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Wayne’s World

What we still need to learn from an investigative giant

I can pinpoint the moment when I realized I loved Wayne Barrett, a man who regularly screamed at me and my fellow interns with the enthusiasm of a charismatic minister and a profane vocabulary favored by longshoremen. It was hour five or six of our marathon interview with Joe Scarborough at some Midtown white-tablecloth joint that was anxious to get us the hell out. Wayne was leaning into Scarborough, repeating questions from the first hour, about how Joe had given legal advice to a man accused of murdering an abortion doctor in North Florida prior to Scarborough’s heady ascent to Congress during the Republican Revolution of 1994.

This was back in early 2008, and Scarborough, the budget-obsessed attack dog of the Newt Congress, was a rising star at liberal MSNBC. His entire shtick then consisted of praising Democratic primary dark-horse Barack Obama and bagging on the right’s time-tested nemesis, Hillary Clinton. For reasons not fully clear to me until his many-thousand-word story came out, Wayne had decided that Scarborough’s liberal renaissance was worth a fisking in the middle of this heated primary season. It wasn’t that Clinton wasn’t worthy of criticism; rather, that Wayne knew Scarborough was a media-milking skink with an agenda. And so he’d had me and my colleagues flush out every school classmate and every Pensacola attorney who’d ever known Scarborough until the fratty television statue picked up a phone, called Wayne, and asked him why the fuck the reporter’s interns were talking to everyone in his life.

Scarborough agreed to sit for the dinner interview, probably expecting it to last an hour or two. In hour three, he called somebody to check on his kids. In hour four, his long frame drooped over the table. And then, in hour five (or six), forced to revisit his past life as a cop-car-chasing demagogue, he melted in his seat across from me, his eyes glazing under a ballcap—maybe Alabama or the Yankees, both seem plausible now—and he shot me a look of tired exasperation, like I would understand his pain. This fucking guy, the look seemed to say. You’re really with this guy?

Up to that point, I’d still been vaguely starstruck. I was a young journalist in the making, and Scarborough was a guy I’d read about for years, and often seen on TV. Somehow, Wayne had made him materialize in a restaurant and answer questions. But something about Scarborough’s look pissed me off; he’d let the aw-shucks, guitar-playing, faintly jockish polite-guy mask slip ever so slightly to reveal a look that I recognized, in the semaphoric body language of the unconsoled, three-sheets-to-the-wind bro, as Middle-Aged White Man Can’t Believe This Is Happening To Him.

I looked back with my best Believe It, Shut The Fuck Up And Answer The Goddamn Questions look. I doubt I looked very convincing. But Wayne caught it, I think. Eventually, Scarborough did answer the goddamn questions, and Wayne produced a dense, far-ranging cover story that landed with a thud in 2008. Still, much of it resonates with me today: a paean to an expert phony whose studied simulation of charisma makes him a darling of politics and media, not in spite of his many hypocrisies, but because of them. “Many viewers block out—or simply don’t know much about—a résumé” as partisan (and amoral, and devoid of achievement) as Scarborough’s, Wayne wrote. It was important, he thought, for media consumers to know when they were being manipulated, and how.

The True Faith

Wayne took a shine to me after he dressed me down, publicly and floridly, for showing up late on the first day of my internship under him at the Village Voice. To his evident surprise, I still came back for work the next day. As we got to know each other, some key deeper affinities emerged. He’d gone to a Catholic college in Philly, the same as much of my family before me. He’d considered the priesthood; I’d considered a career in the Navy, though a few years in uniform cured me of it. I think my exposure to parish Catholicism, my respect for institutions, and my contempt for the men who ruined them appealed to Wayne. He was the sort of guy who asked all the annoying questions in Sunday school—not because he didn’t believe in the dogmas, but because he believed that if you’re going to commit to the Mother Church and all that it entails, don’t be a hypocrite about it.

That’s the thing about being Catholic: true believers know that if you’re going to judge sin, you’d better be rigorous in the sifting and the arguing. Whether he was composing punchy Runnin’ Scared columns—his investigative platform at the Voice—or multi-thousand-word jeremiads like his Scarborough feature, Wayne’s stories demanded a scholastic’s rigor in the reader. You think Rudy Giuliani is a scoundrel and you want all these details on his houses, his women? Great, but you’re going to have to process the intricacies of this scam or that, taking careful note of the ways that scoundrels like Giuliani and his cronies conceal their trespasses. You’ll also need to parse the absurd cant they use in interviews and depositions to cover the slime-encrusted trail of whatever vice they gorged on this week. Wayne’s specialty was reverse-clickbait—not a status-share but a status-read: if you wanted to damn The Man and you hadn’t studied Wayne’s catalog of The Man’s warts, you were simply a poser. It doesn’t matter that you’re picketing on the right side of the street if you don’t know the goddamn neighborhood.

Contrast Wayne’s legacy with the Trumpworthy approach to Today’s Content. In today’s mediasphere, headlines are crafted not merely to grab eyeballs but to jerk knees and get share-buttons clicked.

Investigative reporters are insecure and imprudently curious. It drives our work and it savages our lives.

And somehow, all the twitching and the Pavlovian sharing is supposed to create a viable personal brand through conspicuous consumption. Except here nothing is actually consumed and certainly nothing is digested; it’s just cooked in short order, plated and passed around till it’s cold and moldy and forgotten. We come hungry to the internet and TV and, occasionally, quaintly, the magazine and the tabloid. We pick something off the menu, rave about it to our friends and kin, then rush off without eating, hungrier than ever. We come to value the appetite more than fullness.

Wayne’s journalism made you sit down and chew your food. Maybe every meal didn’t please your palate, but many more of them did, and you were always happy for the nourishment.

Wayne died the day before Donald John Trump of Queens was inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States. Since then—before then, to be honest—I’ve been adrift, dumb, immobile, confounded by my world. And then, a while ago, an editor emailed me to ask me for a piece on Wayne. This all has a point, I swear. I’m just getting to it now.

The Waylaid Press

The idea, you see, was to explain to you, dear Baffler reader, just how desperately we now need, in the truth-averse media scene of Trumpworld, more Wayne Barretts and more of the journalism he produced. I am, at this point, an old hand at the Wayne Tribute genre, having written what I could on the occasions of his forced semi-retirement and his passing. I already knew this would be my last one, because no matter how much you love a man, you shouldn’t keep dipping your quill in his well to get a byline. There’s no rule about that, but there should be: a tragicomic Rule Of Three.

I thought I knew what I would write here. I couldn’t write it. Like, for months I couldn’t write it. I dealt with hurricane damage to my recently bought fixer-upper starter home, had two of my periodic mini-breakdowns, blew all my deadlines, didn’t check in.

It wasn’t a writer’s block. It was that the truth is hard and bleak and it isn’t the rousing St. Crispin’s Day oratory I fear my editor had wished for. The truth is that there are a lot of Waynes out there, and they aren’t making much of a fucking difference.

This is, of course, a depressive generalization. But it’s also an unavoidable fact of our ever more pinched, recursive public discourse. Across America, there are muckrakers at alt-weeklies and respectable metros and grant-funded blogs, getting politicians embarrassed, cops fired, policies changed. Keeping communities educated, titillated, enraged, involved—these things are good things, the most important things, and they shouldn’t be dismissed as mere blips on our collective conscience. But of course, the local backbiting commissioner’s consulting contracts aren’t what’s making you and me contemplate death as a potential net positive from day to day in America, 2017 C.E.

So let’s talk about the state of the investigative reporter, shall we? First, Wayne lives on in the interns he trained and the journalists he worked with. They’re at the big papers, big magazines, and other places where such meticulous, indefatigable fact-sifters thrive: attorneys’ offices, nonprofit boards, consultancies. But the journalism—my god, the journalism. The work that Jennifer Gonnerman alone has done to fight institutional racism and penal insanity in America in a few decades is enough to confer sainthood in my book. Matt Taibbi’s metaphor of a vampire squid for Goldman Sachs—the lede in a Gilgamesh-like epic account of America’s mercenary spirit—may have made up a sea creature, but it fixed the enemy in the open. Timothy L. O’Brien’s book on Trump was so devastatingly on point that Trump’s lawsuit against him turned into a shitshow—and a deposition transcript—for the ages. All of them, Wayne interns. That’s just scratching the surface. Ten or so researchers a year for God knows how many years? It adds up. It’s a robust dharma transmission line.

And it’s just a fraction of the Waynegeist out there in the media of late. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be so Trump-blinded that we forget that 2015 and 2016 were a renaissance of sorts for investigative reporting. Buzzfeed, CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Talking Points Memo, the Properties Formerly Known As Fusion And Gawker and more all went long and deep on big investigative teams, with splashy multimedia and companion video programming. They were good. They were glorious. They went all out on every penny Donald John Trump ever promised to charities and didn’t give, or paid with other people’s money. They surfaced tapes of a shitty man saying shitty things. They tugged at the Russia connections, as they were right to do. They exposed voter suppression. They followed the money on the right, on the left, and over in Panama. They kicked ass and took names. They got attaboys from celebrities. They won Pulitzers.

And yet. And yet. Donald Trump is president. Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie, the Kushners, Roger fucking Stone, virtually all the goons Barrett stilettoed have seats somewhere near-ish to the Dear Leader. (The latter ratfucking weasel can’t resist tapping his dumbass dowdy wingtips on Wayne’s grave.) Other goons, like Scarborough, continue apace with their made-for-TV #Resistance makeovers. And Wayne Barrett is dead. The investigative renaissance? Much of it was liquidated when media bosses witlessly pivoted to video and realized advertising dollars would flee to escapist therapy posing as journalism of the left, right, or center. It doesn’t take a summer soldier or sunshine patriot in the newsroom to look at our current crisis and wonder: What the fuck is the point of any of this?

Pivoting to Nothing

And so I find myself coming to a very dark hinge moment in this essay. Would I like more Waynes? Sure. But I wouldn’t wish this profession on anyone now, not even the bottom-dwelling jingoists of the fashy cyber-right. We are not fucked because we don’t have enough Waynes. We are fucked because we have a country full of Waynes who don’t have any real, stop-the-capital-M-madness power.

It’s not simply that journalists don’t control their means of production—quite the opposite. But regardless of whether we’re masthead stars, journeymen, or random vloggers, and without any clear assurance that our reporting will yield indictments, reforms, or justice—the sorts of real-life impacts that persuade most of us to dive into this challenging, often fruitless, monastic vocation—we suffer from a largely unacknowledged mission-creep toward a noncommittal middle. Even as bars to entry were lowered for writers and the costs of digital publishing shot downward, we knowledge workers are all pressed into the service of status-quo-celebrating values that neither we, nor our bosses, nor their executives or advertisers, fully control. The positive power that our bosses have is to reward us for making readers happy. The negative power is to discourage us, often without a word, from writing unpleasant truths—unpleasant for advertisers, unpleasant for boards, unpleasant for their flailing brands.

This is the flip side of the media-revenues problem. Every media publisher now floats, out of desperate necessity, from jury-rigged profit model to jury-rigged profit model: Online first! Kill print altogether! Blogs! Snapchat! And Facebook Facebook Facebook! If you want to know how a media executive, publisher or editor looks and sounds when they lie, ask them about their thoughts on audience growth outside of Facebook. It’s like asking the local mayor what your city has done to prepare for global warming: They’ll stop talking only when you tell them to, relieving them of the pressure to actually, you know, come up with a solution.

Following the Money Only So Far

Here’s but one brief anecdote that sticks with me from the past traumatic decade of my work life. I was fortunate enough to be on one of the only U.S.-based teams participating in the Panama Papers investigative consortium, owing almost entirely to the drive and connections of one journalist who worked with me. But even with the consortium’s nod, we still needed to get our participation greenlit by our corporate bosses.

The potential misgivings for a media executive were many: Offshore money laundering didn’t make sexy TV imagery; the stories tumbling out of this massive document dump were all dense and hard to follow; worse, they led mostly to further suspicions and damning but opaque connections, which Standards and Practices wouldn’t let us report; and not least, reporting on all this dark-money malfeasance sucked resources that could be used to produce television hours that were less frightening to advertisers.

We won permission to participate, with two caveats: First, we had to assure management that a certain prime-time network news program with deep resources wasn’t also participating in the investigation. Second, we should check the Panama Papers database to make sure there were no embarrassments to our extended corporate family contained there.

We could use more Waynes—but what we really need is a media ecosystem that nourishes the Waynes and cultivates them, rather than salting their soil.

I can’t honestly say which was more insulting to me: that request, or the presumption that my team hadn’t already done exactly that. Of course we’d run the names of all the entities whose investments fed us. Investigative reporters are insecure and imprudently curious. It drives our work and it savages our lives.

Was I supposed to tell you a more horrific story full of dirty actors sinking our intrepid journalism? That’s not really how discourse-control works in this culture industry; its horrors are not often flashy. We wrote some stories. We wrestled with Standards and lawyers and published what we could. It was good. Our work also benefited from the rigor imposed on us by the network suits—even as their worries also increased pressure on us to hit our deadlines, update our trackers, and deal with the other 800 potential catastrophes in our overstuffed, undermanned workflows that could win us a lawsuit or a severance package. A risk-averse corporate culture—the sort that wanted to own a profitably irreverent family of media sites, but not the sites’ vaguely potentially actionable old content—rarely overtly censored us but made us intuitively develop censorious tendencies about what we covered and how.

Bad News Bulls

The funny thing about the culture industry is that its finest workings are so mundane, so insidery, that they feel impossible for an insider to fully articulate. All I can say is I have never seen journalists—and media executives—as frightened as they were by everything in 2016. And that was before Trump mobs started in with their beatings and two-minutes hates. This was an economic fear that colored editorial decisions so fully and so naturally that it was easy to miss. A fish doesn’t wonder much about the rising water temperature; he’s probably only vaguely aware of the water.

The point is that there are no editorial decisions that aren’t economic decisions. I’m not going to pretend that the old, newspaper-age “church-state separation” between editorial and advertising was magically exempt from a stultifying capitalist logic; it was mostly just a structure that worked to convince enough consumers of a news outlet’s credibility to make it consumable and profitable. That’s not how you establish your journalistic credibility anymore, and it’s certainly not how you make money. You make money, for now, by connecting, via Facebook, to people’s passions and prejudices. You don’t use carrots and sticks on these potential readers: You use sugar, cocaine, molly, Infowars dietary supplements, and a Gorilla Mindset.

Like I said: We’re fucked. In my last two sentimental, hard-charging reminiscences of Wayne Barrett, I spent very little time on the sad epilogue to his glorious career. Wayne was pushed out at the Village Voice, as the revenue-starved suits there eagerly shed a huge chunk of payroll that was always a loss-leader in the best of times. It was a move that probably would have come much sooner—as it did for so many in that newsroom—if the Voice hadn’t been a union shop. His interns were unpaid, though he took great pains to get us bylines and stories of our own, at 50 cents a word. He had more ideas than places willing to purchase and publish them. So did I, till my well ran largely dry last year, wondering at the use of it.

We could use more Waynes—but what we really need is a media ecosystem that nourishes the Waynes and cultivates them, rather than salting their soil. We need more benefactors for bad news. We need more people to consume bad news. We need to recognize the interplay between the infantilizing, self-edifying therapy that media-on-demand offers us and the warm, childlike sense of deference and disengagement that Trump and his regime expect of us. I suppose, in other words, that we need more optimism, cogency, and energy than I can muster anymore. So there you have it: I need a little more Wayne, just like the rest of us.