On the death of my friend & mentor William Greider

William Greider died at age 83 on Christmas Day (American News Project)

“A story is like a river,” my mentor Bill Greider used to tell me when I was a cub reporter. “A lot of reporters try to pre-write their stories and come to some pre-drawn conclusion, but a story is like a river–it flows to all kinds of places, and it’s your job as a reporter to follow it.” 

Yesterday, upon receiving the news that Bill died at age 83 on Christmas Day, I found myself thinking of that phrase “A story is like a river,” and where will the impact of Bill’s reporting flow for future generations? 

Bill was the kind of reporter, who cared more about talking to the janitor in his office building than the D.C. political pundits trying to curry his favor. He cared about the complexities of what regular people were saying then what pundits were telling us they were feeling. For years, he would always call me in the middle of labor fights so he could get the skinny on what was happening with workers on the ground. 

A New York Times bestseller, Greider was a legend in his field, but to me, he was an invaluable mentor. 

I first got to know him as a young 22-year-old labor reporter, when I had the incredible fortune to have a desk just a few feet away from Greider’s office, who was in his 70s and still writing regularly for The Nation.

I had read his seminal “Who Will Tell The People?” in college and religiously read his column in The Nation since high school. I couldn’t believe that I had a desk as a reporter right down the hall from one of my heroes. For weeks, I had tried to work up the courage to go and introduce myself to Greider.

One day, I stopped in the hallway and introduced myself briefly. He paused, said hi, asked me where I was from, and then went on his way. I was embarrassed; surely, I must have blown it. 

Then a few weeks later, I was at some fancy book reception in D.C. when Greider came up and started talking to me. 

“You are from Pittsburgh, aren’t you? This kind of shit must seem weird as fuck to you….I can’t fucking stand this shit either,” Bill told me as I burst out laughing. 

He asked me to step outside to smoke with him. An asthmatic, I didn’t smoke, but I went anyway just so that we could keep talking. He told me about how he started his career as a young labor reporter at the now-defunct The Louisville Times in the early 1960s.

Thus, he began the practice of telling me when he was going outside of our office to smoke, and I would go with him almost every time even though I didn’t smoke. Even if it were in the middle of winter, I’d go out and stand there hoping to pick up whatever sage wisdom, whatever morsel of knowledge I could glean from him as I desperately figured out how to be a labor reporter.  

He was folksy, down-to-earth, swore a lot and was funny as all hell. He was an old school journalist from the pre-internet era when journalists actually sat down and took time to talk to regular people.

He’d invite me to go get beers and burgers with lunch at Mackey’s with him (Greider would buy). Here I was 22-year-old cub reporter from a blue-collar yinzer family making $25,000, who didn’t feel like I belonged in journalism, and Bill made me feel like I belonged in journalism and that I had something valuable to say as a young labor reporter. 

A student of the populist movement, he saw the liberal elite’s discourse as being a barrier to the ability of social movements to achieve change. He encouraged me to ignore the D.C. media types and focus on calling out how the elites talked down to workers. 

“That’s journalism, people are gonna talk shit on you no matter what you say so why not just tell the truth,” said Bill. 

I still have the note on my wall that he sent me after I wrote a 2009 column on how the elite backgrounds of many on the left, prevented them from understanding how to engage in dialogue with regular working folks.

“A home run!” Bill wrote. “What you are describing is the weakness of associated ‘white hat’ organizations pushing for virtuous reforms. They don’t know how to talk to folks either. So they slide off their best opportunity for growth and influence–connecting to the broad range of Americans, who actually share progressive values, but are not consulted on the program or the strategy for achieving them.”  

“We are in an explosive moment now for politics. Keep setting off firecrackers, who knows, it may even change the landscape,” Bill wrote to me in a note of encouragement that I’ve kept on my wall for years. 

Bill knew first-hand how out-of-touch the elite were because he had grown up around them. 

He was raised in a well-to-do Republican family in the suburbs of Cincinnati and gone to Princeton, but he often said that his political education began when he started covering the labor and civil rights movement at The Louisville Times. He would tell me stories of meeting union organizers in secret locations in Kentucky because they were scared of the cops tracking them down and how the courage of these folks opened his eyes. 

Bill risked his life as a reporter in 1962 when he covered James Meredith integrating the University of Mississippi. A mob erupted into violence against the federal marshals escorting Meredith, over 300 were injured, including 100 U.S. Marshalls, and a French journalist was killed as well as two others.

His experience covering the civil rights movement made him optimistic about the ability of regular people to change politics through mass movements. 

He would later go on to write for The Washington Post, where he was an editor on Watergate and coined the term “Nader’s Raiders” as a reporter covering consumer rights movements. Later, he would go to work for Rolling Stone and The Nation, where he felt that he was finally given the freedom to write about social movements in the way he thought workers deserved. 

His book “The Secrets of Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country” was a New York Times bestseller and inspired a generation of activists around the Federal Reserve.

Bill said that no one inspired him more in his career than Lawerence Goodwyn, author of “The Populist Moment”, which Bill was constantly telling people to read. 

“He gave me the language and nerve to write seriously about the idea of Democracy,” Greider wrote in a 2013 Nation obituary of Goodwyn. 

(Watch Bill Greider’s 2010 Talk to the Chicago DSA on the impact of Larry Goodwyn’s book)

As a Midwestern, Greider loved to tell Goodwyn’s joke about “All how the authentic radicals were from the Midwest; that’s because all you Midwesterners believe all that crap about the goodness of America.”  

“It was true,” Greider told the Chicago DSA in 2010 of Goodwyn’s joke. “We still think America can get there. A lot of other folks have given up, but Midwesterners know that we are on the case and going to keep going.” 

Born in 1936, he loved telling the stories of watching the victory parades at the end of World War Two as an excited nine-year-old child. He believed firmly in the ability of Americans to do good. 

He believed that if we created the proper space for dialogue as reporters for workers to express themselves that we could spur social change in this country. 

“Creating a positive future begins in human conversation. The simplest and most powerful investment any member of a community or an organization can make is, to begin with, other people as though the answers mattered,” Bill wrote in his seminal 1992 “Who Will Tell the People?” 

Bill’s ability to sit down as an old-school reporter and hear from people was his greatest strength. It helped him score his landmark 1981 Atlantic story “The Education of David Stockman,” where Greider got Stockman to admit that Reagan’s folks had cooked the books on the theory of supply-side economics. 

“None of us really understands what’s going on with all these numbers,” Stockman admitted to Greider in a piece that shook the public’s confidence in Reaganomics.

“This was a viral moment before there were viral moments”, tweeted Atlantic Senior Editor Ron Brownstein. “It is hard to overstate how much this remarkable article convulsed Washington at the time”.

He often talked to me about how he spent a year taking Reagan’s Budget Director David Stockman out to breakfast. He told me he got to know Stockman, got him to laugh, let Stockman know him, and was able to build enough trust to get Stockman to go on the record about what he really felt about Reganomics.

(A fantastic ten-page account by Greider of how he did this can be found online in the foreword of his book “The Education of David Stockman and Other Americans” – a must-read for all journalists that can be viewed online here.)

When I would go to interview union-busters like Rick Berman, I often thought of the lessons that Greider taught me about how to build rapport and trust with people on the other side in order to get them to talk. 

Greider understood that people’s politics were complicated; and that through dialogue and organizing, we could help people identify how they could build power to beat big business. Even in the Trump era, Greider thought this could be the sign of an opening for broader conversations about wrestling control away from the economic and political elite. 

“My reading of history tells me the twists and turns in odd places are signals of change trying to happen,” Bill wrote me in an email around the time Trump was elected. 

In the spring of 2017, Bill called me while I was in Oklahoma, covering the teachers’ strike there. He was enthusiastic and thought this might be a sign that populism would take a left turn. 

“Something is happening here, Mike. Larry Goodwyn talked about how the populist movement, would swerve to the right then back to the left, as people understood the conditions affecting them,” Bill told me. 

“People are creating a dialogue, people are gaining confidence in themselves, and they know they can take power into their own hands,” Bill said of the teachers’ strikes that shock so-called “red states” throughout the country.

After I got fired for union organizing at Politico in 2015, Bill encouraged me to use my settlement to move down South to find out what was happening with workers there. He was an early subscriber to Payday Report and would often send me enthusiastic notes encouraging me to push on. 

Bill saw great hope in talking to his grandchildren about the new democratic socialist politics emerging in their generation. He asked me regularly for reports on how the Bernie movement was playing in the South, where the majority of voters under the age of 35 voted for Bernie. 

“My grandchildren are New Yorkers (lower east side) and very hip teenagers though not especially political at least until now. They all rallied to Bernie and seem quite sophisticated about it. The notion that they are drinking from the same bottle as young workers in Tennessee or Alabama or Georgia is what I call pre-revolutionary information,” Bill wrote me in an email. 

As he aged and his health became worse, I heard from him less and less, but we still managed to touch base occasions. The last I heard from Bill was in late September when he emailed me to congratulate me on my reporting about the G.M. strike. 

“I am extremely excited by your agitation at G.M.,” Bill wrote me. “I sent a copy to my grandson, who is a freshman at the University of Buffalo and ripe for inspiration and new thinking.” 

In the pursuing weeks, I tried to get ahold of Bill to give him my regular on-the-ground account of what was happening at General Motors, but he didn’t respond. In October, I was in D.C. and called him, but never heard back as I heard he was struggling with health issues. 

Today, upon hearing the news that he died, I cried so hard. I owe my career to Bill–he was a hero of mine, who gave me the confidence to push on with low pay in a media world that so often pushes blue-collar kids like me out.

As I wrote Bill’s obituary tonight, I found myself thinking of the advice Bill about “how a story is like a river.” Bill Greider’s life and work were like a river, flowing into so many of our own rivers and tributaries, we still don’t know where his work will lead so many of us. 

His work, like a river, will continue to flow in so many of us and where that river may go, I just don’t know yet – Bill wouldn’t want me to assume – our story as a nation is like a river, we never know where it will flow.

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About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing over 1,800 stories from 46 states, Elk was the only American reporter in the room with Lula on the morning of the election & traveled with him to the Oval Office. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]

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