Opinion | Dean Baquet’s practical Times race is coming to an end

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If you edit a powerful American newspaper, it pays to keep an eye on Fox News. In 2004, when he was on the Los Angeles Times, Dean Baquet tuned in to what turned out to be a notable episode of “The O’Reilly Factor.” “There was a woman who made a claim about Bill O’Reilly and he attacked her in his show,” Baquet says, referring to allegations of sexual harassment from former producer Andrea Mackris. “It just stayed with me.”

The memory came to fruition in mid-2016 when Fox News CEO Roger Ailes was kicked out of the network amid a scandal of sexual harassment. Baquet convened editors with a couple of journalists – Emily Steel and Michael S. Schmidt – and invited them to investigate O’Reilly’s past. The result landed on the Times’ website about eight months later under the headline, “Bill O’Reilly thrives on Fox News, even when the harassment settlements add up.” O’Reilly was fired from the network in April 2017, just weeks after the Times story.

The Steel-Schmidt collaboration was part of a Pulitzer-winning contribution – one of 18 won by the Times under Baquet, who is retiring as editor-in-chief in June after eight years in the job. Like those involved in the O’Reilly survey, other winners spoke to the glories of patient, steadfast reporting. The astonishing excavation of President Donald Trump’s economic history – which essentially proved tax evasion – depended on the work of three Times veterans (David Barstow, Susanne Craig and Russ Buettner) and took about 18 months to produce. The exposure of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment succeeded where previous efforts had failed. The series of stories of Russian interference in the 2016 election included a scoop on the origins of the FBI’s investigation into Russia-Trump contacts.

In a move announced last week, Baquet will hand over the newsroom to his No. 2, managing editor Joe Kahn. Masthead editors at the Times traditionally stop before the age of 66, a milestone that Baquet will reach in September, and it had been clear for several months that Kahn would replace Baquet.

So the transfer of power by the gray lady turns out to be a quiet, delightful departure from the tumult following the dismissal of Baquet’s predecessor, Jill Abramson. “Under Dean and Joe, The Times has grown stronger in pretty much every way,” said publisher AG Sulzberger.

“Virtually speaking” is a key qualification here, given that the newspaper in 2017 knelt down its copy table. But by the end of 2021, the Times had 6.7 million news product subscriptions (both print and digital). When Baquet took over, the editorial staff stood at 1,300 employees; Kahn will inherit 1,750 – 2,000 if you include Wirecutter employees, news service editors and other parts of the operation. All of these muscles have produced a series of groundbreaking journalism, mixed with occasional embarrassment – all amplified by the tinge of attention that befits the country’s most famous news brand.

Asked about his highlights as managing editor, Baquet cited the Weinstein study and the Pulitzer-winning 1619 project. Both efforts, Baquet said in an interview, “became bigger than newspaper stories. They changed the whole conversation,” Baquet said in an hour-long interview after the announcement.

Another highlight for Baquet was the O’Reilly exposure. According to Schmidt, he and Steel – who was the main reporter on the story – spent a few months gathering further accusations against O’Reilly. In the fall of 2016, they felt like they had a story; Baquet insisted they did not. “He said, find the settlements, they can not accuse the settlements,” Schmidt recalls. “And we thought, ‘What the hell – how are we going to find the settlements? They’re being sealed.”

After another six months, Steel and Schmidt had the goods settled with five women. O’Reilly was dethroned as king by cable news and banished to quarrel online and at the airport.

“Most editors do not have good story ideas,” Schmidt says. “He is the rare exception.”

Times enterprise spilled out on all sorts of platforms under Baquet. In 2017, the newspaper launched the wildly successful news podcast “The Daily” with journalist Michael Barbaro. A documentary about Britney Spears’ conservatory transformed public opinion about the injustice of the pop singer’s legal situation. And the talented NYT Cooking team has saved the reputation for internet commentary.

But the newspaper’s platform proliferation also brought disaster. In December 2020, the Times withdrew important episodes of its award-winning “Caliphate” podcast after Canadian authorities arrested its central character for cheating on his life as a terrorist. Top editors-in-chief under Baquet had previously dismissed concerns from Times staff about the reporting of “Caliphate” host Rukmini Callimachi. “Warnings … became a basis for challenging people personally and professionally,” a Times employee complained in a meeting – which Baquet and Kahn both attended.

“When you get the story wrong, it’s in my way of thinking about my fault, it’s the editor’s fault,” Baquet says. “And we took the story wrong – it’s as low as it gets, right?” Following the episode, the Times announced a plan to strengthen the audio department’s journalistic security measures. “I think what happened is that we started doing a lot of things, period. We did,” Baquet says. “We went from being a pretty much printed newspaper trying to do one. things, to be something bigger that does a lot of things. And along the way, we had some stumbles that I think we fixed. ”

Some fixation was in place after science reporter Donald McNeil took an instructional trip to the Times with high school students to Peru in the summer of 2019 and reportedly uttered the n-word in a conversation about language. Baquet handled the matter quietly at the time, but after the Daily Beast published details about the trip in January 2021, it became a public controversy. McNeil resigned under pressure. The newspaper scrapped its study travel program.

An averted crisis came just before the 2016 presidential election, when Baquet refused to disclose allegations of communication between a server for the Trump organization and Alfa Bank, Russia’s largest private bank. “There was a significant push to get it published,” Baquet says. “There was a passionate debate about it, and I thought we did not have it.”

Liz Spayd, the Times’ public editor at the time, criticized Baquet’s call. But even though the investigators behind the allegations are still behind them, the FBI dismissed the allegations as “unfounded,” according to the Times. Slate magazine, under the byline of Franklin Foer, published the story. “With all due respect to [Foer]he is a fine journalist, but I would not have written that story, ”says Baquet.

During Baquet’s era, the Times investigated everything about Trump, from his business history to his madness behind the scenes at the White House. As the Mueller report documented, the Times wrote an abridged version of Attorney General Robert S. Mueller III’s report in real time, only without the help of federal investigative tools. Of the things that Trump does not want the world to know about him, the Times has delivered a generous share.

Routine political coverage in the Baquet’s Times occasionally instilled unnecessary respectability on false and authoritarian pro-Trump rhetoric. Analysts like Dan Froomkin, Jay Rosen and Soledad O’Brien have moved on criticism after criticism after criticism after criticism after criticism after criticism of that tendency. An example comes from a piece from the Times from 2019: “The Democrats promised to conduct a sober, dignified investigation, but the enormous potential consequences of their efforts promised to turn the process into an ugly biased struggle that will almost certainly obscure the facts. ” Froomkin snuck in after the phrase, “Truth is a bouncy ball.”

Asked whether the Times has been slow to update age-old reporting conventions in the Trump era, Baquet responded in detail via email:

I think Jay Rosen is an important critic and I listen to what he has to say. I often disagree with him, but he has pressured journalists not to be so comfortable with a simplistic view of objectivity. Mine is not simplistic. I am grateful for that discussion. He will not agree with this – which is ok – but I think we have pushed more on the envelope than we get the credit for. 1619 was a powerful statement, based on deep reporting, and it came from the editorial staff. Timothy Snyder’s essays in the magazine – which is part of the editorial staff – were certainly not both sides’ journalism. We made the toughest report on the president’s finances, and we did no good. … I presented a story in November that bluntly said that “threats of violence are becoming commonplace” among parts of [Republican Party]. These stories were based on reporting. That said, The Times has a special place, and it makes us open to criticism and to being held to a high standard, and I accept that. If we are to have that role, we should be willing to listen and take some hits.

A Harvard study found that coverage in the final months of the 2016 campaign was a celebration of false equivalence, with Trump’s controversies receiving little less attention than Hillary Clinton’s controversies (read: emails). Asked whether he would adjust his paper’s own abundant Clinton email coverage in hindsight, Baquet replied: “When we covered emails, we did not know what the result would be, right? So to say, if I had knew what the outcome of the study would be – which now everyone knows in retrospect, so it’s much easier to look back on – sure we would have handled it differently. ” He correctly points out that the Times was not the only place that went heavy on emails: “Based on what we knew at the time, I would bet most people would say it was a big story at the time. “

A jargon-heavy release in September last year announced a Times trust team that will “help the company’s management establish a vision for how The Times’ report can continue to evolve to convey our values.” People do not quite understand how newspapers work, Baquet argues, mentioning at the time a colleague from the Tribune Company once admitted that he did not. “realize that the date line meant your journalists were actually there.”

“I almost fell off the chair when I heard that,” Baquet recalls, “but you know what? I think there are many readers who do not understand many of the things we all do, day in and day out. , as journalists. “

The task of the New York Times public editor – before it was phased out in 2017 – was at least in part to provide such explanations. If you have a trust team of almost a dozen employees, then there are not enough resources for such a position? Baquet:

First, as I have always pointed out, the public editor was not the creation of the executive editor. It was separated and separated. But I think it’s helpful to remember why that job was created. It was created in the wake of Jayson Blair, at a time when people had no opportunity to criticize the newspaper. They had no way of reaching out to management to say they thought a story was wrong. There were people who knew that there had been plagiarism and that some of what was in his stories was false. That is not true today. It’s pretty easy now to criticize the paper and point out big mistakes. Somehow over time, some have concluded that the public editor is the great panacea for all matters of trust. I understand the argument, but I respectfully disagree.

Although we disagree with that analysis, Baquet gets credit on the transparency front. The Erik Wemple blog learns that he has been available and responsible from the start, answered emails and agreed to take the phone to answer questions. Some big news executives – especially in television – love to glorify accountability journalism, but still find places to hide when their own organizations are messing around. Not so the outgoing editor of the New York Times.

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