New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet on Donald Trump and the future of the newspaper.

How the New York Times Decided to Call Donald Trump a Liar

How the New York Times Decided to Call Donald Trump a Liar

Interviews with a point.
Sept. 23 2016 9:15 AM

Dean Baquet Doesn’t Think Donald Trump Is the Media’s Fault

The New York Times executive editor on the challenges of covering the candidate and how the paper decided to call him a liar.

Dean Baquet.
Dean Baquet.

Augusto Casasoli/A3/Contrasto/Redux

Last Saturday, after Donald Trump decided to concede (temporarily) that President Barack Obama had in fact been born in the United States, the New York Times ran in its print edition a remarkable two-column “news analysis” as its lead story. Not only did the headline of the piece announce that Trump had clung to a “lie,” but the story itself, written by Michael Barbaro, noted that “it took Mr. Trump five years of dodging, winking and joking to surrender to reality, finally, on Friday, after a remarkable campaign of relentless deception that tried to undermine the legitimacy of the nation’s first black president.”

Isaac Chotiner Isaac Chotiner

Isaac Chotiner is a Slate contributor. 

As the executive editor of the New York Times, it was Dean Baquet who made the call to give Barbaro’s piece such prominent placement. And however surprising such pieces may be for longtime readers of a paper often accused of stodginess, Baquet’s Times has been relentlessly critical of Trump.

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Baquet, who is from New Orleans, won the Pulitzer at the Chicago Tribune for reporting on local corruption. Before becoming the top editor at the Times, he held the roles of Washington bureau chief and managing editor. The Trump candidacy has hardly been Baquet’s only challenge as executive editor. The paper is in the midst of a reorganization, which is likely to result, eventually, in newsroom cuts, as the paper reduces coverage of New York City, pursues more visual stories, and continues to emphasize electronic editions.

I met Baquet, now 59, at his office on the third floor of the Times building in midtown Manhattan. During our meeting he was laid-back and friendly, frequently bursting into laughter and seemingly excited to weigh in on journalistic questions. After Jill Abramson’s controversial tenure as executive editor, which ended with her firing, Baquet has gained a reputation as a less controversial boss and one who is more amenable to revenue-driven changes being forced upon the paper. (This despite the fact that Baquet was removed from a previous job at the Los Angeles Times in 2006 for refusing to fire staffers deemed expendable by owners demanding cuts.)

When I asked him what was different about the two situations, Baquet said that the current climate for journalism was a harsh one, requiring new thinking. But he insisted that he simply trusted the Sulzberger family, which owns the New York Times; he believes the Sulzbergers see the newspaper as more than merely a business. (“To be perfectly blunt,” he said to me. “I didn’t trust the ownership of the L.A. Times.”)

During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how he consumes news, why he skips the paper’s legendary Page 1 meeting, and whether the media has risen to the challenge of Donald Trump.

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What is the breakdown of your day, and how different do you think it is from your predecessors’ routines?

I suspect my day is very different from my predecessors’. My goal is to spend as much time in the newsroom driving news as possible. But I also spend probably more time than most of my predecessors thinking about strategy and the future of the New York Times as a company, mainly because, first off, we are at a historic moment for news organizations. If the New York Times’ whole future is based on the quality of its news reporting, I not only have to lead the news reporting, I have to be in the bigger discussions about the New York Times and the future.

Here’s a typical day. I wake up at about 6:30 or 6:15. First, I look at the phone to see what I missed from overnight and then I read the New York Times very thoroughly in print. I often spend the morning sending emails to desks about coverage. I get in usually about 9:15, and my first and most important meeting of the day is the 9:30 news meeting, which I sort of co-chair if you will, and we talk about coverage, and we talk about stories. Then the day sort of varies wildly. There are days when I get to just go from desk to desk and talk about stories and coverage, and there are days when I spend a couple of hours with the publisher talking about other stuff that’s not related to news.

How do you consume your news during the day?

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It’s on my phone, and it’s mostly our website, but also our competitors’, dependent on what the story is, right. If it’s this [New York City bombing] story, I’m looking at us constantly, the Washington Post constantly, the Journal pretty regularly. I look at Facebook too often, maybe 30 times a day.

Journalists sending you friend requests?

No, it’s a way of actually looking to see what other people are doing, too.

What about the much-mythologized Page 1 meeting?

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Actually, I’m going to surprise you. There’s the 9:30 meeting, in which we just talk about coverage. Nobody mentions Page 1 in that meeting. The desks go around and say, “Here’s what my day looks like.” We try to debate what the most important stories of the day are, and we don’t talk about print at all, we just talk about coverage. At 3:30, there’s a meeting in which a senior editor picks the stories we’ll print on the front page, and I don’t go to that meeting, intentionally.

Because?

Because I really am arguing to the newsroom that the most important thing is coverage, and placement is a little less significant today, and I think that there a lot of smart people other than me that can pick the six stories for the front page.

What about in terms of what leads the website, which more people see than the print front page?

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That is so constant. If you think about it: If you tried to have a meeting every time you change the lead of the website, you would have a meeting every hour or two. I sit out in the middle of the newsroom, and I’m surrounded by people, and they make the judgments all day, but that 9:30 meeting sets the tone, right? If you say at 9:30, “we think the most important story of the day is X” and why, that’s a signal to those editors who are making decisions all through the day about play: This is what the leadership of the newsroom thinks are the most important stories of the day. It’s not like somebody at 1:00 can say, “You know, I’m sort of interested in this Angelina Jolie story, I’m going to lead the website with it.”

But they’re just so attractive.

Plus, they live in New Orleans. That will make it a big debate.

How has Donald Trump been a journalistic challenge to you and the Times?

He’s been hugely challenging. I don’t think we’ve ever had somebody who in my time as a journalist so openly lies, and that was a word that we struggled to actually utter. We’re used to, I think as journalists, we’re used to philosophical debates, like one party thinks we should go to war on Iraq, makes its case—exaggerates its case, we now know. But there are warring philosophies. I’ve never quite seen anything like [Trump], and I think it’s a real challenge for us. We have no idea about his finances and we’ve tried like hell to figure it out. There’s so much stuff we don’t know.

You said recently that you would publish his tax returns even if you had to go to jail.

Mmm hmm. It’s funny, it was a spirited discussion among me, Bob Woodward, and Laura Poitras, and Laura, to her credit challenged us and said, “Will the mainstream media publish it?” and I said “yes,” as did Bob Woodward. Because the greatest mystery of this guy is how wealthy is he, what does he own, what does he not own, who is he financially beholden to, and to get a glimpse of that, I think would be really important to the country, and it would be such a public service that I can’t imagine anybody would debate it.

It feels like the Times, especially in the last couple of months, has been very consciously presenting him as an unprecedented threat to American democracy. Is that the way you feel?

I’m going to be reluctant to say. Others should say whether he’s an unprecedented threat to democracy. What I will say is he’s an unprecedented candidate who does things no political candidate has done, not only in the sense that he openly lies.

Were you part of the debate over whether to use the word lie in the paper?

Absolutely, and not only the discussion about using it, which I completely supported. Carolyn Ryan and Michael Barbaro, the editor and the reporter on the story, came to me and said, “We think this is the moment, and we want to write this.” I made the decision to make it the lead story, but they came to me and said, “Here’s the story we want to write,” and they described the story. Carolyn even said to me, “We want to put lie in the headline, are you comfortable with that,” and I said, “yeah, absolutely.”

You said you didn’t decide what was on the front page, and you—

Except in extraordinary cases. This was extraordinary.

Going into the last six or seven weeks of this campaign, are you going to play a larger role in how the paper covers Trump than you usually would?

That’s a good question. I am taking a more active role. I’m not sure if that’s because it’s Trump, to be frank, or because it’s the last six weeks in a remarkable campaign. I think if it was Romney and Obama, I think I’d still play a more active role. I don’t think I want to pick all of the stories we print on the front page. I hope this was an extraordinary moment. When you make the decision to lead with an analysis piece and you make the decision of writing a headline that strong, that should be my call. I should be involved in that decision. There was not much debate. I think everybody in the room thought it was the right call.

Have you been following the debate over “false balance?”

Yes, of course. I get the debate, but I think I don’t get the backdrop of the debate. The backdrop of the debate is that it’s the press’ fault that Donald Trump has the Republican nomination and that it’s the press’ fault that Donald Trump is running neck and neck with Hillary Clinton. I don’t buy that for a minute. To be frank, I think that’s sort of ridiculous. I think that carries with it the belief that many people had that somehow if people really knew about his finances and all this other stuff, they couldn’t possibly vote for him. Guess what: They do know. There’s a tremendous amount known about this guy, and the press gets credit for that. I think Donald Trump has been investigated a whole lot by a lot of institutions, and I think it’s misunderstanding this moment, this moment in the history of the country and even in the history of media, to say he’s the front-runner because people don’t know a lot about him.

Some of the print media has really been terrific, but then you have cable TV and the entertainment journalism nexus, like the Today Show. I don’t think that they’re “responsible” for Trump, but I also think that the failure of many of those institutions to confront him in a serious way has been a major failure. Do you agree?

That’s interesting. I do think that parts of television … I don’t want to be lumped in with media, I don’t want to lump all television together.

You don’t want to be lumped in with CNN, I’m sure.

I certainly don’t want to be lumped in with Fox News, which to be frank, I don’t think is a truly journalistic institution. It has great journalists, but it’s not at its heart a journalistic institution, to my mind. That’s not because of the side they lean on. I just think they lean heavily. I do think that cable television should be tougher on him, has not been tough enough on him, has allowed themselves to be played by him, but I still don’t buy that that’s why he’s [where he is].

Do you worry about things like having the same number of pieces on Hillary and Trump in the paper every day?

I don’t think like that. I think fairness is: You report deeply about each candidate, their points of view, their finances, their backgrounds, their history, good and bad. That’s your only commitment. I think if you try to say, “If we have 12 Trump stories today, we have to have 12 Hillary stories,” automatically you’re going to be making up stories, not making up stories, you’re going to be goosing stories, get me five stories.”

I read the article about how the Weiner-Abedin divorce will affect the Clinton campaign.

[Laughs.] OK, anyway, that’s what I would argue.

If you took a poll of Times readers, most of them are not Trump voters—

I haven’t taken that poll, but I suspect that’s true.

We’ll get some data on it. Anyway, there’s a large chunk of the country that doesn’t trust the New York Times. They think it’s liberal, biased, etc. Has this election made you think differently about how to reach these people or the consequences of not reaching them?

Let me say what story I do think we missed—all the media—which will get at some of this. I don’t think we missed the story of Donald Trump and the questions about him. I do think we probably didn’t quite have a handle on how much the country was sort of torn apart by the financial crisis and other stuff, too. I think that I can make the case, if I’m being really reflective and self-critical, that there are parts of the country we probably were not quite in touch with. I want everybody to read the New York Times. I don’t think we understood that part of the country well enough. I think there was a bigger part of the country than we knew that’s really frustrated. I think we missed that story.

On the other hand, he found the button to press. I’m not sure if I had sent 100 reporters out that I would have found that story.

The Times sent out a memo that stated that “[o]n personal social-media accounts, Times newsroom staffers should avoid editorializing, endorsing candidates or otherwise promoting their own political views.” This has been a particular issue with Trump, about whom a lot of news reporters have been sounding off. How big a concern is this?

Look, it’s a weird position for an editor to be in to tell people to not say stuff, that’s a very weird position. On the other hand, if I’m out there telling the world that the New York Times is going to try like hell to be fair, it’s harder to pull that off as an institution if there’s sort of a cacophony of voices all over the place saying things that will call into question whether or not we can be fair. And, as uncomfortable as it is for an editor to say, “Don’t pop off, guys,” I have a relationship with the readers. That’s the most important relationship I’ve got.

You said earlier that your future as an institution was entirely dependent on the quality of your reporting. It seems like for a lot of news websites, though, their future is based on the quality of the reporting—and also the success of a certain amount of click-bait.

Yeah, we’re different. I’m not naïve, but when I say it is based on the quality of the reporting—we charge a lot of money for the New York Times in print and online.

I’ve noticed.

We have the most successful financial subscription model in the business, and I think the only way you can ask people to pay a lot of money for the New York Times is by keeping it really, really good. If we weren’t really, really good, I think that would blow up the financial model. And the model is: You will pay us x amount of money because you think we have something to give that other people don’t. I think I have to protect that.

What do you make of the Washington Post model, which has been to go in a click-bait-y direction on social media while at the same time doing amazing journalism?

I think their model is different than ours, I do, and they’ve done some really great, serious stuff. I think their model is based on scale. I think they would say that. It’s based on having as large an audience as possible. I think our model is different because we get so much of our money from consumer revenue. Of course everybody wants a billion readers, right, but our model is we want as large an engaged willing-to-pay audience as possible. I think that’s a different model. That’s not mocking theirs. Our model was inevitable because we were already a national news organization, we started a pay model before everybody else, and the pay model has, to be frank, generated so much revenue, it’s kept us going. I think for us, our model was inevitable, and they came in and they have to have a different model. I don’t think they could pull off our model.

Does it worry you that people with Jeff Bezos’ power and influence in other areas own newspapers?

As far as I can tell Bezos has been great for newspapers.

Do you think he would have run your Amazon piece?

I don’t know. It’s an interesting question. That was a great story. I know he didn’t like it. He said it publicly. I don’t know if he would have run it. I really don’t know. What I can say is the Post was a newspaper in trouble before he came. From everything I can tell he took the budget cutting pressure off, he pumped some money in, and they’re a better newspaper. What do I think of people like him? People like Jeff Bezos have always owned newspapers. Everybody forgets, the Chandlers, Otis Chandler was the great publisher of the L.A. Times. These guys started out as big, rich real estate developers for whom the L.A. Times was part of their plan. It evolved to the point that newspapers got so profitable that the L.A. Times was their plan. Rich guys have always owned newspapers, and some of them have been bad owners, and some of the have been good owners. So far, Bezos has been a good owner. I don’t think there’s any debate about that.

How closely do you observe a distinction between leaks and hacks? There was the Sony hack and then the hack of Colin Powell’s emails. Are we in dangerous territory when people can hack into private information, put it online, and the media will report on it?

Not only does it bother me as a citizen who exchanges emails that I would prefer for the world not to see, but it bothers me that if, indeed, the Russians hacked the [Democratic National Committee] and made it public, which is what the government is asserting, to embarrass the Democrats, that’s pretty scary. That’s pretty scary stuff.

But forget whether it was the Russians: These are Colin Powell’s emails. Why should they be public?

This is a tricky thing. Once the stuff … Of course we have to report on it, right, whether it’s the Sony emails or not. We edit. If Colin Powell had written an email to his kid about a very personal issue, I would have been nervous. That would have been a really interesting debate.

Even if it was out there?

Even if it was out there. I don’t buy the “if it’s out there” argument. It would have been interesting. It would have depended on the texture and our review. That would have made me nervous. I would really want to have discussed that. Colin Powell, who everybody is sort of waiting to come out and say something about Hillary Clinton, the most notable black Republican in a generation in an election that’s tinged with race? Yeah. I think what he has to say is interesting, and it’s too bad that he doesn’t want it to come out, but we owed people that story.

The Sony hack was perhaps less straightforward.

It’s tricky, and we had lots of discussions bout the hacks, and there’s stuff we didn’t use.

I hope you guys don’t have material that could have broken the Brad/Angelina story, and you sat on it.

We had a long debate, we talked about it, but in the end, because they live in New Orleans, we decided that gives them a certain amount of privacy that others don’t deserve. I hope they still live in New Orleans.

I’m sure they live in more than one place, to be honest.

I think they probably do. I think a low-level executive writing to a medium-level executive about what they think of Barack Obama, who gives a damn? I wouldn’t cover it if they gave a press conference and said it, but I think Amy Pascal was in a different position. She was in a different position where she’s not only a public figure in the legal sense; she makes movies that affect how people see the world and that was an easier call. Some of the stuff Gawker … I’ll defend Gawker’s First Amendment rights to the death, but come on. I’m not talking about the Peter Thiel stuff, but, outing midlevel executives? That’s not my cup of tea, that’s for sure.

Do you see the New York Times increasingly moving more into what is called explainer journalism?

It’s hugely important. It’s not a moral departure from stuff we’ve done before. We’ve always tried to explain, but I think the thing that’s dawned on me as an editor in the last few years is that I think we took a lot of knowledge for granted among readers. We assumed readers read the news the way we do. We assumed that we didn’t really have to tell them why Kandahar is one thing and Kabul is something else. We just assumed people knew that.

I remember once years ago when the New York Times tried to do explainers, they were so complex and sophisticated. They were like encyclopedia entries. I think we owe people explanations of stuff. I felt we did fabulous coverage of the Obama health care debate, but I bet you there are a lot of readers who don’t know how a bill becomes a law. If I had to do it over again, this is not a knock on the reporter, this is a knock on me as the Washington bureau chief, I think there were people who would scratch their heads when they saw that something went from a conference committee to another committee. We should explain stuff.

There is also a lot more I in news reports these days in your paper. Is that conscious?

It’s intentional. There’s a piece that’s up now by Monica Davey about a murder of a child that she covered as a reporter. I mean: Do we really not want to tell people how powerfully that story affected her? I thought that was a deft, perfect use of first person. I’ve encouraged more first-person. Sometimes we’ve overdone it, but I think we’ve so vastly underdone it. I think that people don’t understand that there are real people writing the paper. I think people don’t understand that Alissa Rubin, who covered Afghanistan and Iraq from the very beginning, has seen things that make her much more knowledgeable, and I think it’s nuts to not show that to people and to not let people see that.

You have been criticized for the way you have used Facebook Live, with some people arguing that the content often does not live up to Times standards. What do you make of the criticism?

I did Facebook Live, and I actually drove it, so I’ll take the criticism. I drove Facebook Live for a significant internal and external reason. Since we started doing Facebook Live, 300 journalists at the New York Times have played on Facebook Live in some form or another. I have a newsroom that is in the middle of a sea change and I want as many people as possible to get a taste of something different. I have a newsroom that was built around print, and this new thing comes along that people can try; it sometimes doesn’t work. Mine was terrible by the way. I want people to get a taste of something different. I think it’s been good for us to try. Have we screwed up some? Print journalism completely discouraged experimentation. Because if you made a mistake, it sat there, and it stared at you all day. I think we’re in an era of experimentation, and we’ve got to try stuff.

Are you nervous about the amount of control Facebook has over news?

It makes me really nervous, it does, but I’m torn. Part of me thinks like this: My mission is to be read. I don’t think you can be read without playing on Facebook. All that said: Of course they make me nervous. Their control makes me nervous, their sort of not quite understanding their role in the larger media landscape makes me nervous. I think my view is we go in tentatively and more nervously than others. We put far less stuff on Facebook than the Post does, for instance, because of that different business model. If we put everything on Facebook, that completely wipes out the notion that we can charge people for stuff.

Have you had discussions with people at Facebook about some of the things that worry you?

No, I think that is for [New York Times Co. CEO] Mark Thompson and others to worry about. I’d rather cover them.

Is it your sense that people at the Times are talking to people at Facebook?

Without a question, yeah. The whole media world is talking to Facebook, and Apple, and Google, but particularly Facebook, of course.

Do you think people at companies like Facebook understand the seriousness of the journalistic role that they are beginning to play?

That Facebooks of the world do? I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t think they fully understand the stuff that we’ve been grappling with for hundreds and hundreds of years. I don’t think they think like that.