New York Times' Dean Baquet: I Should Pay More Attention

O’Leary: Is there ever a point where you would just call a thing a thing and use that word?

Baquet: Well, we use the word lie, and we were among the first ones to use the word lie. And that was when, during the campaign, Trump acknowledged that he had been lying when he said that he had evidence that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. I think that was a moment when it was important for us to use the word lie on the front page of the paper. I’ve only used it a couple of times since, because it’s a very powerful thing to say. You know, every politician exaggerates. Every politician obfuscates. I would hate to pick up The New York Times one day and find out that the governor of Maine, you know, “lied in saying that his tax proposal would generate X amount in revenue and it did less.” Those are powerful words that lose their power if they’re tossed around loosely.

O’Leary: We are having all of these capital-C Conversations about journalism—not just the Times, but other organizations. But for the one you’re in charge of, boy, doesn’t this seem like a good time for The New York Times to have a public editor?

Baquet: [Laughs.] I always remind people, you know, the public editor didn’t work for the executive editor. It wasn’t my call to have a public editor or not have a public editor. If you ask Margaret [Sullivan], and other public editors, what they would say is I had no power over them, nor should I have. So it wasn’t my call. It was the publisher’s call, because the public editor reported to the publisher.

O’Leary: That’s a very clever way of not answering the question.

Baquet: Well, no, no. But it happens to be true. I will say, isn’t this evidence—the criticism of this headline, the fact that I’m talking to you, the fact that you’re the third reporter I talked to today, and I’ve owned up to the fact that it was a mistake. To me, the public editor was created after Jayson Blair. I wasn’t here. But it was created after Jayson Blair, because people didn’t have a way to call newsrooms to account. If you had been [wronged], if somebody had lifted your story in The New York Times, or any other paper, you could write all the letters you wanted, and they could blow you off. That can’t happen now. So I think the reason the publisher made that decision, and the reason I don’t disagree with it, frankly, is because I don’t think there’s any shortage of ways to criticize The New York Times. And I don’t think there’s any shortage of ways to call us to account, as there [was] before the digital era.

O’Leary: I was curious if you had read Margaret Sullivan’s column about how we, the media writ large, cover mass shootings. I was struck that a lot of veteran journalists she talked to talked about kind of reexamining not neutrality, but digging into analysis a little more and saying, “Gee, maybe the way we cover these horrible things isn’t working.” I was wondering, is that something you’ve thought about at the Times?

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