Reporting on the Issues That Set Our Brains on Fire

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From the years of his youth when he worked as a New York City cabdriver, the Times reporter Michael Powell has retained a mastery at switching lanes. A reporter and columnist at several newspapers, he joined The Times in 2007 and has covered national political campaigns and reported for the Business desk. He wrote the Gotham column for the Metropolitan section and was the Sports of The Times columnist for six years.

Last year, he embarked on a beat whose stories don’t lend themselves to quick takes but require more nuance and words to unspool: free speech and expression. This assignment comes at a time of division and rancor in the United States over issues of race, class and gender, and how we talk about them.

The following conversation with Mr. Powell about his recent work has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How would you describe your beat?

The idea is to report out and think about, as clearly and exhaustively as possible, issues that are setting fire on our brains and emotions right now: race, class, privilege, gender.

For all sorts of good reasons, people feel absolutely fervent about these issues. But if you allow yourself to get caught up in a set of strongly held beliefs, that’s problematic in developing a complex view of the world, and The New York Times harbors the admirable conceit that it will cover the world in all of its complexity.

We need to tackle the areas that I’m writing about as fearlessly and from as many perspectives as possible.

What explains your focus on venerable liberal institutions, such as Smith College and the American Civil Liberties Union?

It’s core to the beat. How they translate this cultural moment into policy, into discipline; to what extent do, for instance, colleges find themselves promulgating regulations that are arguably illiberal and coming too quickly to conclusions — all of these are features of intellectual life now. That seems very much worth exploring.

If there’s been a frustration with this beat, it’s been the resolute unwillingness of so many liberal institutions to engage. Some of it is fear. When I looked at the elite private school Grace Church, there were certainly powerful people I spoke to in the community who said, “Yeah, we’ve got a problem. We’re using a too-blunt instrument to discuss race and class, and to get kids to talk about it, without cowing them into silence for fear of saying something that is seen as not correct.” They would acknowledge this. But nobody at Grace would talk on the record.

The A.C.L.U. was the exception. David Cole, the legal director, and Anthony Romero, the executive director, got on the phone for long, interesting conversations. The A.C.L.U. walked the walk for an institution that is devoted to free speech.

Some argue that censorious political activity regarding pro-Palestinian activism or discussion of critical race theory in schools shows that the most dangerous attacks on free speech come from the right. Yet these topics do not show up in your columns. Why not?

I would like to take a look at the mandates around the teaching of history. It is something that we’ve reported on rather extensively. If you were to go back and look at what we’ve done on Texas and the prohibitions against teaching — forget critical race theory, just teaching the history of Texas — we’ve done very good reporting. There’s less urgency for me to do that.

Both on the left and right, I’m interested in people who are iconoclastic thinkers. If I hear about a Black Marxist disinvited from speaking to the Democratic Socialists of America or feminist legal scholars who object to Obama administration policies on sexual assault and harassment, let me at them.

What do you enjoy, and what don’t you enjoy, about this beat?

I’m free to follow my nose. I get to call up intellectuals like Adolph Reed and have long conversations with them. I get to order more books from the Strand than I could read in three lifetimes.

After an article is published, the first hour or two is some kind of exquisite torture. You’re waiting to find out if somebody will come back and say, “You got this wrong,” or, “You misstated my position.” Those are the same worries I had when I was starting out as a journalist at 23, only now it’s worse. You’re aware these are third-rail issues. People are going to be reading very, very closely.

But if you’re not interested in controversy, if you’re not interested in cutting against the grain, why be a reporter?

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