For those unfamiliar with the recent controversy surrounding a New York Times article plumbing the protestations over the naming of the Webb telescope, it unfolded like this.
Critics of the telescope’s namesake, James Webb, say that over 60 years ago he committed an offense that veered into today’s cancellation territory. According to his accusers, Webb, NASA’s second administrator who served under four presidents, was not only a homophobe, he was instrumental in a Truman/Eisenhower-era house cleaning of gays from government jobs. But was he really?
Enter Michael Powell, who late last year set out to answer that question. And in the Times December 19, 2022 edition, a story by Powell ran bearing this subhead: “Did the former head of NASA discriminate against gay people? One physicist tried to rebut the accusation, only to find himself the target of attacks.”
That physicist was Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi, an African American man who teaches at Florida Tech and is the president of the National Society of Black Physicists. Dr. Oluseyi investigated the charges against Webb and wrote a carefully sourced essay that, as Powell reports, included this statement: “I can say conclusively that there is zero evidence that Webb is guilty of the allegations against him.”
After the article’s publication, Powell found himself a target of allegations from multiple critics, including Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a cosmologist at the University of New Hampshire, who is quoted in the article and wrote a lengthy blog rebuttal of the piece.
Powell’s article, which cites over 20 sources, prompted some to brand Powell a “racist,” which he, of course, denies and finds rather ironic since, as he says, “If there is anyone who is sort of championed in that piece, based on my reporting, it is a black physicist.”
Two years before the Webb dust up, in a Jewish Insider profile, Powell made clear how he feels about criticism of his work. “You’re going to take a lot of flak at some point,” he said, “but to some extent, if you don’t like that, then you should get out of journalism.”
Powell not only accepts the flak as part of his job, he seems to almost relish wading into a controversy, and to the dismay of liberals and conservatives alike, producing work that relentlessly displays multiple points of view. Jesse Drucker, who is currently an investigative reporter for the Business desk at the Times, and who worked with and was mentored by Powell at The New York Observer, calls Powell “totally fearless,” adding, “He’s not afraid to go where the story goes.”
Drucker gives this as an example of Powell’s fearlessness: “When he worked at New York Newsday at the height of the crack epidemic, he went and lived in a crack house in Bushwick for a month. There aren’t too many reporters who would do that.”
A fixture at six newspapers
Powell, who during his career has worked at six different newspapers, joined the Times in 2007, which happens to be the same year Carolyn Ryan, now a Times managing editor, joined the paper. In 2012, Ryan offered Powell a spot as the Gotham columnist for the Metro Section. Since Powell is a lifelong New Yorker who says the city is “woven into my DNA,” he seemed “an ideal choice,” according to Ryan.
She notes among Powell’s qualifications for the job his quintessential New York experience as a cab driver in the city, also his time as an activist working as a tenant organizer in East Flatbush Brooklyn. “Michael understood the city’s politics,” she says, “and he could write really quickly on deadline, and write on a range of subjects. And, he has a heart and could find human stories as well.”
Without question, Powell got Big Apple politics, and his fearlessness guided his education. According to Drucker, “When he was at Newsday, Michael was basically Rudy Giuliani’s most hated reporter.”
At the Observer, Drucker and Powell did “dozens of stories together” under the banner “The Rudy Watch,” including a story they did “documenting Rudy Giuliani’s lies.” The story, headlined, “How Can We Put This…Rudy Is a Fibber!” featured a cartoon of Giuliani as Pinocchio.
When Powell next moved to The Washington Post in 1996, he became a colleague of the current executive editor of the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Merida. “We sat next to each other doing political reporting from the Style Section feature lens,” says Merida. “We were growing our muscles together. Bouncing ideas off each other, applauding and booing each other and talking about stories together, and talking about our kids together, and we became friends, really good friends.”
Describing Powell’s process, Drucker says, “He is a total shoe leather reporter,” adding about their time working together, “He was often out of the office working, but when he was in the office, he was on the phone all day long, just call after call.” Merida says of Powell, “He has such an active mind. You can see Michael always working out his thought process about stories in real time. He would workshop his thoughts and ideas.”
From Gotham to the sports desk
And Powell put that active mind, and his penchant for “human stories,” to work for two years as the Gotham columnist. Then, in 2014, Powell left his Gotham beat and moved to the Times sports desk. But before leaving, he wrote a first-person farewell column that reveals much about how he approaches his work.
“To wander Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights and Elmhurst and interview transvestite prostitutes from Ecuador and find a fascinating Colombian who had opened a wonderful jazz club, Terraza 7, and mothers who worked 15 hours a day in restaurants for $5 an hour was to see a new New York given flesh and bone.”
He also describes in his farewell an important lesson he learned from his wanderings. “Writing a city column can be wonderfully destructive of certainty,” he wrote. “Often I thought I had decoded an issue, a character, and then I stumbled out and talked to New Yorkers and they confounded my thinking.”
While moving from Bushwick to sports might seem an odd choice, Carolyn Ryan says of Powell’s move, “Michael has a big, broad appetite for stories and I think sports kind of opened a window that allowed him to tell different kinds of stories.”
Powell says of his sports days, “I had complete freedom to write with my own voice because I was a columnist.” And he could pick his topics: “On the one hand I could do the NBA finals, on the other hand I could do social issues stuff. I dealt with race, class, gender, Title IX and the travesty involved with that.”
But he was “getting restless” while witnessing “the great tumult in our culture” and while he did write about it occasionally, “There was,” as he describes it, “this sense of kind of doing it around the corner. You were doing it indirectly. And I wanted to engage with the culture.”
In a way, Powell’s time writing about sports set the stage for one of the biggest moves of his career. Two years ago, after confiding with Carolyn Ryan, Powell moved to the Times news desk where, last December, he wrote a controversial story about, of all things, the naming of a telescope.
And if you survey Powell’s output over the past two years, you will find stories about everything from “Inside a Battle Over Race, Class and Power at Smith College” to “The ACLU Faces an Identity Crisis as Free Speech Collides with Other Causes” to a recent story about a transgender female athlete, “What Lia Thomas Could Mean for Women’s Elite Sports.”
Asked about Powell and her decision to move him from sports to a beat where he could most certainly wade into the hottest of hot topics, Ryan offers a description of just what sets Michael Powell apart as a journalist:
“We needed somebody who was deeply experienced at covering controversies in a panoramic way, who was experienced enough that they wouldn’t get intimidated or really shaken by some of the criticisms on Twitter and elsewhere.”
The beat also needed, according to Ryan, “Somebody who is really independent minded and willing to follow reporting wherever it took them, somebody who has a spine. Michael has a spine and a heart. And he is very, very, careful. Any question that you ask him as an editor he has already considered and reported out.”
Michael Powell currently lives, yes, in Brooklyn with his wife, the mother of his two grown sons who is herself a midwife. And when you speak to his colleagues about Michael Powell the man, the husband, the father, the friend, they all mention his heart, his humanity. Merida says of him, “I really admire the guy, I think he is a tremendous journalist and a really lovely human being.” And Drucker sums it up this way, “He’s just a total mensch.”