Even as their papers lead the way on exposing sexual harassment in multiple industries, Dean Baquet and Marty Baron are still figuring things out. The newsroom leaders of the two outlets at the center of reporting on sexual misconduct in the workplace sat down with the Tow Center’s Emily Bell yesterday at the Business Insider Ignition conference, and both admitted that they’re working in complicated terrain.
Baquet’s Times broke the news about allegations against Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, and Louis C.K., while Baron’s Post was first to stories about Roy Moore, Charlie Rose, and Michael Oreskes. But Bell asked them to address the issue as newsroom leaders who have to make difficult judgments about what constitutes improper behavior in their own organizations. “As people who lead teams, for you where is the line?” she asked.
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Both editors said that it’s tough to tell. “These cases are not all the same, there are levels of severity,” Baron said. “I’m not even sure that I can describe what the boundaries are and what the lines are.” Baquet, who is dealing with allegations against NYT White House reporter Glenn Thrush, agreed. “I don’t think we know where the line is, except for the obvious cases,” he said, citing Harvey Weinstein as one of those clear-cut examples. “There were no lines for so long.”
Bell didn’t shy away from the biggest controversy the Times has faced this week, asking Baquet about the paper’s Nazi sympathizer profile, which has been “excoriated” online. The Times’s editor apparently didn’t think much of the criticism. “It was the most ridiculous overreaction to a story,” he said. He did allow that the piece could have been edited to more clearly tell readers, “If you think neo-Nazis are guys who live in the hills of Alabama smoking pipes, in fact, it’s more complicated than that. Here’s what they look like, and they’re just as insidious.” Overall, however, Baquet said, “I think the reaction was too strong.”
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Whatever you think of the reaction to the piece, it’s clear the story could have been better handled. To that end, I asked a handful of journalists who have written successfully on extremism for their advice about how to approach these types of pieces. The result is a series of great suggestions from talented reporters. A couple of comments stuck with me. BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel emphasized the importance of the internet in understanding how extremist views are incubated in 2017. “When an institution like the Times shows that it’s struggling to catch up with the rest of us, that makes people nervous and angry,” he said. “We’re in this period of flux right now, but we’ve got to treat this like covering any other extremist group. Just because they’re on the internet doesn’t mean they’re less real.”
Ijeoma Oluo argued for reframing the conversation away from figures who hold noxious views to focus on the humanity of the people impacted by those beliefs. “Anyone going into these conversations with Nazis has to understand that our entire history has always prioritized white people,” she told me. “Even in discussions of slavery, even in discussions of police brutality against black people, it has always prioritized [questions like whether or not] white people are better than they used to be, whether or not white people eventually did the right thing. There is absolutely no excuse for adding to that.”
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Below, more from the conversation between the two most powerful editors in the industry.
- On the business side: Asked about the two outlets’ financial success, Baron said, “Yes, we have an owner with deep pockets, but he’s not treating us as a charity.” Baquet added that the papers’ success is grounded in fundamental journalism. “For all of the shifts [in the business model]…it’s reporting. In the end, I think the institutions that are thriving are the institutions that maintained their investment and ultimately increased their investment in bedrock reporting,” he said.
- Responding to readers: Reacting to criticism from readers over decisions like the hiring of conservative columnist Bret Stephens, Baquet claimed the Times wasn’t concerned. “You bring in quality people, you don’t pander to readers,” he said.
- Support for quality news: Asked about the “Trump bump” in subscribers, Baron said concerns about misinformation go beyond the administration. People “feel highly motivated to support quality journalism because they are worried that it might disappear and they are worried about what the consequences of that might be,” he said.
- The Times’s biggest star: Baquet said that star reporter Maggie Haberman “has a higher profile than any White House correspondent in the history of my institution.”
- Missing from the stage: For HuffPost, Yashar Ali looks at the history of the Business Insider Ignition conference and finds a blind spot: “In the eight years that the conference has been held, it has featured 683 panelists. That group does not include a single black woman.”
Other notable stories
- CNN’s Brian Stelter reports that Vice has fired three staffers as it conducts investigations into its workplace culture. These are tense times at the outlet, as a long-expected New York Times piece looms.
- In the wake of the Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose dismissals, read this excellent essay from the NYT’s Jim Rutenberg on the failure of the network news star system.
- The latest from the Times: Jessica Bennett reports that nine women have accused playwright Israel Horovitz of sexual misconduct.
- Warzel’s latest for BuzzFeed looks at YouTube’s response to predatory accounts that exploit family-friendly content.
- Who owns LA Weekly? After new owners fired nine of 13 staffers this week, that’s a question Keith Plocek asks in the magazine’s own pages.