Opinion | Dean Baquet’s hands-on Times run is coming to a close

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If you’re editing a powerful U.S. newspaper, it pays to keep an eye on Fox News. In 2004, when he was at the Los Angeles Times, Dean Baquet tuned in for 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 on his show,” says Baquet, referring to the sexual harassment allegations from former producer Andrea Mackris. “That just stayed with me.”

The memory came in handy in mid-2016, when Fox News chief Roger Ailes was bounced from the network amid a sexual harassment scandal. Baquet convened editors with a pair of reporters — Emily Steel and Michael S. Schmidt — and encouraged them to examine O’Reilly’s past. The result landed on the Times’s website about eight months later under the headline, “Bill O’Reilly Thrives at Fox News, Even as 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 entry — one of 18 that the Times won under Baquet, who will retire as executive editor in June after eight years in the job. Like those involved in the O’Reilly investigation, other winners spoke to the glories of patient, steadfast reporting. The astounding excavation of President Donald Trump’s financial history — which essentially proved tax fraud — relied on the work of three Times veterans (David Barstow, Susanne Craig and Russ Buettner) and took some 18 months to produce. The exposé regarding Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment succeeded where previous efforts had failed. The series of stories on Russian interference with 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 off the newsroom to his No. 2, Managing Editor Joe Kahn. Masthead editors at the Times traditionally step down before they reach age 66, a milestone that Baquet will reach in September, and it had been clear for months that Kahn would replace Baquet.

So the transfer of power at the Gray Lady is turning out to be a quiet one, a nice departure from the tumult following the dismissal of Baquet’s predecessor, Jill Abramson. “Under Dean and Joe, The Times has grown stronger in virtually every way,” said Publisher A.G. Sulzberger.

“Virtually” is a key qualifier here, considering the newspaper in 2017 kneecapped its copy desk. But as of the end of 2021, the Times had 6.7 million news-product subscriptions (both print and digital). When Baquet took charge, the newsroom stood at 1,300 staffers; Kahn will inherit 1,750 — 2,000 if you include staffers of Wirecutter, news service editors and other parts of the operation. All that muscle has produced a run of groundbreaking journalism, mixed in with the occasional embarrassment — all amplified by the glare of attention befitting the country’s most storied news brand.

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

Another high point for Baquet was the O’Reilly exposé. According to Schmidt, he and Steel — who was the primary reporter on the story — spent a couple of months gathering additional allegations against O’Reilly. In fall 2016, they felt they had a story; Baquet insisted they didn’t. “He said find the settlements, they can’t impeach the settlements,” recalls Schmidt. “And we were like, ‘What the heck — how are we supposed to find the settlements? They’re under seal.’”

After another six months, Steel and Schmidt had the goods on settlements with five women. O’Reilly was dethroned as king of cable news and exiled to ranting online and at the airport.

“Most editors don’t have good story ideas,” says Schmidt. “He’s the rare exception.”

Times enterprise spilled onto all kinds of platforms under Baquet. In 2017, the paper launched the wildly successful “The Daily” news podcast with journalist Michael Barbaro. A documentary on Britney Spears’s conservatorship transformed public opinion on the unfairness of the pop singer’s legal predicament. And the ace NYT Cooking team has rescued the reputation of Internet comments.

But the paper’s platform sprawl brought disaster, too. In December 2020, the Times retracted key episodes of its award-winning “Caliphate” podcast after Canadian authorities arrested its central character for hoaxing his life as a terrorist. Top newsroom officials under Baquet had previously shunted aside concerns from staffers at the Times about the reporting of “Caliphate” host Rukmini Callimachi. “Warnings … became a basis to impugn people personally and professionally,” complained a Times staffer in a meeting — which Baquet and Kahn both attended.

“When you get the story wrong, to my way of thinking, it’s my fault, it’s the editor’s fault,” Baquet says. “And we got the story wrong — that’s as low as it gets, right?” Following the episode, the Times announced a plan to strengthen the audio department’s journalistic safeguards. “I think what happened is, we started doing a lot of stuff, period. We did,” says Baquet. “We went from being a largely print newspaper that tried to do one thing to being something larger that does a whole lot of stuff. And along the way we had some stumbles that I think we’ve fixed.”

Some fixing was in order after science reporter Donald McNeil did an instructional Times trip with high-school students to Peru in summer 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 of the trip in January 2021, it became a public controversy. McNeil resigned under pressure. The paper scrapped its student-travel program.

An averted crisis came just before the 2016 presidential election, when Baquet declined to publish allegations regarding communications between a server for the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank, Russia’s largest private bank. “There was significant push to get it published,” says Baquet. “There was a passionate debate about it and I thought we didn’t have it.”

Liz Spayd, the Times’s public editor at the time, criticized Baquet’s call. But though the researchers behind the claims still stand behind them, the FBI dismissed the allegations as “unfounded,” according to the Times. Slate magazine, under the byline of Franklin Foer, did publish the story. “With all due respect to [Foer], he’s a fine journalist, but I wouldn’t have written that story,” says Baquet.

During Baquet’s era, the Times investigated everything about Trump, from his business history to his behind-the-scenes lunacy in the White House. As the Mueller report documented, the Times was writing an abridged version of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report in real time, only without the assistance of federal investigative tools. Of the things that Trump doesn’t want the world to know about him, the Times has supplied a generous share.

Routine political coverage in Baquet’s Times occasionally showered undue respectability upon false and authoritarian pro-Trump talking points. Analysts such as Dan Froomkin, Jay Rosen and Soledad O’Brien have advanced critique after critique after critique after critique after critique after critique of that tendency. An example comes from a 2019 Times piece: “Democrats promised to conduct a sober, dignified inquiry, but the vast potential consequences of their endeavor promised to turn the process into an ugly partisan fight that is all but certain to eclipse the facts.” Froomkin sniped at that formulation: “Truth is a jump ball.”

Asked whether the Times has been slow to update age-old reportorial conventions in the Trump era, Baquet responded at length 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 pushed journalists to not be so comfortable with a simplistic view of objectivity. Mine isn’t simplistic. I’m grateful for that discussion. He won’t agree with this — which is ok — but I think we have pushed the envelope more than we get credit for. 1619 was a powerful statement, based on deep reporting, and it came from the newsroom. Timothy Snyder’s essays in the magazine — which is part of the newsroom — were certainly not both sides journalism. We did the toughest reporting on the president’s finances, and pulled no punches. … I pushed a story in November that flatly said that “threats of violence are becoming commonplace” among segments of the [Republican Party]. Those stories were grounded in reporting. All that said, The Times has a special place and it makes us open to criticism, and being held to a high standard, and I accept that. If we are going to hold 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 feast of false equivalency in which Trump’s controversies received slightly less attention than Hillary Clinton’s controversies (read: emails). Asked whether he would adjust his paper’s own copious Clinton-email coverage in hindsight, Baquet responded, “When we covered the emails, we didn’t know what the outcome was going to be, right? So to say if I had known what the outcome was going to be of the investigation — which now everyone knows in retrospect, so it’s a lot easier to look back on — sure we would have handled it differently.” He correctly points out that the Times wasn’t the only outlet to go heavy on the emails: “Based on what we knew then, I bet you most people would say it was a big story at the time.”

A jargon-heavy release last September announced a Times trust team that will “help the company’s leadership establish a vision for how The Times’s report can continue to evolve to convey our values.” People don’t fully understand how newspapers work, argues Baquet, mentioning the time a Tribune Company business-side colleague once confessed he didn’t “realize that the dateline meant your reporters were actually there.”

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

The remit 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 nearly a dozen staffers, aren’t there enough resources for such a position? Baquet:

First off, as I always point out, the public editor was not the creation of the executive editor. It was separate and apart. But I do think it is helpful to remember why that job was created. It was created in the aftermath of Jayson Blair, at a time when people had no way to criticize the paper. They had no way to actually reach the leadership to say they believed a story was wrong. There were people who knew there had been plagiarism and that some of what was in his stories was false. That is not true today. It is pretty easy now to criticize the paper, and to point out big mistakes. Somehow over time, some have concluded that the public editor is the great panacea to all trust issues. I get the argument, but I respectfully disagree.

Though we disagree with that analysis, Baquet gets credit on the transparency front. In the Erik Wemple Blog’s experience, he has been accessible and accountable from the start, answering emails and agreeing to get on the phone to answer questions. Some big-time news executives — especially in TV — love to glorify accountability journalism, yet find places to hide when their own organizations mess up. Not so the outgoing editor of the New York Times.

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