Not since the turn of the 20th century has New York been blessed with finer journalists. In the beginning of the last century, Lincoln Steffens and Jacob Riis were the muck rakers. Steffens tried to rouse the public to take action against the misdeeds of government and corporate leaders. Jacob Riis, a Danish immigrant, was the pioneer of photo journalism. He took his camera into the miserable tenement slums of the city. Depicting the plight of the poor, he wrote a book called “How the Other Half Lives.”
Wayne Barrett was let go from Village Voice, as that alternative weekly faces financial troubles. Tom Robbins announced simultaneously that he was leaving the Voice to show his solidarity with Barrett. A former Voice editor, Don Forst, commented with sadness: “With the loss of Wayne and Tom they lost Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.”
Like Steffens and Riis, these men were pillars of good journalism. Their departure not only leaves a tremendous void in New York, it tells the story of what afflicts journalism itself throughout the nation: the triumph of monetary considerations over the moral responsibility to inform and reform our society.
Through the years of the 20th century even the most mercenary of newspaper owners were, above all, conscious of their duty to inform the public and they backed their reporters to the hilt. It was not just a matter of right or wrong---but common sense. The ethics of good journalism in this era, alas, seems to have been forgotten.
Barrett, in his distinguished career, collaborated with the late Jack Newfield. Their book,”City for Sale: Ed Koch and the Betrayal of New York” chronicled the eruption of corruption in the Koch administration. Robbins has steadfastly fought corruption through several administrations at City Hall.
Their work inspired prosecutors like Rudy Giuliani to pursue wrongdoing in the ranks of politicians and underworld figures. Later in his career, Barrett found fault in Giuliani’s record and pursued him just as hard as he had the corrupt government and gangster people. Barrett has admitted he failed to spot the wrongdoing by the prosecutor himself.
Robbins was zealous in his pursuit of corruption. He held the leaders at City Hall and the State House accountable for the misdeeds of their agencies. He pursued wrongdoing with passion.
We have lost two of our best muck rakers---and we can only hope that, among the young people entering journalism, we may find some who seek to follow in their footsteps. It won’t be easy.