The Media Today

Dean Baquet, Marty Baron, and protecting the institution

June 29, 2020

Last Tuesday, Wesley Lowery wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in which he wrapped the urgent media-industry conversations about diversity and coverage of race around our flawed prevailing definition of “objectivity”—a concept shaped, in large part, by white editors and reporters with the eye of the white reader in mind. (My colleague Mathew Ingram discussed Lowery’s piece and the reaction to it here.) Later the same day, Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the Times, sat for a long-scheduled interview with Max Linsky, of the Longform podcast. It aired on Friday. Linsky had planned, initially, to talk to Baquet about the coronavirus pandemic, but asked instead about objectivity and the Lowery op-ed, which Linsky read as a rebuke of the Times’s institutional values. Baquet described the op-ed as “terrific,” and said he didn’t think that he and Lowery were far apart on the objectivity question. Baquet—who has repeatedly stressed the importance of objectivity in the past—said that he doesn’t love the term, and that he would rather frame his view of journalism around “fairness” and “independence.” The independent and fair reporter, he said, “gets on an airplane to pursue a story with an empty notebook, believing that he or she doesn’t fully know what the story is, and is going to be open to what they hear.”

Linsky and Baquet spoke for around an hour and a half, and covered a lot of ground, from the Times’s business model to the challenges of managing the paper’s “star” journalists. (If you have time, you should listen to the whole thing.) The conversation kept coming back to race and objectivity. Baquet talked about his career as a Black journalist—from his early work as a police reporter in New Orleans to his reaction to the current moment—and how his life experience has shaped his news judgment. He discussed the commonalities and the differences that he sees as having shaped his relationships with younger Black journalists. And he addressed the tensions in the Times newsroom following the decision, by the paper’s opinion section, to publish an inflammatory op-ed in which Tom Cotton, a Republican senator, called on the federal government to dispatch troops to US cities. Baquet said that while the firewall between news and opinion at the Times must be respected, he found the op-ed “troubled,” and felt “a little bit of pride” when many employees at the paper posted coordinated tweets—“in defiance of our rules” around social-media use—stating that Cotton’s words had put Black Times staffers in danger.

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Hanging over everything was a single question that Baquet said has guided his editorship: “What is the difference between what is truly tradition and core, and what is merely habit?” He elaborated, “You’ve got to say, here’s what’s not going to change. This is core. This is who we are. Everything else is sort of up for grabs.” In recent weeks, Baquet said, Black and Latino journalists at the Times have argued that efforts to diversify the newsroom have been undermined by the assumption that new hires of color would assimilate into the Times’s established ways of doing things. Going forward, Baquet pledged to listen to their varying perspectives, and to do a better job of incorporating them into the paper’s direction.

Still, Baquet clearly feels a strong sense of responsibility to what he sees as the Times’s core—as he put it to Linsky at one point, referencing critical internal voices, “I have to protect the place. I have to make it better but also sometimes resist the things that they want to change.” This can cause friction, especially when it comes to coverage of Trump. Baquet said that he thinks the Times has been aggressive in this regard, and that he’s cautious of the demands of younger journalists, in particular, that it be even more so. The Times has done aggressive coverage of Trump—but it has also, too often, used inadequate language to describe his behavior, been overly credulous of dishonest Trumpian talking points (especially in headlines), and promoted a false equivalence between Trump’s positions and those of his opponents.

The question that I still have, coming out of Baquet’s Longform interview, is whether such errors stem from Baquet’s conception of core values (which he said includes some form of objectivity), or the Times failing, on occasion, to put those values into practice. Baquet told Linsky that he “hates” overly-credulous “both-sides” journalism; he also suggested, however, that he doesn’t have especially big regrets about his paper’s coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails in 2016—which Times critics point to as a false-equivalence archetype—and that its Trump coverage has been “far less opaque” in the last year or two than it was in the early days of his presidency. Again, critics would point to plenty of examples of more recent opacity.

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Baquet wasn’t the only big-name editor to face scrutiny over the weekend—last night, Ben Smith, the media columnist at the Times, published a critical piece on Marty Baron, the editor of the Washington Post. Smith reported some bizarre nuggets—per Smith, Baron talked Bob Woodward out of burning a confidential-source relationship with Brett Kavanaugh, and “erupted” when the Post published an article about the movie Cats that Baron said “glorified recreational drug use”—as well as details of the Post’s place in the industry-wide reckoning over race and diversity, which has seen current and former Black staffers (including Lowery) claim that they had lesser access to professional opportunities and advancement at the paper, and were subject to double standards around the ways they were permitted to use social media, and even around their ability to take bathroom breaks at work. (A Post spokesperson denied some of these specifics to Smith. Again, if you have time, you should read the whole column.)

There are many differences between the Times and the Post, and between Baquet and Baron—not least the former’s experience as a Black journalist and editor. There are sharp differences, too, between the current reckonings at both papers. (As Smith put it in his column, “Every unhappy newsroom is unhappy in its own way.”) Clearly, however, a fresh wind is shaking the philosophical and representational foundations of the US news industry as a whole, and Baquet and Baron—as two of the industry’s most central pillars—are feeling the vibrations more than most. Like Baquet, Baron sees himself as a defender of old journalistic values and the august institution that he has been charged to lead, Smith writes. As Baquet makes clear on Longform and Smith allows in his Baron piece, the journalistic philosophies of both editors are nuanced. Both, however, sit broadly within the tradition that Lowery and others are critiquing. Failures of diversity, and coverage of race, and coverage of Trump are all intertwined—and they all require a no-holds-barred assessment of whether top journalistic institutions’ core values are fit for purpose, not a reflexive defense of those values as inseparable from the institution.

In his Times op-ed, Lowery wrote that all supposedly objective journalism sits atop a “pyramid of subjective decision-making.” Linsky raised that idea multiple times in his interview with Baquet. At one point, Linsky said that he’d been present in the Times’s building the day after Trump was elected, and had detected feelings of shock and sadness among the staff. Baquet agreed with that assessment, so Linsky asked, “How do you take that moment and put that moment on a plane with a blank notebook to cover what’s happened for the last three years?” Baquet replied that it had been hard to do so, but that reporters’ professionalism had kicked in, and driven them to understand how Trump had won. Linsky then asked Baquet if he personally had been upset by Trump winning. For the first time in the interview, Baquet punted on the question.

Below, more on a moment:

  • Twitticism: Linsky asked Baquet how he engages with the Times’s many critics online; Baquet replied that he finds “a handful of critics” to be “thoughtful,” but that many others are “so filled with rage” at the paper that he doesn’t find their thoughts useful. Baquet said that he rarely seeks out criticism of the paper on Twitter—when he has done so, he said, he’s felt like he’d been “drinking too much”—even though the paper scrapped its public editor position, at least in part, because of critics’ ability to make themselves heard on social media. Last year, CJR appointed public editors to scrutinize major outlets that lack them, including Gabriel Snyder, for the Times. Baquet has engaged repeatedly with Snyder, including around a bad Times headline last year.
  • Meanwhile, in LA: Last week, Black journalists at the LA Times spoke out on social media about a lack of diversity in the newsroom. Last week, it emerged that six Black, Hispanic, and female journalists at the paper had filed a class-action lawsuit against the paper, alleging that long-term pay discrimination has resulted in under-representation among its staff. The LA Times has since moved to settle the suit. NPR’s David Folkenflik has more.
  • In the news: Yesterday, Trump retweeted a video in which one of his supporters can be heard yelling “White power!” Following a public outcry and outrage on the Sunday shows, Trump deleted the tweet. Elsewhere, a gunman in Louisville, Kentucky, killed Tyler Gerth, a photographer, during a protest over the recent police killing of Breonna Taylor, a local medical technician. Gerth had been documenting the Louisville protests on Instagram. The Louisville Courier-Journal has more details.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.