Wayne Barrett: Time for Something New
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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.