. He got it because he asked. And asked. And asked.
What I found in those boxes in the stone silence of the Briscoe Center library was the story of New York's looting, a prelude to the nation. Reading Barrett's long volume of work means realizing that year after year he documented the post-financial takeover of the city, our transformation from citizens to distracted serfs. Folder by folder was the filth of NYC's filthy history at the end of the century, the years when New York went from a working city and a creative powerhouse to a billionaires' time share. The crooks, the hacks, the poles that fill the early years of Barrett's copy are almost picaresque. You realize the guys who spoke out of their mouths at county dinner were just the front men. The ones who left with the pocket money were the men in fine suits who had gone home to live far above town. Now they are running for office and convincing some of us that they can save us.
Barrett began working as a reporter in New York in the 1970s. It is an era marked in the public consciousness by images of gutted, burned-out buildings, heaps of rubbish and catastrophic-looking subway cars - short for crime and ruin. But if the image of crime in 1970s New York is daguerreotyped in our memory, it should be this: A group of white men in suits gathered around a beautiful conference table, divided the spoils, and congratulated each other on their good work. They laid the foundation for the impossible city we now live in, and discovered that the biggest threat to NYC was that too few millionaires were comfortable around them. They used the mechanisms of poverty alleviation and direct aid in urban areas starved by segregation in order to stimulate the already rich. It was an organized pillage.
With renewed acute financial uncertainty in New York amid the COVID-induced recession and the circling profiteers poised to smash and grab, the lessons of Barrett's work are urgently relevant. In the restructured city, Donald Trump leaned off the Queens sewer. The terrible truth in those boxes in Texas is this: Donald Trump has 1,000 fathers, most of them respectable people. Most of them, New York, Democrats. Hugh Carey and Richard Ravitch. Mario Cuomo and Andrew. Ed Koch. The Urban Planning Commission and the Ministry of Finance. Roy Cohn and Roger Stone, of course. John Zuccotti (yes, aptly, Occupy Wall Street Park is named after him). In 1979 you were aware of the court-documented racism and corruption of Donald Trump. It didn't stop her from doing business with him. Donald Trump is not anything unusual or unique. It is the logical result of our task of the common good, a monster that we made ourselves. The old clubhouse machine turned into the global money set. Barrett didn't scold it. But he raved about it, meticulously collecting facts and collecting them in centimeters.
Barrett was able to document these crimes because he was safely employed. He was unionized on a publication that fell on the mayor's doorstep with a thud every week. And if he hadn't caught the offensive party this week, he'd be back next week. When knowledge became a delta, he could stand on it and see, collect memories to inform the next story, link a scam to his cousin. He was able to report this way because his focus was on local, particular and specific details that built up stories one after another.
The city and the country were better when more reporters worked this way. Barrett didn't have to attract followers or cite metrics or consider divisibility or even what the reader wanted. The reader wants food photos. But somehow also democracy.
The relationship between real journalism and healthy democracy is pretty simple. When the American and New York news industries withered and poisoned by the same whim that ransacked the city, and readers were distracted into digital conversations that produce oxygen for manipulation and propaganda, we became a country Donald Trump could choose.
It has to do with life under this president and in this distracted milieu that is only as big as our phones, which has made us feel like the country is lazy and we need to be too. That we got what we deserved.
Barrett thought differently.
On my last day at the archives, I was immersed in Barrett's past and transported into his life in the 1970s in Brownsville, Brooklyn - he wrote poetry! - when I found the photos, notes, and drafts for his first Village Voice feature. It was about a Polish Pole from Brooklyn who eventually went to jail for turning the local school district into his personal scholarship. Barrett and Fran had struggled alongside black radicals to maintain local control of this district to make it a district that took its children's education seriously. Sam Wright turned it into something grubby. Barrett's original task list stretched in a dozen directions, toward lease documents and bills for office furniture, as well as arrest reports for people who broke into stores during the 1977 power outage.
Brownsville was devastatingly poor in the late 1970s, bared from redlining and racism, the financial crisis and hopelessness. People worked together in a dozen ways to do better, and here one politician thought he could fill his own pockets. That last box contained the notes of a young man whose outrage was fresh.
What he'd learned in Brownsville provided a clear clarity that would keep Barrett focused for 40 years. While he eventually moved out of the neighborhood, he never actually left. At least it didn't leave him. Most reporters who have sufficient knowledge of domestic politics to record the dry deal accept it as a game. They trade their indignation for cynicism. But Barrett, knowing where the bodies were buried and being violent and difficult and prone to roar, never shed his indignation - or his hope. He thought we deserved better. He thought we had a right to honest leadership committed to the common good. In our governance, in our journalism. In our expectation that it could be better. This is the photo I wanted to save from the burning building.
There in the final box, in Barrett's tight, surprisingly curvaceous script, there was an assignment specific to the Sam Wright story, but it was like a slogan, "Get the Looters List. Especially those who have committed. "
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