Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Wayne Barrett: Hail and Farewell

It is with great regret that we receive the news that Wayne Barrett will no longer be annoying any and everyone from his usual Village Voice perch. Here's his farewell epistle: "Ed Koch and I were inaugurated on the same day in 1978. He became mayor and I became his weekly tormentor...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."

What a great loss-and clearly it wasn't done in the classiest way-even though Wayne remains classy to the end in his characterization of the canning: "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."

And what a voice it is-taking on the powerful with-as is often erroneously said about lesser lights-without fear or favor. He was an equal opportunity scold whose scolding enlightened us all: "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."

Who can forget his Rudy Giuliani tour de force? A professor of ours once said that to criticize someone or something you should be able to do so immanently-from within, and by doing so giving justice to the subject or the idea. Wayne did that with Rudy, did he ever. He was so far within Giuliani that to say he got under the former mayor's skin is to do the phrase a gross injustice. And in reading the Barrett biography of Rudy we got an intimate glimpse of why-as we have said so often-Rudy's slogan of, "One City One Standard," should have been, (only if by that he meant) the, "double standard."

Shockingly, in the NY Times account of the Barrett and Roberts leaving of the Voice, there is no valedictory comment from the acerbic former mayor-although Ed Koch, who Barrett helped skewer in his famous City fo Sale, demonstrated true menschlikeit by telling the Times: “In terms of the quality of his reportage: superb.”

Jim Dwyer underscores this in the Observer: "It is a colossal loss," he said. "There is more historical knowledge about city government and politics between those two guys than you find in most newsrooms. So much of what we know about power in the city comes from those two guys." "Dwyer singled out Barrett's work on Rudy Giuliani, which he said provided insight into what motivates the sometimes bizarre behavior of the former mayor..."

When all the media was airbrushing Al Sharpton, Barrett told the truth about the skeeviness of this shakedown artist, racial arsonist, and former FBI informer. Wayne didn't pick sides, he picked you apart: "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."

Not the conduct, perhaps, but the misconduct-as he did for both Bloomberg and Thompson in the last election cycle: "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."

We don't always agree with Wayne's take on things-and we come at politics from a different ideological perspective. But one thing we share with him is an absolute intolerance for cant-even if his job allows for an even greater freedom of expression of exposing that cant without needing to pull his punches.
And what more can we say about Barrett's partner in grime, the intrepid Tom Robbins-who told his bosses, in good Johnny Paycheck fashion, to, "Take this Job and Shove it," when he heard that Barrett was being let go: "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."

Barrett's departure leaves us that much poorer-and that much less protected from the malefactors who are attracted to the political process. His style and substantive contribution simply cannot be duplicated. If anyone deserves the characterization of sui generis, it is the inimitable Wayne Barrett: reporter!