The Village Voice alternative news weekly in New York City lost two legendary muckraking reporters this week: Wayne Barrett was laid off, and Tom Robbins quit soon after in solidarity. Barrett worked at the Voice for nearly four decades. He exposed corruption and broke stories on New York’s elected officials, from Ed Koch to Al D’Amato to Rudy Giuliani. Barrett joins us in our studio. “It makes you live and breathe, a good story,” Barrett says. “I hope to write a few more, but I’ve loved writing the ones I’ve written so far.” [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: The Village Voice has lost two of its legendary muckracking reporters: Wayne Barrett and Tom Robbins.
Barrett worked at the Voice for nearly four decades. He was fired as the weekly alternative was facing ongoing financial troubles. Barrett announced his departure in a column published on the Voice website on Tuesday morning. He wrote, quote, “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.”
Tom Robbins, who first started working at the Village Voice in the 1980s, said he would quit the paper at the end of January in a show of solidarity with Wayne Barrett.
AMY GOODMAN: The announcement caused quite a stir. The New York Times said, quote, “What becomes of New York’s most formidable muckraking paper when two of its greatest muckrakers are gone?” A former Village Voice editor, Don Forst, said, quote, “With the loss of Wayne and Tom, they lost Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.”
This is not the first shakeup at the Village Voice. Four years ago, the paper, facing financial problems, merged with New Times Media. A few months later, Jim Ridgeway, one of the paper’s top investigative reporters, was fired, and two of its prize-winning writers resigned. In 2008, the Voice fired legendary columnist Nat Hentoff. Now, Wayne Barrett and Tom Robbins are gone, as well.
Barrett began working at the Village Voice in 1973. He exposed corruption and broke stories on New York’s elected officials, from Ed Koch to Al D’Amato, from Rudy Giuliani to Chuck Schumer. In 1989 he co-wrote the acclaimed book City for Sale: Ed Koch and the Betrayal of New York. His most recent book is Grand Illusion: The Untold Story of Rudy Giuliani and 9/11. Wayne Barrett joins us in our studio today.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
WAYNE BARRETT: Thanks so much for having me, Amy and Juan.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised?
WAYNE BARRETT: I was terribly surprised. I should add, as a devoted Red Sox fan, that it —- and Forst knows that, that it was really -—
AMY GOODMAN: Well, he’s from Boston, right?
WAYNE BARRETT: Yes. It was really, really Ted Williams and Manny Ramirez that got iced.
AMY GOODMAN: So, how were you told?
WAYNE BARRETT: I just got an email from the boss, and said, “Come on in for a meeting.” And I was closing a cover, so I said, “Well, could we put this off for a few days?” because I had no idea that this was going to happen. But I was — I had just interviewed the subject of the story, who happens to be Al Sharpton. I just got off the phone when I got this email. And so, I went into the office, and then he said Tom Robbins was going to join the meeting. And Tom is the union rep for the Voice. Juan knows that well from his days at the Daily News. He’s our union fighter. So, anyway, that was a pretty bad sign. And so, we go into the meeting, and they basically just said — Tony just said — I mean, he praised my work. He just said, “This is a budget issue.” I’m an expensive asset of the paper —- I think I was an asset. “And we’re going to have to let you go.” So, they gave me a very generous severance package. It was a great disappointment to me, but I really do -—
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been there for more than 40 years.
WAYNE BARRETT: Yeah. It does seem to me to open a lot of doors for me, and I don’t — you know, I’m not ready to hang up these fingers.
AMY GOODMAN: You came into office, if you will, into your office at the Village Voice, the same day as Ed Koch?
WAYNE BARRETT: Well, I started the column. I wrote before — I wrote for the Voice before that. But I got the “Running Scared” column, which — don’t confuse it with the current website, the blog on the current website. But I got the “Running Scared” column, which then was the first two pages in the newspaper and was kind of — really the center of our local political coverage. I got that in 1978, the same day as Ed Koch. But I had written some for the paper before that. But it was that column, which, really, in those days was, I think, a central, central part of the politics of New York. I inherited it from people like Newfield, Jack Newfield. Ken Auletta used to write it, you know, in his progressive days. And lots of — Joe Conason — lots of great people. Jeff Greenfield wrote it a few times. So lots of great people wrote that column.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, the amazing thing is —
WAYNE BARRETT: I think Mike Daly did, from your paper.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, yes.
WAYNE BARRETT: I think Mike Daly wrote “Running Scared,” yeah.
JUAN GONZALEZ: The amazing thing, obviously, the rest of the journalism community was stunned, because everyone knows the storied history of the Voice and its role in unearthing stories that the regular dailies never did. And it’s almost as if there’s no more reason to read the Voice, after you and Tom leave, and all the others who wrote there and have ended up, like Nat Hentoff and Jim Ridgeway, being cut loose by the paper as it seeks to find its niche or market. And it appears that there’s no more room in commercial media, whether it’s alternative or the regular dailies, for in-depth reporting.
WAYNE BARRETT: Well, we don’t know what’s going to happen next at the Voice. You know, Tony Ortega is the editor-in-chief. I’m just telling you, he’s an extremely capable young man. Extremely capable. I don’t know if he has a plan to make the paper do great things in the future, but I know he has the ability to do it. And, you know, the paper does have some economic problems. Every paper does. You know, I don’t see this as the end of the paper in some way. I think it may be passing into some new era, which, you know, there’s a lot of promising young journalists in town. I’m very dismayed about some of the things that happened at the paper, you know, but at the same time, I certainly don’t want to write its epitaph. And, you know, I gave most of my life to it. I hope it prospers.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Let’s talk about some of those great stories that you broke over the years, because I don’t think there’s a politician in town who has not, at one point or another — or major politician in town who has not, at one point or another, been the subject of your scrutiny.
WAYNE BARRETT: I tried, yeah.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And talk, first of all, about Ed Koch and your relationship with Ed Koch, and then go on to Rudy Guiliani, as well.
WAYNE BARRETT: Well, what’s really astonishing, if — the New York Times story, they actually quote Ed Koch as saying, “His reporting, superb.” Now, that is about the most gracious thing that I have seen. Now, he could have figured out a way — he’s a very capable guy with his tongue — he could have figured out a way to be nice in an obit, right? But he really — that was really a very generous comment. So it’s a little hard for me to kick him around this morning.
But, you know, the problem — what we did with Ed Koch — and it wasn’t just me; this was a great team at the _Voice. Newfield was very much involved in this at that time, and he brought me to the Voice, he was my mentor.
AMY GOODMAN: Jack Newfield?
WAYNE BARRETT: Yes. And I — you know, but what we were — you know, we were looking at the Koch administration. Here’s the guy who beat Carmine DeSapio, beat the Democratic machine in New York, and then he became a machine mayor who was so linked to the party bosses, all of whom wound up going to jail or killing themselves. And so, this was — we were really the reform newspaper of New York. And here was this guy who we thought was a reformer, who, I think, betrayed the reform movement in very fundamental ways. And then, of course, the question of race was the question that dogged him throughout his administration. Now, Koch did — in his final term, he did the most remarkable thing that still has, I think, transformed the life of the city in many ways, which was he started using city funds, capital funds, to build housing. It had never been done before. Billions have been spent on it since. And it has transformed neighborhoods. And so, he launched something in his final term that was extraordinarily significant, and I think it’s his legacy.
AMY GOODMAN: You wrote in your final piece about the Voice celebrating its 50th anniversary, something you wrote then: “We thought a deadline meant we had to kill somebody by closing time.”
WAYNE BARRETT: Yes, yes, yes. And we were happy to do it.
AMY GOODMAN: And when your kid asked you to come to class to talk about what it meant to be a journalist, you dressed up?
WAYNE BARRETT: Yeah, I put on a trench coat. This was — he was in elementary school, public elementary school, right down the block. And I go down there with a trench coat. I put the collar up. You know, I had the notebook in my pocket. I pulled the notebook out. This is in the auditorium; it was the whole school. You know, it was not just a class. I pulled a notebook out. I said, “We are detectives for the people.”
AMY GOODMAN: And do you think reporters still are?
WAYNE BARRETT: Yes. Yes, I do. I just think — you know, when you look around at the scandals, the troubles, so many professions, how often is it that we ever hear anything about a corrupt journalist? And it’s not because other journalists are covering up for corrupt journalists. We find them the most — they’re a very, very rare commodity, journalists who would take money for a story or to not write a story. We never hear these things. I mean, we hear about corrupt lawyers. We know all kinds of things about every profession that makes us shake sometimes. But ours is such an honorable profession, a great profession. There’s lots of flaws in the media, but no, I think it’s — and I see all these good young people. I teach a little bit up at Columbia Journalism. I have had an army of interns for the Voice. I mean literally hundreds of interns that have worked with me over the years.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s your entire staff — right? — there, is volunteer interns.
WAYNE BARRETT: Yeah. I love to work with young people, and I see great promise in the young people. It’s amazing that they’re still so drawn to this profession, because we don’t have a business model that works, really. You have a business model that works, you know, but we don’t have a business model that works in the print business. And yet, people are still flooding to this profession. And I think they’re drawn to it because we’re truth tellers. You know, these are idealistic people. They want to make a reasonable living. But it’s still a beacon of a profession, I think.
AMY GOODMAN: You wrote in your last column about what you considered your greatest award, your greatest honor.
WAYNE BARRETT: Yes. You know, Al D’Amato, who, you know, is —
JUAN GONZALEZ: The former New York senator, for those who are younger.
WAYNE BARRETT: Yes, the former — yes, he’s, you know, the Republican senator from 1980 through 1998 in New York, finally defeated by Chuck Schumer in 1998. And he was the most powerful Republican in New York state for many years. He may still be, as a lobbyist, the most powerful Republican in New York state — just an insidious force in every way. And so, my greatest journalistic prize was when he called me a “viper” in his memoir. It’s — I want it on my tombstone.
AMY GOODMAN: Viper for the people.
WAYNE BARRETT: Yes, viper for the people, yeah.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And talk about some of the other relationships and stories you’ve gone after. Rudy Guiliani, you had a love-hate relationship with him for over many years.
WAYNE BARRETT: Well, yeah. Well, you know, I always thought that — you know, that great documentary, Hoop Dreams, you know. Did I miss some things in the early career of Rudy, especially the Haitian issue and how he dealt with that? Yeah, it was a blind spot. But by and large, I think he was an outstanding United States attorney; to this day, I believe that. And so, I was an admirer of his when he was United States attorney in the Southern District. I knew him very well. But I don’t think I was seduced.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Right.
WAYNE BARRETT: I think he still has a record that stands the test of time as a federal prosecutor. But if you were to do a Hoop Dreams-like documentary on him and see what kind of a transformation has occurred with this man, I thought he was a person — he went after Ed Meese, Ronald Reagan’s closest friend, who was his boss and the attorney general of the United States. He sent an assistant into a trial in a summation of the jury to denounce the attorney general he worked for as a sleaze, in a summation, in a summation to the jury. So he really demonstrated an enormous independence at that time. And to see the public figure he became, I describe him as a used 9/11 memorabilia salesman now. You know, this is all he does is, still, travel the country selling 9/11.
AMY GOODMAN: Where was he — this is a question, Juan, you were asking the other day. Where was he, until — well, at the very end, came out — and Governor Pataki, when it came to the 9/11 bill in Washington? Two major Republican figures, both presidential ambitions, when it came to pushing for that bill.
WAYNE BARRETT: Well, Rudy, at the end — as you say, Rudy, at the end, finally did say some of the right things. But he’s been — I think — I don’t think Rudy’s done. I mean, he’s done as a presidential candidate, but I don’t think he’s done as a possible vice-presidential candidate. I think that’s what he’s thinking. You see him praising Sarah Palin all the time. And he would be the natural as — you know, you’re going to have to buttress her national security credentials. And even though whatever his claim is to national security credentials is so incredibly dubious, that any — a minute of inspection would tell — that’s still, you know, the way the media treats him and the way he presents himself, as if he’s a great warrior, he understands how to protect America. So, she made need that if she’s the nominee, and Rudy has a natural card to play there.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Al Sharpton.
WAYNE BARRETT: Yeah.
JUAN GONZALEZ: You’ve covered him for decades now.
WAYNE BARRETT: Yeah.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And another one for which you’ve had a very contentious relationship.
WAYNE BARRETT: Yeah.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you talk about how you’ve chronicled him over the years and your relationship?
WAYNE BARRETT: Well, I always say the worst two people on my beat are the two Als: you know, D’Amato and Sharpton. I mean, Sharpton is — Sharpton — I just was interviewed by Lesley Stahl, who’s — they’re going to do a 60 Minutes portrait of Al Sharpton. I think it’s going to air either this Sunday or next Sunday. And I think I was the token negative voice. I obviously haven’t seen the whole thing, so maybe there are 20 negative voices there. But I certainly got the impression it was a very positive — a very positive piece. And it was Pete Hamill and myself being interviewed by Lesley Stahl in a bar. And, you know, the theme of it seemed to be the new Al Sharpton, the Al Sharpton that Barack Obama — inexplicably, as far as I’m concerned — has wrapped his arms around, just because he prefers him to Jesse, because of all sorts of problems that occurred over time in Chicago.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Michael Bloomberg has wrapped his arms around him.
WAYNE BARRETT: Oh, Michael Bloomberg is completely wrapped. I mean, I think they’ve had three press conferences with him on different issues — one by Ray Kelly and two by the Mayor himself —- in recent weeks. They might as well make him a deputy mayor. He could handle the next snowstorm. Yes. So, and then you got -—
At any rate, the terrible thing, really, Lesley Stahl is asking Pete and I questions, and the theme seems to be the new Sharpton. And I said I met him when he was about 16, which I did. I come from the same neighborhood he does: Ocean Hill, Brownsville. I said he was a young preacher then. I said he was a hustler then, he’s a hustler now. The only thing that’s happened is the hustle has gotten bigger. And that’s — you know, I think that’s basically the M.O. of Al Sharpton. He is — it is really — to me, he could be the next Jeremiah Wright, in terms of the next election, because the Republicans, I think, are sitting and waiting and watching. And I would not be at all surprised to see, because I think it’s a terrible mistake by Obama to attach himself so much to Sharpton — I would not be surprised to see them try to turn him into a real issue in the next presidential election, you know, and he could blow up in Obama’s face.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet, his fighting for racial justice in this country and continually putting that on the forefront, a figure that media will quote —
WAYNE BARRETT: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —- media will have him on their TV shows. And -—
WAYNE BARRETT: Yes, you know, I just — I didn’t know about this. You guys probably do. There’s this rape that occurred in the Dunbar houses in West Palm Beach, Florida, where this black woman was raped by, I think, up to 10 young black men in her apartment in this public housing project. They made her give oral sex to her 12-year-old son. They put her in a bathtub and dumped chemicals all over her. Sharpton went down to defend these guys in West Palm Beach and to say, “Well, there’s these white boys over in Boca Raton that are getting bail, and they did a gang rape. Why are they getting” — you know, and I’m telling you, the blowback from black women across the United States — you read the blogs, you look at the history of it — it was just remarkable. And so then Tamika Mallory, who is the national director of his National Action Network, then starts responding to the blogs by, believe it or not, bringing up how Al Sharpton has always been a great defender of black women. He cites — they cite Tawana Brawley. “He’s always stood up against rape of black women.” When it’s a proven hoax, and they’re still calling this card out. So, that’s the kind of way in which the Sharptons sometimes say the right things about public issues. He often does. I’ll sit there and watch him on television, and I’ll say, “I agree with everything the guy is saying.”
But look, he just did this thing in New York politics where he sat out the gubernatorial election. He basically championed one candidate for the city council in Queens. And he was implicitly supporting — in some ways, explicitly supporting — Charles Barron, who was running on an independent line against Andrew Cuomo. So, Charles Barron, as candidate for governor, comes in dead last of six or seven candidates, gets 20,000 votes statewide. His candidate for city council in Queens, who he campaigned for in a way that I have never seen him campaign in a local election, gets wiped out. Black voters reject him every time they get a chance to do so. And yet, the white media still empowers him. I mean, he got eight percent of the vote when he ran for president, in New York state. John Kerry wiped him out in Harlem. And yet, still, the media treats him as if he’s this great spokesperson for black people.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Wayne, I wanted to ask you to say something about your comrade-in-arms, Tom Robbins, and his decision to resign in protest. And then, just give us a sense of what’s next for you.
WAYNE BARRETT: Yeah, well, I wrote this blog saying goodbye, and I had a line in there, which Tom asked me to take out, and I took out. But since the Times has now revealed that he gave his kidney to a friend, I wrote — I think I’m now authorized to say the line that he asked me to take out. He said it was private biz then, but the Times has now printed that he gave his kidney to a friend now. And I wrote that he gave a kidney to a friend, but he saved the rest of his body parts for me.
And, you know, we walk out of the paper. He’s been in on all these meetings, you know, that happened that day. We’re going to the subway together. And he says, “Oh, by the way, I went in and told Tony, 'I came in with this guy, I'm going out with this guy. I quit.’” He never had mentioned to me that he was going to do it, thinking about doing it. He told me about it after he did it. So, he’s just one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever known. He’s just an extraordinary — I tried to persuade him not to do this. I really tried to persuade him not to do it. I even said to him, “Tom, if they fired you before they fired me, I wouldn’t quit.” You know. And he said, “You wouldn’t?” I’m trying to persuade him, you know, “Keep the paper going. You know, that’s what counts.” You know, but he was determined to do it, and I’m terribly honored that he did it. And you know what a guy he is. He’s just the most stand-up guy you’ll ever know.
AMY GOODMAN: Your plans now?
WAYNE BARRETT: Well, you know, the good people at the Nation Institute — I was there yesterday afternoon for the first time — have, you know, given me a place to hang my hat. And the Nation Institute is connected to The Nation magazine, but it is not The Nation magazine. And they help fund stories, individual stories. This doesn’t involve a wage for me. It may involve a small stipend. But it does give me an office. It gives me databases. It gives me what we all need in this life, an institutional email address. You know, otherwise, you just got your personal email address. So, it’s going to be terrific to work out of there. And I’ll write stories. I may write books. And I’ve been astonished at the number of people who have called me. Would you believe I’m going to have a byline in the New York Post on Sunday? They asked me to write something for the — and it’s not about me. You know, so…
AMY GOODMAN: And your advice to young journalists?
WAYNE BARRETT: Well, you can’t find a better job. Let’s just hope the guys who make the money figure out how to keep the model of a newspaper going. It’s a great job. And I’ve loved every minute of my years at the Voice, and I think I’ll love whatever time I have left to hit the keys, because it’s just such a great job.
Juan has done this wonderful story about CityTime, you know, which is a big scandal in New York City in the Bloomberg administration. And he knows —
AMY GOODMAN: And Juan really exposed this story, the biggest scandal.
WAYNE BARRETT: Yes, yes, right. And when you have a story like that, you know, which so materially affects the politics of a city in such a fundamental way — and I’ve had a few of those — you know, there just isn’t a greater reward than that. The story is the thing, as Juan knows and you know. And it just — it makes you live and breathe, a good story. And I hope to write a few more, but I’ve loved writing the ones I’ve written so far.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, it’s our loss as a city that they’ve let you go, but we know you’re going to resurrect yourself in a new format.
WAYNE BARRETT: Thanks so much.
AMY GOODMAN: Keep wearing that trench coat, even in the snow today.
WAYNE BARRETT: OK.
AMY GOODMAN: OK, Wayne Barrett, former senior editor at the Village Voice, has worked there since 1973, now will be a fellow at the Nation Institute.