Setting the Record Straight with New York Times Executive Editor, Dean Baquet

This week I was extremely excited to catch a talk featuring Dean Baquet, Executive Editor of the New York Times, which was an event sponsored by the University of Nevada, Reno’s Reynolds School of Journalism. Though I wasn’t familiar with Dean Baquet, I was delighted to hear his refreshing perspective on behalf of the newspaper that’s been continuously targeted by Donald Trump:

While I was expecting a more heated discussion centered on politics, the talk unfolded precisely as everything I would have hoped for in a high-level, introspective and honest discussion about journalism. I was relieved, and to be honest, absolutely delighted to hear from Baquet, who was born and raised in New Orleans (one of my favorite U.S. cities), is an avid reader of history, and does his best to resist becoming too  powerful:

Before being named executive editor, Baquet served in various editorial roles for The New York Times. He also was editor of the Los Angeles Times and, earlier in his career, was a reporter for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans and for the Chicago Tribune, where he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize leading a team of reporters who exposed corruption on the city council.

rsj_baquet_020817_00035-onstage

In this particular discussion Baquet talked about the impact of the digital economy on the way news is being reported, the differences in handling the reporting of politics under the current political administration vs. in previous eras, how fake news has always existed even though social media is changing the game, as well as some general thoughts on journalism education, culture, history. He also talked about how the New York Times is working hard to uncover truth, report fairly, and uphold the standards of journalism (which you can read more about in their 2020 Report). Below follow some of the sentiments shared from Baquet that particularly stood out for me.

On the Topic of Journalism

Baquet talked about how dramatically the newsroom has changed since he was a young man. Local and regional papers used to be the bread and butter of the newspaper industry, but as advertising models shifted and revenues plummeted, news became more centralized. The good old days of looking forward to the morning paper tossed out into the front yard by the local paper boy are gone: today people expect real-time reporting and 24-7 analysis backed up with a variety of multimedia options to choose from. Journalists today require a much broader skill set. Today readers primarily support the publication vs. advertisers.

“There used to be a powerful world of really fine regional newspapers; many are now significantly weakened.”

“You’d have to be in a newsroom to understand just how much the digital age has changed news.”

“Live news and analysis is not an unreasonable expectation from our readers.”

“There are not alternative facts, but people can interpret facts in different ways. Try and understand viewpoints.”

“Understand all sides of story, draw as clear and powerful a conclusion as you can, and back it up. Then repeat.”

On Politics

Audience members asked plenty of questions about politics, and Baquet gave straightforward and thoughtful answers. For example: how did Trump get elected? To which he essentially replied, “I encourage you to read up on history.” Or, why didn’t you cover the allegations about Russia tampering with the elections? “We couldn’t confirm a word of the dossier.”  Or, who are the Trump supporters? “It’s complicated.”

“It’s missing a large, historic part of the story to cite a simple reason why Hillary Clinton lost the election.”

“The idea of the Trump voter being uneducated and reading fake news is a myth. It’s much more complicated.”

The night Meryl Streep went after him, one of our reporters called Trump; he answered. He gets points for that.”

General Thoughts

Fake news was also a hot topic. Baquet explained that fake news has been around forever, citing historical examples, but that the difference is that it’s on steroids now. There is no such thing as alternative facts, only different interpretations of facts, to which he drove home the point that we need to work hard at understanding viewpoints and earning trust through being consistent, reliable, and fair.

“Fake news has been around forever. This is nothing new. It’s just now that it’s on steroids.”

“Fake news is insidious, it gives comfort to people who want to believe things with no basis in fact.”

“The First Amendment is being tested now like never before.”

“There is a big part of America that is frightened by the economic upheavals and have not had it explained clearly.”

When asked what he is currently reading, Baquet explained that he prefers fiction after reading hard news stories all day. He cited All the Kings Men and The Plot Against America as two great books about life, cities, politics, journalism and complexity. Overall, Baquet provided plenty of hope for future journalists and hard news seekers alike. I left with a feeling of renewed energy and excitement for the profession, which is as important and dynamic as it ever was.

For those interested, you can catch the Facebook Live recording of the event here.

Thank you for an informative and enlightening discussion, Dean Baquet!

(Photo credit: David Calvert, The Reynolds School of Journalism)

David Calvert / The Reynolds School

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