With Jill Abramson about to take the reins as executive editor of The New York Times, one of the paper’s leading writers is also taking on a management role. David Leonhardt, the “Economic Scene” columnist and winner of the most recent Pulitzer Prize for commentary, will become chief of the Times’s Washington, D.C. bureau after Labor Day. (The outgoing bureau chief, Dean Baquet, has been promoted to succeed Abramson as managing editor.)
As he prepares for his new job, Leonhardt spoke Monday with CJR contributor Greg Marx. He said no decision had been made about a number of internal-to-the-Times issues—such as who his deputy chiefs will be, and how often and in what format he will continue to write—but spoke at length about why he took on the assignment, and what he sees as the role of the press in standing up for truth in political battles. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Let’s start with the basics about your new assignment. What does a Washington bureau chief do? You had a pretty great job before, so what appealed to you about taking on this new role?
The Times is organized in a series of departments, most of which are visible to readers as sections—Metro, BizDay, National, Sports, Style, and so on. Washington is one of the departments, but it does not have its own section, so you don’t see “Washington” in the paper every day. Washington contributes to the National space, and obviously to the front page, to the foreign space, to the business space, to Science, and other places. The bureau chief is the head of the Washington department, and so what you’re doing is, along with a team of other editors, managing the Washington report—figuring out what kinds of stories we should be doing, and how we should be doing them.
And you’re right, I did have a really good job. But I always knew that at some point I would want to be an editor, and this was just too good of an opportunity to do it. There are a great group of people working in the bureau. The story is obviously enormously important, and it’s the beginning of a new administration here at the Times. The combination of all those things added up to it not being a difficult call, in spite of how much I liked my old job.
That’s a pretty wide-ranging set of topics. How do you plan to get up to speed on big issues that are outside your area of expertise, like national security?
I didn’t get into journalism just to be an economics reporter—I loved it, but it isn’t my only interest. And one of the things I’m most excited about is the chance to learn about new areas like national security, and to be able to do it alongside the best national security journalistic team in the country. It’s something that Dean Baquet really took to, himself. He came into this job with not an enormous amount of national security experience, and I think everyone, starting with Dean, would agree that one of his favorite parts of the job, and one of the most important, was his role with national security, because of how interested he got in it.
Perhaps more important than that, though, is the fact that there are a lot of editors here, and we all come with our own set of backgrounds. None of us has a reporting background that fits the paper’s report, or even one department’s report. We all agree that there is nothing about my selection that is a signal that we’re going to move toward a greater emphasis on economic policy than we’ve already had. It’s just that every editor needs to have some kind of background, and mine happens to be more in domestic policy and economic policy.
To focus on economic policy for a moment, your farewell column was in part a catalogue of things we know about the nature of our economic challenges. But many policymakers wouldn’t acknowledge that all the things you say we know are actually known. So how do you structure press coverage—in individual stories and broader orientation—to deal with that disconnect?
Our job as the Washington bureau is obviously not to recommend policy to the Congress, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that’s a little different than my previous job. Our job instead is to cover what’s actually happening and cover it in a clear-eyed way that doesn’t rely alone on what people are saying. And those aren’t always obvious calls—you can often find someone, somewhere, who will dispute something that many people consider to be an objective truth.