The New York Times’ Dean Baquet on What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media

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From your point of view, what is the biggest problem in media these days? Is there one big theme that keeps you up at night?
I’m not a hundred percent convinced that I buy the pervasive distrust in media. I know there’s mistrust in general of media. My own view is that sometimes it’s a little bit like Congress: When you ask people if they like Congress, they say no, but if you ask them if they like their own congressman or -woman, they say yes. There’s evidence that the New York Times and the Washington Post and some other publications — New York Magazine — have as much, if not more trust than they ever did. I think cable television has done us all a little bit of damage.

And why is that?
I think that the talking heads, screaming, fighting, and some of the faux-journalism practice by people like O’Reilly has got to turn people off. There’s a cynicism to that kind of coverage. CNN’s hiring Donald Trump’s former campaign manager as a commentator looks cynical to the viewer or the reader. It looks not serious, and it fuzzies up the definition of journalism. And that has done some damage to all of us. There’s some good things going on. We’re much, much more aware of the reader and our audience. I think that we were not in the past. In a weird way, we were sort of arrogant about readers, and it’s been healthy for us to get a better sense of what people read and what people like, but the notion of this broad-brush mistrust of media, I’m skeptical about. As I said, cable news has dragged us all down a little bit.

You touched on understanding the reader. Do you think it’s the job of the news business to appeal to what readers want or tell them what they need to know?
A little bit of both. We have always given readers what they wanted. Nobody would have come up with the brilliant idea of having a travel section 50 years ago at some American newspaper if there hadn’t been a belief that Americans were starting to travel more. Business sections expanded dramatically because more people became stockholders. We’re also obliged to cover the things that we believe that readers should want to learn about to be smart, intelligent people and to understand the world and cast votes. We do have an obligation to cover the war in Syria and the Middle East, no matter how dangerous it is. We have an obligation to make it interesting, but we really have an obligation to cover the whole world. I mean, I believe that. I think we are one of the few industries that has its own section of the Constitution. I think we’re one of the few industries that has protections from the Supreme Court, and we’re one of the few industries that has the expectation that when we pick up the phone and call the White House, we get a response from somebody in the White House to comment on a story, and I think along with that comes the obligation to cover the world aggressively and to cover power aggressively. But that does not preclude us from giving people what interests them. That is, movies, music, fun stuff. I don’t think that obligation backs us into the corner of being boring or overly serious.

One often hears that the media’s focus on bad news has contributed to public anxiety, the perception that the world’s falling apart.
I don’t want to be the main contrarian, but I think that’s too glib. If you pick up the average newspaper, 75 percent of what’s in it is not bad news. There’s sports, which may be bad news depending on your team, but most of what’s in the American press is business, votes up, votes down. It’s the 10 percent of news that accurately describes a world in turmoil, a world at war, that makes people think that all news is negative. The reality is, we are in a time of turmoil. On the other hand, we are also in a time of great technological reinvention. We are also in a time where people can watch sports any time of day they want to. And all of that is reflected in the media. It’s too rich to say that the media is all negative. You pick up the Washington Post today, of course you’re gonna see on it’s front page the stories of what happened in Texas and Baton Rouge, but if you go deep inside, you’re gonna see stories about training camp. You’re gonna see all kinds of stuff. In fact, you’re gonna see a huge percentage of it is positive or neutral.

What are your feelings about Facebook’s dominance in the distribution of the news? 
Anytime anybody has that stunningly dominant role in the distribution of news, we should be wary and skeptical going in. On the other hand, you also have to go where your readers are. First off, that’s the economics of the business, but secondly, I don’t have impact if I’m not read. And we’re read now — we, the press — 20 times more widely than we were before, which people sometimes have a tendency to forget.

Do you think that means this is a great time for journalism?
So, I grew up in New Orleans in a working-class family, and I had access to two newspapers. An afternoon newspaper and a morning newspaper. That same kid growing up in New Orleans right now, assuming he has access to a computer, can read the Guardian for free, can read newspapers and news reports in many languages, often for free, can read Facebook, can look at video, has access to the world, can see art that’s in the Museum of Modern Art on his phone, this vivid reproduction, for free. Put aside — the crisis we’re in is a crisis about the institutions like the New York Times and the Washington Post that deliver news. But in terms of the quality of journalism, man, I came in last week to help run coverage of what happened in Texas, and I could call up the editor of the video unit and ask for a video. That is not a world I grew up in. That is stunningly better. It’s just better. Journalism is better than it ever was.

Where do you stand on the “media created Trump” debate?
That gives us too much credit. The media did not create Trump. I don’t think the media missed a story of Trump, or failed to scrutinize Trump — that’s a ridiculous criticism. The criticism that might be valid is whether the media understood the circumstances that caused so many Americans to vote for Donald Trump.
 
Why is that?
It’s always hard to have your finger on the pulse of the country. It’s one of those things that we’re always beating ourselves up for. We probably didn’t quite understand the deep economic fallout after the financial crisis a few years ago. There were fewer national correspondents out in the country, and we’re one of the last institutions to have a big national staff. That’s probably part of it. Some of the anger was quiet, and Donald Trump came along and turned the volume up. The anger hadn’t quite showed up in ways that were obvious until he came along. But our job is to be out in the country, trying to understand the country, and to reflect the country back to itself in some way.

What do you make of Trump’s critique that the media is biased against him?
That’s sort of ridiculous. The media is tough on him, but I was getting the same complaints from the Clinton campaign and from the Sanders campaign, and now I get them from the Trump campaign. If every major candidate thinks you’re too tough on them and biased against them, you’re probably doing a good job.

In the last month or so, reporters have become much more aggressive in calling out Trump’s falsehoods. Where do you think it’s appropriate to say that Trump is lying?
I can think of many examples. There was a great moment in one of the debates where one of the questioners kept insisting Mr. Trump had said something and he just kept denying it. And later that night, somebody showed his website, showed the comment was there. If that happens, you’re supposed to say the guy told a falsehood, a lie. I think to hold punches just doesn’t make any sense. If a major presidential candidate says something that is not true, you’re obligated to say it’s not true. And the press is better at doing that than it ever was. The sort of truth-checking systems we now automatically set up, the fact that you can check things … in my day, you had to send two guys running downstairs to the morgue to look something up, and it took all night. The fact that you can now check, the fact that you can do it quickly and that you can respond quickly — he unfortunately walked into a revolution in how people can fact-check.

Your project to restructure the Times’ newsroom has gotten a lot of attention. What worries drive this endeavor?
We are caught in a wonderful moment, but a perilous moment. The wonderful moment is that we have a bigger audience than we’ve ever had before. The perilous moment is we need to figure out how to serve that audience, which largely reads us on the phone, and then we also have to figure out how to maintain the print audience, which is really important. It’s a big deal. I guess my biggest fear, or the thing I have to be most careful about, is that in building one audience, and building the digital audience, I don’t do anything to hurt the print New York Times. I think that’s the trickiest thing to navigate.

What would constitute hurting the print audience?
It used to be that it was easy to put out a print newspaper the next day that just captured the news. And now the assumption is you have to be both more analytic and capture the news. If you gave the print audience something that was so analytic that it felt too magazine-y, that would make me nervous and it would turn readers off.

The app product seems to let little things slip through that I never saw before in the Times, and obviously with the volume of things that you have to produce every day, it’s understandable, but the Times always stood for a certain kind of perfection and quality.
We still stand for that kind of perfection. Print was this beautiful, perfect medium. You had all day to polish it. Speed was not an issue. When I was a reporter, if I covered a 10 a.m. meeting, I had all day to think about it, digest it — time for a copy editor to read it, copy edit it, put the perfect headline on it, we could all think about it, we could proof the pages, and everything was — well, we now live in a world where if the president has a press conference at ten o’clock and it ends at 10:30, the reader has the right, the correct expectation, that he or she will know something by 10:32, if not sooner. And of course that’s going to invite some modest mistakes. So I would argue that the modest mistakes, which we should still avoid, are worth the cost of, in fact, giving people speed, up-to-the-minute news, and to really cover the world in a live way.

When will we have a better understanding of what will result from the work you’re doing with David Leonhardt to reshape the Times newsroom?
People have noticed some things and we’ve announced others, like the restructuring of the copy desk — these are things that aren’t as sexy, but they’re fairly radical. We announced the creation of a print hub, which is a big deal. Before the end of the year, we will probably start drawing some conclusions about what the newsroom should look like. But I will also say it’s gonna take years. Because, you know, if we had done it five years ago, we wouldn’t have done it for the phone. The main thing that’s gonna happen, it’s not gonna be a restructuring of the newsroom in a stratified way — I mean, the newsroom I run now was built over many years and will remain largely static. This is going to have to be a newsroom that will be nimble, because I don’t know how people are gonna be reading it five years from now. I mean, who would have thought ten years ago that most people would read us on the phone?

The Transcripts: A Master Class in What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media by Those In the Know