Editor named Washington, D.C., bureau chief

Dean Baquet won’t wait around for the L.A. Times to get a new owner — he’s returning to former employer the New York Times.

Baquet, who ankled his post as editor of the Los Angeles Times in November after an intense public disagreement with incoming publisher David Hiller, will become the Gray Lady’s Washington, D.C., bureau chief.

He takes over from Philip Taubman, who is being promoted to associate editor of the paper and will concentrate on national-security reporting.

Baquet’s decision ends months of whispers over how hard the New York Times was wooing him — and how serious he was about sticking it out in L.A., waiting for the Tribune to sell the paper to David Geffen, Eli Broad or other suitors with whom Baquet might have had a more felicitous relationship.

It also ends the possibility of a triumphant second act at the L.A. Times as the country’s first African-American editor of a major newspaper.

Baquet joined the L.A. Times as managing editor in 2000 and became editor in 2005 after predecessor John Carroll had disagreements of his own with management.

But the tenure was short-lived, and after he and former publisher Jeff Johnson took a stand against the Tribune’s call for newsroom cuts, both were pushed out. Baquet was replaced by Chicago Tribune managing editor Jim O’Shea.

Announcement of Baquet’s hiring Tuesday touched off a sniping war of sorts between the L.A. Times and the New York Times.

Within a few hours of the Gray Lady’s announcement, a memo from Los Angeles Times D.C. bureau chief Doyle McManus surfaced in which the editor riled troops by showing little love for the New York Times.

Despite the hiring of Baquet, memo said, “It will still be the N.Y. Times, still encumbered by that paper’s institutional weaknesses and still, even with Dean on the premises, an often unpleasant place to work.”

The New York Times didn’t respond to that broadside. But exec editor Bill Keller did take what seemed like a partial jab at the L.A. Times, telling the paper’s own Katherine Seelye the Gray Lady is “perhaps the last great American news organization that is not in retreat.”

Words show that, despite the geographic distance between the two papers, the rivalries emerge in touchstone spots like D.C., where both deploy significant manpower.

Rivalry has been goosed by a number of staffers moving from the L.A. Times to the New York Times over the past few years, including film critic Manohla Dargis and music-biz reporter Jeff Leeds.

In his time as managing editor and editor at the L.A. Times, Baquet was seen as a news-minded steward.

But he also came under some scrutiny for the paper’s coziness with potential buyers; columnist Nikki Finke, for instance, criticized the paper’s coverage of figures like Geffen and Broad as “a tawdry game of footsie.”

Baquet is returning to a paper for which he worked almost throughout the ’90s, rising to the level of national editor when he exited in 2000. He will be charged with beefing up the D.C. bureau’s investigative journalism.

In a memo extolling Baquet’s investigative skills, Keller said, “Baquet is a charismatic leader, an unflinching advocate of the value and values of journalism and a cool character under fire.”

That last trait will be essential in the top post at the New York Times’ Washington bureau, which has undergone a series of traumatic events over the past few years.

Taubman came to the D.C. bureau in 2003 as part of sweeping changes meant to restore order after the Jayson Blair scandal roiled the paper.

But the bureau saw its share of turbulence during Taubman’s tenure as well, including scandals about Judith Miller’s Iraq stories and questions over the paper’s decision to delay publishing stories from James Risen about a domestic spying program (though the latter left more of a stain on the New York Times’ Gotham HQ).

The murder of D.C. reporter David Rosenbaum cast a further cloud over the office.

As Baquet relocates to Washington, Taubman and wife Felicity Barringer, an environmental reporter for the New York Times, will move to California.

Some questioned Baquet’s decision to defy Tribune orders in the fall. But in retrospect, the choice looks like an act of moral as well as political virtue. Indeed, Keller told Seelye that “standing up to Tribune only adds to his luster.”

Baquet has a rep as an investigative reporter, winning a Pulitzer at the Chicago Tribune during the ’80s in that category.

But Baquet could now be on a different track: Times management. Though Keller is regarded as a steady hand who can remain at the top for a long time, that hasn’t stopped Times-watchers from keeping an eye on possible successors. Baquet is said to join a list that includes managing editor and paper’s No. 2, Jill Abramson.

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