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Journalists Are Still 'Detectives For The People' Despite Fake News


Finally today, I wanted to say a few words about Wayne Barrett, an author and journalist who died last Thursday at the age of 71. As my NPR colleague David Folkenflik pointed out in an obituary about him - if you haven't lived in New York, you might not have heard of him, but if you follow New York politics, you could not miss him. He spent nearly four decades at the Village Voice and wrote four books based on his reporting. A 1992 biography about Donald Trump then known mainly for his splashy real estate deals didn't get much attention when it was first published, but the book got new life last year for obvious reasons.

Wayne Barrett was a hero to a whole generation of New York reporters for his doggedness in pursuing subjects who did not particularly appreciate his attention, but there was one story about him I didn't know until I read it in a piece for the local news blog patch.com. Reporter Colin Miner says that back in 1990 when Barrett was working on his Trump biography, Barrett went to Trump Castle, a casino then owned by Mr. Trump who was celebrating his birthday there. Barrett planned to make his way in among the many other reporters who had been allowed in so he could make his case for an interview. It was not to be. First, he was blocked by security guards, so he slipped into the ballroom by another entrance where he was promptly arrested for something called defiant trespass. As reporter Colin Miner quotes him, Barrett wrote (reading) when I was chained to the wall in an Atlantic City holding pen for hours that night by cops who were moonlighting for Donald, I finally began to get the point.

Trump decided not to cooperate with this book. And why did Barrett go through all that? Because Barrett saw reporters as, quote, "detectives for the people." Can I just tell you I'm recounting this for two reasons? The first reason is that whether you think Wayne Barrett's methods are appropriate or not, that is how journalists are supposed to see themselves, as people working on behalf of the people to find out the truth about things that matter. I'm talking real reporters, not the fake ones making up fake stories to get advertising revenue or pushing stories they know aren't true, nor am I talking about political provocateurs who use the instruments of journalism to push their ideological ends. At the end of the day, they don't care what's true either. They only care about what's useful to them, to whatever cause they started out with.

I think this is important to say right now because as our senior vice president for news Michael Oreskes pointed out in a piece he posted on npr.org earlier this week, the right of working journalists to do their jobs shouldn't be up for debate. Unfortunately, it has been at various points in our history, and as the blow-up this weekend about the fairly trivial matter of how many people actually attended the inauguration demonstrates, it is so again. This is not a partisan issue as Michael Oreskes also pointed out. The Obama administration repeatedly tangled with journalists to the point of threatening journalists with prison over leak investigations related to national security. We do not relish such fights, although we may recount them with humor or brio after the fact.

The truth is it is not pleasant to confront those in power or even others who happen to be popular. But those are fights we must have because they are necessary in a democracy. Journalists give citizens the information they need to make the decisions they are called upon to make.

But the second reason I'm saying all this is that many of us in the media are realizing or remembering that the work of the Wayne Barretts of the world holding the powerful accountable is a necessary, but not sufficient condition of our mission. We need to be with the less powerful and the powerless to tell their stories, to document their joys and pains and sorrows. President Trump said he was returning the power to the people. We're coming, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.