Wayne Barrett, an icon of New York journalism and one of the great muckrakers of our time, died Thursday.
Wayne was New York’s iconoclast-in-chief for many years, in particular the Eighties and Nineties. His 37 years of furious articles for the Village Voice regularly skewered powerful figures in all parties, from the late Queens Borough President Donald Manes to future People’s Court judge Ed Koch to the Nosferatoid Rudy Giuliani (Wayne busted Rudy for accepting a Yankees World Series ring) to Al Sharpton (Wayne called him “The Rev”) to Donald Trump, whose biography he wrote back in 1992.
He probably knew more about Donald Trump than any other reporter.
Wayne mentored dozens, if not hundreds, of reporters and media figures. I was one of them. He was my first boss; I interned for him as a 17-year-old. Mostly he sent me all over the city in search of obscure documents. If I came back to the office without a document, he would send me right back out. I once had to go back and forth to a federal records repository in Bayonne, New Jersey, three times in the same day.
Another Wayne intern was longtime Rolling Stone research chief Coco McPherson. At one point in our history, Rolling Stone had something like five “Wayne people” in the office at the same time. I imagine other New York newsrooms are similarly packed with Barrett school graduates. There are so many of us in this city that we run into each other by accident all the time.
Wayne once said reporters are “detectives for the people.” He worked like a detective, relying on countless probing conversations with people from all walks of life to uncover things.
In my mind’s eye I remember Wayne’s enormous Rolodex of sources being the size of a radial tire. He was always on the telephone. I was flabbergasted by how many people he knew around the city. If the story involved the Parking Violations Bureau, he knew three people in the Parking Violations Bureau. It was uncanny.
Wayne’s approach contrasted with that of modern reporters. Today we can go about our jobs more like lawyers, scanning the Internet for citations and links to construct neat (but often preconceived) arguments.
A lot of reporters today could move from one city to another and nothing would change. They’d still be surfing the same Internet for information. But Wayne could never have moved out of New York. He had four decades of sources here. He was physically bound to the city he covered, which is probably the way it should be.
My father Mike worked as a TV reporter for WNBC and WCBS here in New York while Wayne worked at the Voice. When he heard the bad news Thursday night, my father said of Wayne, “He was the definition of the job of ‘reporter.'”
To Wayne, that would have been the ultimate compliment, and he deserved it.