The NY Times’s New Top Editor in D.C.

A conversation with incoming Washington bureau chief David Leonhardt

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.

I think the important thing to say is there is no escaping those decisions. You can’t simply say, well, we are only going to accept objective truths that are universally acknowledged to be objective truths, because almost nothing is universally acknowledged. So where do you draw the line? Do you say, we’re going to acknowledge all objective truths that in polls 95% of Americans acknowledge? Do you say we’re going to draw it at 80%? And I don’t think you can ultimately hand over that decision to some kind of numerical measure.

We already make those decisions. For example, we cover the deficit as if the notion that the U.S. is on an unsustainable fiscal path is an objective truth. There are some people who essentially reject that truth, but we don’t let the existence of that opinion sway us from covering the deficit story in a way that acknowledges that we have long-term unsustainability problem. We acknowledge some of the uncertainty about that problem. We do not say the way to solve it is X or Y. But we start from a base that the Congressional Budget Office and the vast majority of economists who say that we cannot continue on this fiscal path are correct.

Are there other areas in which you think that necessary decision has been evaded?

That’s probably a better question for me to try to answer in six months or a year, and I’m happy to try to do so. I don’t really feel like I’m qualified to answer it now. The only thing I’m going to say is that we didn’t get together as a bureau at any point and decide the deficit was a problem, nor did the press corps as a whole, anymore than we got together as a bureau and decided that the fact the earth orbits the sun was a fact. The funny thing is making these calls is not always obvious, and yet we can’t escape making them.

And sometimes we need to acknowledge that there is no such call—sometimes we need to acknowledge that, you know what, we don’t know what’ll happen if the government raises taxes. I don’t mean to suggest you can always say there is some large universal truth. But I certainly think we already do in many cases, and that’s part of our jobs.

That same column offered an indictment of a political culture that does not, in your words, “spend enough time focusing on our actual economic problems.” Does that criticism apply to the orientation of press coverage as well, or do you intend it only for policy makers and political elites?

I think it applies to policy makers, I think it applies to political elites, I think it applies to the press, and while this won’t win me an election, I think it applies to the American public. I think we have a society-wide problem of not focusing enough on what our real economic problems are. My favorite example is that when you read the polls, you emerge thinking that the American public is strongly in favor of the deficit. They don’t say that, but they don’t want their taxes raised and they don’t want Social Security or Medicare changed significantly. They don’t really want much major spending changed significantly, when you look at specifics. And so I do think that critique applies to the press, but I think of that as a symptom of a larger issue.

A couple more questions in this vein, and I appreciate you indulging me and playing press critic. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the performance of the Times, or the D.C. press corps more broadly, on the economic policy debates of the last few years. Are there particular episodes where you think the press would have been better served by taking some of the advice your offering?

I think we at the Times did a good job covering the housing bubble, but I’ll also offer a critique there. When major policy-makers at the head of large government institutions were saying there was no housing bubble and there couldn’t be one, and when huge lobbying groups like the National Association of Realtors were saying the same thing, we insisted that there could be—in all kinds of ways, in reported stories on the front page, in columns by people like Floyd Norris, in big takeouts for our real estate section. We said again and again: Look, we don’t know what’s going to happen, but relative to any measure you have, it sure looks like housing prices are really high. And we were at times fairly viciously criticized for that.

What’s interesting is that, in retrospect, we weren’t skeptical enough. We went a lot further than a lot of other people did, but anyone who reads our coverage now, or reads my own coverage now, would conclude that we didn’t go far enough. We were still too affected by the conventional wisdom that even if housing prices fall they probably won’t fall by much, and they probably won’t cause a recession.

The personal lesson I take from that is we can’t just go forth bullheaded, say “We’re on a good story and we’re going to pursue it no matter what.” But we also need to ask ourselves whether we are being overly affected by the conventional wisdom. I do think there are times when that happens, when it seems like everyone smart or everyone in power thinks one thing, and we need to say to ourselves, is there a chance that it’s wrong? When I look back on my 11 years as an economics reporter, I have this weird mix of feelings about my coverage of the housing bubble as one of the things I’m proudest of and also the source of one of my biggest regrets.

Most of that coverage would have been prior to 2008. What’s your assessment of the coverage of the budget fights we’ve seen since then—going back to the stimulus, and certainly since the 2010 election?

This is so general as to probably qualify as ducking, but I think on the whole our coverage has been quite good, yet I have no doubt there are ways we could do it better. I realize that’s unsatisfying, because it’s too general, but I feel like I’m not at the point of being able to get into specifics and being confident that two weeks from now I’ll still agree with the specifics that I said today.

That’s fair enough. I have one more question in that vein, and it’s specifically about the debt ceiling debate, not the broader budget fights. One of my colleagues, Ryan Chittum, recently got some attention for a post in which he wrote, “if you’re not reporting that the Republicans are ultimately to blame for the crisis here, then you’re not reporting the truth.” Would you agree?

I wouldn’t agree, because, in part, I don’t think assigning blame is what our job is. But if what he’s saying is that the two parties here played different roles, and that one party played a larger role in actually getting us to the last three days, in which there was a question about whether the debt ceiling would actually be raised, I think that’s true, and both parties would agree with that as well. Republicans would happily agree that they were the ones who were opposed to what has been the standard operating procedure on this question, which is simply raising the debt ceiling. They’re the ones who said we’re going treat this situation differently and we may not raise the debt ceiling, even though it’s always been what happened in the past.

And it is the press’s job to report that, and not to say on every single question there’s 50% of responsibility with this party and 50% of responsibility with that party. Readers can decide whether in fact it is a good thing to not go about business as usual. I don’t think it’s our job to do what Ryan said, but I also think that phrasing every outcome in Washington as either giving equal credit to both parties or equal responsibility to both parties is not particularly good journalism either.

So when you said it’s not our job to do what Ryan said, you’re referring in particular to the word “blame”?

Yes, the word “blame.”

To again quote your farewell column, you were very careful in saying that we know something about our problems, but not about the best way to solve them. At the same time, you’ve had a platform to outline solutions for some time, and I think your perspective would generally be described as center-left, at least as it maps onto the current political debate in the U.S. Do you worry that might cause problems—either for the reporters who you’re now editing, who might have an incentive to orient stories so that they’re in keeping with perspectives that you’ve outlined? Or for politicians who might now have, even more than they already do, ideas about the editorial line that the Times D.C. staff will be pushing?

I’m not that worried about these kinds of issues. I think what we need to do is do good journalism, and be willing to ask questions of both sides, and be willing to pursue counterintuitive ideas and to go where facts and events leads us. Look, Bill Keller was also a columnist—and was in fact an op-ed columnist, which I was not—before becoming executive editor. And I am sure that the numerous Democratic politicians whose professional life has been made miserable by The New York Times over the course of Bill Keller’s tenure would not tell you that we have been too soft on that side of the aisle.

Any other thoughts about the general struggles of the press to cover ideologically polarized policy disputes?

This is not quite that, but it is related to the general state of the press. Look, I acknowledge that there are challenges for the press right now, and particularly for newspapers, and really particularly for local papers, many of which are really struggling from a business perspective.

But I sometimes think the worries become exaggerated. There are a lot of really positive things about the media right now, and particularly about The New York Times. More people read our journalism than ever before, and it’s not even close. We tell stories in a richer variety of ways than ever before, whether that is online interactive graphics or slideshows or audio or types of writing that we didn’t have before—certain kinds of columns, people on Twitter, you name it. We are able to tell stories in a wider variety of ways than we used to, and as a result I think we are better at telling stories than we used to be.

So when you combine the fact that our audience is bigger with the fact that we are doing a better job, and then with the fact that there is finally some really positive, albeit tentative, news on starting to figure out a business model in this new landscape—and we’re not alone in that—all that makes it an exciting time to be doing what we’re doing. Especially when you combine it with the scale of many of the stories that we’re covering right now—whether you think they represent progress or regression, we’re covering incredibly important stories.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx. Tags: ,