Already a household name in New York thanks to his work at the Village Voice, journalist Wayne Barrett's continuing his journey at Newsweek. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.
Much is the same in journalist Wayne Barrett's world these days. He's still married to Fran, his wife of 42 years, and he's still passionate about his work.
There are a couple of key differences, however. He's now reporting for The Daily Beast and Newsweek editor Tina Brown, whom he calls the magazine editor of our lifetime, and the subjects of his stories have definitely changed.
"The first assignment I got was to do a piece about Kabala,” says Barrett. “I get an email from one of her editors saying ‘we want you to look at Kabala corruption,’ so I come downstairs to Fran and I say ‘I think they are sending me to Kabul.’"
Wayne Barrett is a household name for anyone in New York news or politics.
Since the 1970s's, his forum was the Village Voice, where he served as a constant thorn in the side of politicians and the powerful, but in January, Barrett himself became the story when the Voice laid him off.
Barrett still works from home in Brooklyn, and he now has a new office as a fellow at the Nation Institute.
That's not the only change.
"I’m a spoiled brat, you know, after almost 40 years at the Voice," says Barrett. "I never did an assignment from an editor in 40 years. I always assigned myself. She wants me to deal with what’s in the front of her mind rather than what’s in the front of my own, so it’s been a little bit of an adjustment for me."
Still, nothing has changed about his approach: do a lot of digging and then a lot of writing.
At the Voice, his pieces occasionally totaled up to 12,000 words.
He says he couldn't write a colorful scene if his life depended on it, but the one-time debate champion is intrigued by what he calls "fact patterns."
''You try to make a case in a narrative, and in a narrative you are trying to keep a reader, trying to grab a reader, but you have to understand and an editor has to understand that a lot of the copy is not accessible to an ordinary reader, and I thought people understood that generally in the journalism world for most of my career," says Barrett.
Barrett's passion for doing serious investigative work has never waned, but he is no longer sure of its place in the 24/7 internet world.
"If I am writing about Eric Schneiderman, am I ever going to get as many hits as somebody writing about Lindsay Lohan? I don’t think so," says Barrett. "I don’t know why I left the Voice — will probably never know — but I’ve always wondered whether hits had something to do with it."
Barrett doesn't do anything half-heartedly, even his one hobby: the beach.
He says he spent so much time in the water at his beach house that he developed something called surfer's ear, requiring surgery to remove some bone.
Even the things he doesn’t do, he doesn't do with passion.
He steers clear of novels, movies, ATMs and definitely cell phones.
"I just think it’s completely distorted our culture,” says Barrett. “We don’t even know what it is to be rude anymore."
He still has the ability to laugh at himself, such as the time when the first Governor Cuomo offered his legal services to Barrett's wife Fran.
"’If you ever need a divorce lawyer, I want you to know that I will represent you,’ and this continued for so many years, that when Andrew was elected AG, he told Fran, ‘by the way my father has passed the case on to me, and I have subpoena power, I have subpoena power,’" says Barrett.
Wayne Barrett came from a New England family – hence, he's a Red Sox fan. His father was a nuclear engineer.
But Barrett grew up primarily in Lynchburg, Virginia, and some of his future foils, like Senator Alfonse D'Amato and Mayor Rudy Giuliani, might be amused to learn that Barrett founded the Teenage Republicans of Lynchburg.
In his first week working at the local paper, Barrett got a lesson in the segregation of the time when his editor asked about a story he was writing on a hog show.
"He said ‘Wayne, is that a colored hog show or a white hog show?’ and he wasn’t talking about the hogs, you know,” says Barrett. “I said ‘I don’t know,’ he said ‘you don’t know?’ He said, ‘that’s the first question you ask around here, boy, you get back on that phone.’ By the time I got off the phone, he had the owner of the paper in the front of the newsroom, he had the managing editor, who was from Birmingham, Alabama, and they were all standing there together and I said ‘it’s a colored hog show’ and they ripped the story to shreds."
It's not every man who goes from living in that environment to the predominantly black community of Brownsville.
After attending St Joseph's University in Philadelphia and Columbia Journalism School, Barrett got a job teaching in Ocean Hill, Brownsville in 1968, and he eventually took his young bride Fran with him.
"She says I convinced her it would be like vista volunteers and we would do it for a year. We were there 14 more years," says Barrett.
Not everyone was amused.
"When I asked her father for permission to marry his daughter, he looked at his wife and said, ‘I don’t know what he is, but he’s worse than a communist,’” says Barrett.
Barrett calls his Brownsville time the best years of his life, and it is no coincidence that he came to live in a black neighborhood after seeing the indignities black people suffered in Lynchburg.
"When I saw the way people were treated in the paper where they weren’t born, they didn’t die, they didn’t get married, they couldn’t even have a hog show and get covered, it had tremendous impact on me, and I think it opened my eyes, had a lot to do with why I moved into Brownsville," says Barrett.
He started writing for the Village Voice and eventually took on many of the city's political heavyweights.
Senator D'Amato, Mayor Giuliani, about whom he's written two books, and Mayor Ed Koch, whom he now praises for using the city's money to build housing and resuscitate neighborhoods.
" I would write a sentence in a negative piece on Koch, I would have a caveat of, ‘well, he did this good,’ but I never wrote free standing pieces that said this is something good that Ed Koch did, and I think that’s just bad journalism," says Barrett.
Barrett has survived getting attacked, beaten up, trailed, and even threatened with a gun for his stories.
Much like Barrett connects growing up in Lynchburg to living in Brownsville, he says his propensity for standing up to politicians and the powerful stems from early success on the debate team.
"I think it has had a powerful impact on my journalism,” says Barrett. “I think it really has, I feel it really has, and I’ve always felt I could go toe to toe with anybody.”