New York Times Editor Dean Baquet on if the Press Has Been ‘Too Timid’ in Political Coverage

dean baquet New York Times
todd heisler/the new york times/redux

Dean Baquet was a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune and editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Times before becoming executive editor at The New York Times in 2014.

The Times had some of the toughest coverage of Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign. It reported on contractors who say they were stiffed for payment after working on Trump building projects and unveiled accounts of women who say they were targeted by his untoward or demeaning behavior. The paper also described how Trump likely has avoided paying federal income taxes for years.

While Baquet was proud of his paper’s coverage, the 60-year-old journalist acknowledged after the election that the Times has some blind spots — particularly in its understanding of poor voters in the nation’s heartland. He promised to beef up that coverage.

JAKE CHESSUM for Variety

Baquet answered Variety’s questions about the challenges of covering the White House and a president who defies convention.

To what extent did Donald Trump create distrust of big media outlets?
Of course there was distrust before Donald Trump came along. There was distrust of big institutions in general, and the media in particular. Some of it’s because the internet has made it more difficult to discern what is true and what is backed by reporting vs. what is either made up or driven by agenda. That is, by the way, just one downside to a revolution that’s by and large important and good. Some of it’s because we have a history of not always listening to our readers, at least until recently. Some of it’s because some cable commentators don’t have so much respect for truth. But Trump certainly fueled it by attacking reporters and news organizations personally. And there’s no doubt that the people around him passed around unfounded claims about his opponents that contributed to the fake news phenomenon.

You said you think the media underreported the phenomenon of white middle-class voters feeling unrepresented. Do you have reporters paying attention to those people now?
Yes. Absolutely. We are changing our national coverage to capture more of the debate in America over values and economics.

While some distrust The New York Times, you got a collateral benefit from the election. Within a week, the company reported that it had added 41,000 paid subscriptions across its print and digital platforms, the biggest bump since a paywall was put up in 2011.
I think the election has proven to be a great boon to the Times. People realize we are one of the few remaining institutions with the bandwidth, the power, the reach, and the authority to take on the biggest subjects. And there is a sense that this is a great need today. I don’t know the exact number of new subscribers, but it is substantial.

How do you maintain a balance between checking potential conflicts of interest regarding the president-elect and his family, vetting his Cabinet appointments, and holding him accountable for campaign promises?
We have to do all three. We have to devote more resources to covering the Trump presidency than any in history. Not, by the way, because we want to take him down. I don’t want to be the loyal opposition to Donald Trump. The problem with being the loyal opposition is that when someone else comes into power, you end up being a lap dog. I do want to provide aggressive and hard-hitting coverage of a man who has assembled a team that could very well have an enormous impact on the country, on the environment, on health care, etc. This is a huge story.

Are you putting more reporters on the Trump White House beat?
Yes, we are putting six people on the White House. And that is in addition to building up our investigative presence in D.C. and adding other reporting and editing resources.

“I think we’ve been too timid in the past.”
Dean Baquet

Do you think he’ll ever release his tax returns?
I won’t touch that one with a 10-foot pole! I hope so. We’ve asked for them, as have others. As you probably know, we did get some of his tax data and published them in a major story. I’m hoping we get more, so that we can publish them as well. We got them anonymously in the mail and worked hard to confirm them. … Have I told you my address in New York?

You’ve explained why the Times used the word “lie” to describe Trump’s repeated insistence that Barack Obama was born outside the U.S. Was the media too timid in the past about using clear language like that? Is “lie” rarely used because it’s hard to prove or suggests an intent to mislead?
I think we have been too timid in the past. We developed this language over generations that kept us from just saying things. It kept us from witnessing and just saying what was evident. It was probably some antidote to the rabid partisanship of the press of 100 years ago. But it has gone too far. Trump did force us to be more aggressive in our language. All politicians obfuscate, and we should call them out on it. He went beyond what we’ve seen. And it called for questioning our rules.

Is it hard to keep up the morale of your reporters when it’s clear some of the audience will not believe them, regardless of how ironclad their reporting appears?
I’ve never seen morale this high. Newspapers have had their mojo questioned for a decade now. Cuts, questions about our role, people saying we’re irrelevant. But our mission has never, ever been clearer than it is today. The country is watching us, and they want us to shout truth to power, to ask hard questions. That’s why people are subscribing to us in droves. We are needed. We are essential. I have to say, that’s a good feeling.

What leverage can the Times and other news outlets use to get Trump to hold more press conferences?
If you keep asking tough questions and offering aggressive coverage, people eventually feel the need to have press conferences. That is our only leverage, but it ain’t nothing. It is what we are supposed to do anyway.

The coverage of a president is serious business. Is there a light side to this story?
Let’s see. Former reality television star runs for president and wins, tweets pretty regularly, stands in front of the cameras with Don King holding a flag. I’m sure this one will be good for some humor, as well as big news.