New Heathens

Viva Wayne Barrett!

Ridiculous news from the Village Voice today. The Times reports that Village Voice editor Tony Ortega sacked New York investigative reporting legend Wayne Barrett.

Allegedly the Voice’s other top investigative reporter Tom Robbins quit in protest.

I interned for Wayne in the summer of 2002 and that muckraking hellraiser taught me how to report. It was Voice scuttlebutt at the time that more Barrett interns went on to be professional journalists than any others. The grind Wayne put us through was the reason why.

Each day started with a list of tasks, delivered by Wayne in a gruff growl that didn’t at all veil the righteous animosity brewing inside him toward the target of his investigation. Wayne’s temper was a legend unto itself. But it made his interns tough and was built of the man’s total and utter fearlessness.

On Wayne’s wall hung a black and white photo of a corrupt Bronx politician, Ramon S. Velez, taking a swing at him in Puerto Rico. Wayne trailed Velez down to the island to confront him for an article. The man responded by beating Wayne down.

Wayne dealt with far worse. Once in a parking garage he was savagely beaten by thugs he suspects worked for a man he was investigating. As I recall the story, they took a crowbar to him.

The fire in Wayne came from his overdeveloped sense of justice. No one, in Wayne’s mind, is inherently better than anybody else and woe on any New York politician who acted differently.

Wayne was so moved by the civil rights movement that when he came to New York City from Lynchburg, Virginia he settled his family in Brownsville, a predominantly African-American section of Brooklyn. The worst tongue-lashing I ever got from Wayne was when I mistakenly booked him a first-class ticket on a train to Washington D.C. for a trip to speak to journalism students. Wayne later, by way of apology, told a story about flying to the United Kingdom to visit his son in school. The airline made a mistake and automatically compensated by giving Wayne and his wife first-class tickets home. Wayne, who could shout like a sonofagun, let loose in the middle of Heathrow Airport and let the agent who “improved” his seats have it.

“I’m probably the only person in the history of Heathrow Airport to shout, ‘No! I will NOT fly first class!’” Wayne told me. “I don’t believe in first and second class people.”

That’s conviction. That’s Wayne.

Famously, Wayne’s arch nemesis was Rudy Giuliani, for whom he was a notorious thorn in the side. One of the major revelations in Wayne’s bestselling biography of the mayor was that Giuliani’s father had mob ties, and Giuliani didn’t even know it. (Uncovering a shady secret about the mayor’s own father, that’s hard-core investigative work.)

My favorite story was something Wayne didn’t even put in the book. While Wayne was researching the book Giuliani had begun his extramarital affair with Judy Nathan. The public didn’t know, but Wayne did. And Giuliani knew this. What Giuliani didn’t know was that Wayne, being of old-school values and integrity, didn’t give a shit who the mayor was sleeping with, only about the poor New Yorkers he was screwing. Wayne wasn’t going to write about the affair in his book.

But Giuliani thought he would. So in a pre-emptive strike Giuliani publicly confessed to his affair. In the process he called Wayne a “pantysniffer.”

Of that incident Wayne said, “If he’s the one having the affair, and I wasn’t going to write about it in my book, then who’s the real pantysniffer?”

Wayne’s first journalism gig – and this impressed me greatly – was covering Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 candidacy for president. Wayne was there on April 4th in Indianapolis when, speaking before a predominantly African-American crowd, RFK broke the tragic news that Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated in Memphis. In his speech RFK alluded to his own brother’s assassination, something he rarely spoke about, and delivered a message of tolerance that was credited with preventing a riot. Wayne reported it all.

Wayne left the campaign trail just days before RFK himself was gunned down in Los Angeles.

Wayne taught his interns to bang on doors, make the phone calls, not take “no comment” for an answer and request documents under the Freedom of Information Act. I shared a byline with Wayne on one story, shedding light on research done by David Armor, a man New York State, then run by governor George Pataki, paid a quarter million dollars to testify in court as to why New York City schools should not receive equal education dollars as upstate schools. (Hint: because Armor believed that the minorities in NYC schools were of a different class than their often-whiter upstate peers.)

Canning Wayne will go down as one of the Village Voice’s stupidest acts on its shameful slink from investigative journalism bible to total porno catalogue.

Thankfully Wayne, by his own estimation, leaves behind more words typed for the Village Voice than any other reporter. And crop upon crop of his fire-hardened interns are out in the world, writing books, working for papers and carrying with them a hot flash of Wayne’s passion. Perhaps the most glorious of Wayne's former interns is the Gonzo-heir, Matt Taibbi. Read another former intern's recollections in Mother Jones.

This shouldn’t sound like a eulogy. Wayne’s an accomplished author and journalism teacher. His work will continue. His firing is a far worse deal for the Village Voice than it is for Wayne. Wayne's farewell column is outstanding.

I last had the pleasure of spending time with the man about a year ago at a dinner with a few of his former interns in an apartment on the Upper East Side. As we set up the scheduling Wayne, knowing I contributed reporting to the New York Times from New Jersey, told me to pay attention to the article he’d just put up on the web about New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Chris Christie .

“I found out," Wayne told me, "his family has ties to the mob."

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