Wayne Barrett, a legendary investigative reporter for the Village Voice, who for 37 years served as a tenacious check on New York’s powerful, died today in Manhattan. He was 71.
During his time at the paper, (see the archive) Barrett came to define a kind of big-city muckraking that relentlessly challenged the political class and wealthy business interests alike. Among his many targets was a young developer named Donald Trump; Barrett’s 1979 expose, which dissected, in minute detail, two formative land deals in Manhattan, was the first substantive reporting on Trump’s then-nascent empire. Republished last year, it details how the now president-elect established himself through nepotism, nearly unprecedented government subsidies and second-hand political connections gained through his father. Barrett continued to follow Trump’s career, and his 1993 book, Trump: The Deals and the Downfall, had a second life during its subject’s seemingly improbable rise to the presidency.
Barrett was born on July 11, 1945, in New Britain, Connecticut and grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia. He got his start with the Voice as a freelancer, before moving into a staff position in 1973. He was a tenacious chronicler of five New York City mayors, from Abe Beame in the early seventies, through the Bloomberg years. His book City for Sale: Ed Koch and the Betrayal of New York set the tone for the kind of meticulous and adversarial journalism he would practice over the decades.
Barrett was laid off from the Voice in 2010, a victim of cost cutting measures. His exit prompted the resignation, in solidarity, of Tom Robbins, another investigative powerhouse, and was widely decried in New York’s journalistic community.
Barrett continued to write long after leaving the Voice, however, working as a fellow at the Nation Institute, a nonprofit investigative reporting fund, and at commercial outlets. Even as his health declined in recent months, he still loved to talk about the world he so ably chronicled. With the accumulated knowledge gained by more than 40 years in New York journalism, a conversation with him could stretch an effortless hour, as he unleashed a torrent of information about the tangled relationships that comprise state and local politics. He knew everyone — maybe in more detail than they would have liked — and they knew him.
Barrett viewed Trump as a dangerous huckster, and was often quoted as an expert over the course of the campaign. He also went further, making available his vast cache of files on Trump to reporters scouring the president elect’s record. He even continued to break news himself — about FBI leaks to the Trump campaign — as recently as this past November.
Barrett, not one to withhold criticism of anyone, could be genial and gruff in equal measure. He was prone to outbursts of temper, but also served as a mentor for a generation of interns. His wife, Fran, who survives him, along with a son, Mac, once told the Times she was “Wayne’s liaison to the planet Earth,” helping others interpret his idiosyncrasies.
Whatever his rough edges, he was idealistic and even sentimental about his chosen career, and the importance of journalism in the world. In his final column, he wrote: “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.”
Barrett was among the first to see Trump as a significant figure in New York, but even he was surprised by Trump’s success in the campaign. When we spoke to him in July of 2015, he wasn’t sure Trump was even serious about the run, speculating that it was more of a branding exercise.
But perhaps no one understood the man better. And even during Barrett’s earliest reporting in 1979, Trump was still Trump; he both threatened Barrett with a lawsuit and subtly attempted to bribe him. At the time, Barrett lived in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, where he’d been a schoolteacher. As Barrett recalled it last summer: “He says to me, in the interview, ‘You know, Wayne, you don’t have to live in Brownsville. I can get you an apartment.’ So he had the bribery and the threat thing flowing full scale.”
Later, when Barrett was reporting his book, Trump had him arrested at his hotel in Atlantic City. Barrett had snuck through a back door, to get access to a party the developer was throwing.
“I’m not there five minutes and they slap the handcuffs on me,” Barrett told us in 2015. “Defiant trespass, I was charged with. Not just trespass, man, I was charged with defiant trespass.”
It’s a modifier that could just as easily apply to Barrett’s long career.