Even in the most unrevealing interviews, New York Times editor Dean Baquet’s arrogance, cluelessness, and complete disregard for his critics – inside and outside the newsroom — comes shining through.
He is simply unable to acknowledge the major flaws that profoundly undermine the newsroom he has led for eight years. Rather, he lashes out at critics — on Twitter in particular.
New Yorker staff writer Clare Malone could have interrogated Baquet, but chose instead to lob him softballs oozing with obsequiousness then fête him. Her article out today is credulously headlined “Dean Baquet Never Wanted to Be an Editor.”
“One gets a sense of a man,” Malone wrote, “at the twilight of his career, trying to protect his institution—not only the Times but journalism more broadly.”
But what Baquet is trying to protect is what he calls “objectivity” — and what an increasing number of journalists recognize as an intense bias reflecting a comfortable, middle-aged, centrist white male perspective.
Baquet’s continued refusal to express any qualms about his paper’s wildly outsized coverage of Hillary Clinton and her relatively minor email problems in 2016 – to the great benefit of Donald Trump, whose danger the paper wildly underplayed – is evidence of a man who simply refuses to acknowledge mistakes, not to mention learn from them.
And wow is he pissed off about Twitter. He rejects it wholly – regardless of who is tweeting, what they are saying, or the constituencies they represent. And he affirmatively urges his staff to ignore it as well. He calls that his job!
“My job is to try to convince my newsroom that they should not be overly influenced by criticism from Twitter,” Baquet told Malone, “and that they shouldn’t be afraid of taking on subjects that are edgy and complicated. That they should report those subjects independently and fairly, and if Twitter doesn’t like it Twitter can jump in the lake.”
What a sad and pathetic job that is. And what a sad and pathetic statement. It precludes the notion that any “criticism from Twitter” might be of some value. It includes a strawman argument that “Twitter” doesn’t want the Times to write about “subjects that are edgy and complicated” – which is ridiculous. And it asserts that Twitter somehow objects when the Times reports “independently and fairly.” Bullshit.
All of this flies very much in the face of what Baquet’s boss, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., declared in 2017, when he eliminated the position of “public editor” that great journalists like Clark Hoyt and Margaret Sullivan had used to hold the Times accountable to its readers.
At the time, Sulzberger wrote in a memo to the newsroom that “our followers on social media and our readers across the internet have come together to collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be. Our responsibility is to empower all of those watchdogs, and to listen to them, rather than to channel their voice through a single office.”
Baquet, by contrast, told the New Yorker: “I could care less about the unnuanced voices on Twitter. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about what our readers think, but I don’t pay as much attention to Twitter as Twitter might want me to.”
Baquet also said he views Twitter as a negative influence on reporters. “Social media rewards snark and nastiness and off-the-cuff opinionating. And I worry about that. So what I’ve liked least is watching that develop within journalism. Watching smart people make fools of themselves on social media.”
The Times’s own Jonathan Weisman certainly comes to mind. So do many of its star political reporters.
Ironically, however, the behavior by Times reporters on Twitter that most often sets critics’ heads exploding is when they channel Baquet — when they respond to any criticism with condescension, defensiveness and open hostility.
And it’s not just criticism from outside the newsroom that Baquet treats with contempt. In the New Yorker interview, he contrasted the “demands” of the “next generation of Black journalists,” on the one hand, to his duty to “make sure that the New York Times is a fair-minded institution,” on the other.
It’s hardly the first time he’s cast himself as the savior of journalism, valiantly protecting it against the youngsters of color who want to center news coverage around core moral values — like equality and functional democracy — rather than triangulation and incrementalism.
Consider what Baquet told Malone about “objectivity.”
The theory that “whatever your perspective” it shouldn’t “get in the way of reporting the truth” is unassailable. But in practice at the Times, “objectivity” is the opposite. “Truth” gets filtered through a white, male prism and a devotion to the middle ground even if there is none — even if “one side” is lying, delusional and dangerous. Baquet’s “objectivity” reflects an ideology of incrementalism, solidly based on the premise that people who want to change things need to be interrogated and doubted but people who defend the status quo don’t.
“The job of the New York Times should, in the end, be to come out with the best version of the truth, with your own political opinion held in check by editors and editing,” Baquet said.
But what if it’s not “political opinion” influencing your writing, but rather a fundamental credo that democracy is good, or an informed conclusion that climate change is an existential concern, or the lived experience that systemic racism is still all around us?
His message to reporters who want to write like that is: take a hike. “Stories have power because they’re the truth and they’re deeply reported,” he said. “And I think if you want to work for the New York Times in the newsroom you have to embrace that.”
He went out of his way to praise star reporter Ellen Barry. “Ellen Barry does not fill my in-box with complaints,” he said.
Sure he values “younger millennials,” he said – but not for their moral clarity or their experiences. It’s all about what they can do for him. And in return, they should be grateful and obeisant:
They have something big to bring to the table—that’s why we hire them, that’s why we’re not simply hiring people who are just like me. What they bring to the table is passion. What they bring to the table is an understanding of, frankly, the Internet era we’re in and how to write for it, how to think about it.
What we bring to the table is the power that they get when they produce a New York Times story. And I think we just got to do some trading. You get the power, but you’ve got to accept that we are what we are, which is an independent institution, independent of party and ideology.
Malone asked: “Have you felt culturally or generationally out of step in the past couple of years with your vocal newsroom?”
Baquet’s response: “No, no, I feel extremely comfortable in my newsroom.”
Well of course he feels comfortable. I found that highly reminiscent of what departing Washington Post editor Marty Baron said in an interview last March. As I wrote at the time, the interview “showed that he was only interested in performative listening – as appearing to have listened – rather than in listening itself.”
As he has in the past, Baquet again defended the Times’s Clinton coverage. “I don’t have regrets about the Hillary Clinton e-mail stories,” he said. “It was a running news story. It was a serious F.B.I. investigation.”
He applauded the Times’s investigative reporting on Trump, and said: “I don’t buy that we were tougher on Hillary Clinton than we were on Donald Trump.”
But it shouldn’t have been close. In the most authoritative post-mortem of 2016 campaign journalism, Harvard government professor Thomas E. Patterson concluded that Clinton and Trump coverage by the major news organizations “was virtually identical in terms of its negative tone.” Patterson wrote:
Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump? It’s a question that journalists made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign. They reported all the ugly stuff they could find, and left it to the voters to decide what to make of it. Large numbers of voters concluded that the candidates’ indiscretions were equally disqualifying and made their choice, not on the candidates’ fitness for office, but on less tangible criteria—in some cases out of a belief that wildly unrealistic promises could actually be kept.
One study found that coverage of Clinton’s email scandals across news outlets “accounted for more sentences than all of Trump’s scandals combined (65,000 vs. 40,000) and more than twice as many as were devoted to all of her policy positions.”
Baquet did say that, in retrospect, “I would have covered the country a lot differently in the months leading up to the election of Donald Trump.” But it’s unclear whether he realizes the Times should have been way more critical and alarmist, or whether he simply means reporters should have talked to more Trump voters at diners.
I understand how journalists can be proud of their work. But what I’ll never understand is the ones who harbor no self-doubt. Journalism is famously the “first rough draft of history,” not the final one. That means we should welcome constructive criticism — and revisit, and sometimes revise, our work.
Baquet’s confidence is epic, and misplaced.
“I don’t want to call myself a great journalist, other people will have to decide what kind of journalist I am,” he told Malone. “But I think to run the New York Times you have to be a great, thoughtful journalist. That comes first. That’s before everything else.”
And in what we can only hope will be the last days of his tenure, Baquet looks back and tells Malone: “What did I not get done? Frankly, if I look at the list of things I wanted to accomplish… I think we did pretty well. I can’t think of anything big we didn’t pull off.”
Baquet’s interviews are always doozies. Check out my write-ups of two previous ones: New York Times editor Dean Baquet wants his reporters to keep an open — and empty — mind and Dean Baquet interview demonstrates why bothsidesism is alive and well at his New York Times.