A Muckraker Who Was Eulogized Even by His Targets
“Our credo must be the exposure of the plunderers, the steerers, the wirepullers, the bosses, the brokers, the campaign givers and takers … So I say: Stew, percolate, pester, track, burrow, besiege, confront, damage, level, care.”
— Wayne R. Barrett, 1945-2017, on his prayer card
By Jim Rutenberg, The New York Times
On Friday, a group of people whom the new president of the United States counts "among the most dishonest human beings on earth" gathered in a church in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn to say goodbye to one of their own, Wayne Barrett, an investigative reporter.
A rare lung disease took Mr. Barrett's life just one day before the inauguration of Donald J. Trump, who, as it happened, was one of the many powerful figures Mr. Barrett bedeviled in the old-fashioned way, with obsessively focused reporting and, whenever possible, the kind of documented facts that made it hard for politicians to claim it's sunny when it's raining.
If you go by what the White House says, the journalists who were mourning Mr. Barrett belonged to a tribe that is now so "humiliated," with such "low approval ratings" and so little "power," that it is time for these "elites" to just "shut up and listen," as the senior White House adviser, Stephen K. Bannon, put it to Michael Gynbaum of The New York Times last week.
These particular "elites" had traveled by used car, subway and gypsy cab to the church in the low-income neighborhood that Mr. Barrett championed. And in truth, no one at the service seemed ruffled by all that Washington bluster about them.
This wasn't the first time some millionaire, billionaire or politician (or combo thereof) tried to tell them to shut up. The thing was, after decades of layoffs and strikes, unrelenting economic pressure and a succession of political leaders who threw chairs and swung brooms at them—figuratively and sometimes literally—they were still there. It was the politicians and their tough-talking lieutenants who came and went.
Yes, their numbers are dwindling. And here they were, losing another revered one of their own. But Mr. Barrett appeared to time his death as an inspiring message to his colleagues that the journalistic values he represented—brutal honesty and tenacity—can and must survive him and, more important, the new administration that seems so intent on gutting them.
Despite what Mr. Trump and his aides say about journalists, those among the congregation—representing just about every major news organization based in New York—were never in it for "approval ratings" or "power."
They are in it for the same reasons that Mr. Barrett was: to follow the reporting wherever it went, however messy and imperfect the process and whatever the consequences for himself—like the time a Bronx power broker he was investigating tackled and choked him.
An openly ideological journalist who spent most of his 40-plus-year career at The Village Voice, Mr. Barrett never let people off the hook just because they leaned in the same political direction he did. And he didn't let facts become fungible for his own causes.
"Wayne was an equal-opportunity assailant to anybody he thought was violating the public trust—there's no question about that," an old friend and colleague of his, the investigative journalist Tom Robbins, told me. "He was always after the sin and not the sinner."
So it was this self-described "progressive" (along with his mentor Jack Newfield) produced much of the reporting that exposed the corruption of the Koch administration and the Democratic Party machine in Queens; blistered the administration of Gov. Mario Cuomo as the "Sleaze Team" and "Tammany Hall North"; and found alleged campaign finance abuses that almost got the current Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer—then a brand-new congressman—indicted. He also reported on financial dealings that sullied the mayoralty of David N. Dinkins.
Yet Mr. Dinkins, Mr. Schumer and Mr. Cuomo's son, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, were among the mourners on Friday.
Speaking to the congregation, Mr. Schumer said that through Mr. Barrett's work—which included a scathing piece about his presence at a birthday party for the colorful lawyer and former McCarthy aide Roy M. Cohn—"I learned a bit of humility."
When it was his turn to speak, Governor Cuomo said, "The first time I heard my father curse was talking to Wayne Barrett." The way Mr. Barrett saw it, "if you were in a position of power, you were guilty unless you could prove yourself innocent," Mr. Cuomo said.
It was something Mr. Cuomo came to accept and even admire despite his own run-ins with Mr. Barrett, who wasn't deterred by the fact that his wife, Fran McGettigan Barrett, works for the Cuomo administration. There was his Village Voice cover story pinning some of the blame for the 2008 housing crisis on Mr. Cuomo; a more recent Daily News piece knocked the governor's approach to campaign finance. And, Mr. Cuomo said, there was the haranguing phone call this month in which Mr. Barrett, speaking from his hospital bed, lit into him for his latest State of the State speech.
"At the end of the day, he did make me better at what I do," Mr. Cuomo said. "Because it highlighted the questions that you have to be aware of, your motivation when you're in power—are you using the office to its fullest? Are you being the best leader you can be? Has there been any venality in your decision?"
What Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Schumer were saying in so many words was that Mr. Barrett's tougher stories weren't acts of war, and didn't make him a member of some "opposition party." They understood his works as the proper approach to public servants whose power—and paychecks—are derived from the people.
Then again, any truly principled lover of the Constitution would appreciate the views of founders like Thomas Jefferson, who wrote to George Washington in 1792, "No government ought to be without censors: And where the press is free, no one ever will." A mouthy, adversarial and never sycophantic press has been baked into the great American cake since the earliest days of the republic.
Not all of Mr. Barrett's journalistic marks were so generous about his passing.
One of them, Roger Stone, a friend and adviser to Mr. Trump, offered a particularly acrid farewell: "Rot in hell," he wrote on Twitter.
Mr. Trump didn't comment on Mr. Barrett's death, but it's not too hard to imagine what he would have said if he had.
Mr. Barrett's reporting on Mr. Trump led to a night in an Atlantic City jail in 1990, for trespassing at his otherwise press-friendly birthday party. But it also led to the first major investigative book on the mogul—"Trump: The Deals and the Downfall"—chronicling the "tangled connections of money, politics and power in our times," as the author Nicholas Pileggi described it then.
Regan Arts rereleased it last year, as Mr. Barrett opened his old Trump files up to any investigative reporter who wanted to rifle through them (scores did). Mr. Barrett was chasing one last Trump investigation from his bed and was still doling out other Trump-related tips to friends.
He had kept going despite losing his job at The Village Voice in 2011—after it determined it could no longer afford him—driven by the belief that the truth was always gettable if you just kept digging for it.
That's a lesson for these times, as the new administration moves to shut down previously public information while denigrating the journalists committed to separating facts from its fictions.
Mr. Barrett's son, Mac Barrett, a writer, put it best at the funeral when he urged the journalists there to pick up where his father had left off, to "embody his tenacity, his moral ruthlessness, his dogged heart."
That drew a rousing, standing ovation from the mourners, who then streamed out of the building and, in many cases, headed back to their keyboards. It was late on a Friday, a new presidential order was coming down, and there was so much work to do.
(This article appeared on NYTimes.com on January 29, 2017 and in print on January 30, 2017 on page B1)