NEW YORK – Of the many political controversies that have roiled the United States in the recent past, The New York Times has had a particular involvement in two: One involves suspicions of Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election campaign; the other is related to complaints that surfaced earlier this year about possible improper sexual behavior on the part of former Vice President Joe Biden.
Biden was seen to be the frontrunner in the polls to become the Democratic Party’s nominee in the 2020 presidential election (he's expected to announce his candidacy on Thursday), but then the Times published testimonies of two women concerning his conduct. It was not by chance that the two took their accounts to the Times. Above and beyond its prestigious status – “the most important newspaper in the world,” as it’s regularly dubbed – the Times, more than any other newspaper, has spurred the rise of the #MeToo movement. The first domino to fall on its watch, in October 2017, in the wake of a sensational investigative report citing dozens of cases of sexual attacks and harassment, was Harvey Weinstein. The Hollywood mogul is now standing trial in New York on charges of rape and sexual assault against two women.
“It all started when I remembered a previous story we had uncovered, about a large settlement that was paid to a woman who accused Bill O’Reilly [longtime Fox News commentator] of sexual harassment,” Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times, told Haaretz.
The exposé Baquet is referring to, which ran in the paper in January 2017, revealed that Fox had reached an arrangement involving monetary compensation for talk-show host Juliet Huddy. Huddy had accused O’Reilly of trying to force himself on her, of phoning her while pleasuring himself, of receiving her in his hotel room in his underwear, and of working to sabotage her career at Fox when she rejected his advances.
“I assigned two reporters to look into it again, and they found that Bill O’Reilly had made large settlements to women,” Baquet recalls. Fox, it turned out, had paid tens of millions of dollars in hush money to five different women who alleged that they had been subjected to sexual harassment by O’Reilly. The investigative report detailing these subsequent developments was published in April 2017 and put an end to the career of one of the most powerful figures in the American media. But for Baquet, this was only the beginning.
“That to me opened up a whole new line of reporting,” he explains. “It’s hard to prove these #MeToo allegations; it’s one person’s word versus another person’s word, and they were often alone. But suddenly, when it emerged that some companies might have made such settlements, I realized that there was a new way to report the phenomenon, a new way to prove the allegations. I asked the editors involved and some of the reporters to find out whether there were other people in Hollywood or in the business world who were known for harassing women.”
The Times devoted no less than half a year to the investigation that landed the paper with a 2018 Pulitzer Prize for public service journalism, and gave millions of women around the world the confidence to speak out after decades of being silent – and being silenced. The Pulitzer citation credited The Times, together with The New Yorker, which conducted its own investigation of Weinstein, for “explosive, impactful journalism that exposed powerful and wealthy sexual predators, including allegations against one of Hollywood’s most influential producers, bringing them to account for long-suppressed allegations of coercion, brutality and victim silencing, thus spurring a worldwide reckoning about sexual abuse of women.”
Baquet admits that when he sent his reporters on what could have been a fishing expedition, he had no idea what a whopper they would catch. It was known that “there were people who had long had a reputation in their industries” as sexual predators, Baquet notes, but the paper had no idea about Weinstein. “Reporters started making calls, and they came back and said one of the people who has this kind of reputation is Harvey Weinstein.”
Baquet, 62, was born in New Orleans. His father ran a Creole restaurant and with his wife raised four sons in a small apartment in the rear of the business. He came to journalism by chance, after getting a summer internship at a Louisiana newspaper while a college student at Columbia University. He left school to pursue a career in journalism and at 32, after four years at The Chicago Tribune, shared a Pulitzer for investigative reporting in 1988 with two colleagues for a series that exposed corruption in Chicago’s City Council.
In 1990, he joined the Times, and a decade later moved to The Los Angeles Times where, in 2005, he began to serve as editor. He was let go for rejecting management’s demand to slash the news staff, and returned to The New York Times in 2007, serving as Washington bureau chief, national editor, assistant managing editor and, beginning in September 2011, managing editor. He has been executive editor, the highest position in the Times’ newsroom, since May 2014, and is the first African American to hold the position. He is married to writer Dylan Landis.
Many readers will probably be happy to discover that you became chief editor of The New York Times without an academic degree. Do you regret dropping out of Columbia?
Baquet: “I regret that people look to my dropping out of college as a good thing – though it was a good thing for me. (Laughs heartily) You know, I grew up in New Orleans, and before going to college I had never even been on an airplane, I had never been outside of Louisiana or Mississippi. I was an English major, and I was homesick and I didn’t know what I wanted to do – teach, go to law school, be a writer – I had no idea. So I show up at Columbia, which was 90 percent white, and it was a complete culture shock. I had never been to school with even one white student, all the way from primary school through high school. And now I was in classes where I was the only black student. It took me a while to get used to it, but it was the best thing that had ever happened to me.”
In the summer between his junior and sophomore years, Baquet went home and got a job at the now-defunct New Orleans States-Item. He took the next semester off and worked for almost a year. The editor urged him to finish his studies, promising to hire him after graduation. “I tried,” says Baquet, but “I missed the newsroom. I had found what I wanted to do. So I went back to the paper and never finished school.”
In his restrained and self-effacing style, Baquet talks about the drama that rocked the Times in the weeks before the paper broke the Weinstein story on October 5, 2017. He reveals how an error of judgment on his part almost ruined it – one of the paper’s most important investigations in recent years. After learning that The New Yorker was working on the same story – its report ended up appearing on October 10 – “I told the two reporters involved [Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey] that we have to move quickly, we have to get this published,” he says now.
“They and their editor [Rebecca Corbett] said no, they thought the story would have much more power if we could quote some movie stars by name, because that would resonate with people. But I just kept saying, ‘Let’s get this published.’ And then one very traumatic night, Jodi Kantor walked in and said, tearfully as I recall it, that Ashley Judd had agreed to go on the record. And in the end they were right: I think the stories had such an impact because these were famous women – it’s unfortunate that society does not believe women who are not famous. I think having Ashley Judd and Gwyneth Paltrow in the headlines made people take notice and attracted more attention to the story.”
A few weeks ago, on April 2, a big headline in the Times blared, “Biden’s Tactile Politics Threaten His Return in the #MeToo Era.” But as can be gleaned from the report, Biden is not exactly Weinstein, and “tactile politics” turns out to have its own dynamics. According to the item, one of the women who complained, Caitlyn Caruso, said she met Biden three years ago at an event at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, when she was just 19. “Biden rested his hand on her thigh – even as she squirmed in her seat to show her discomfort – and hugged her ‘just a little bit too long’ at an event on sexual assault,” wrote reporters Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Sydney Ember, quoting Caruso.
Another complainant, D.J. Hill, a writer of 59, said she met Biden in 2012 at a fundraiser in Minneapolis. She told the paper that, as she and her husband posed with the then-vice president for a photograph, Biden “put his hand on her shoulder and then started dropping it down her back, which made her ‘very uncomfortable.’” Hill said nothing at the time, “and acknowledged that she does not know what Mr. Biden’s intention was or whether he was aware of her discomfit,” according to the article.
The Republicans, lead by President Donald Trump, were quick to gloat, but there were some who saw the whole matter as a tempest in a teapot – or even little better than character assassination. “Biden’s behavior, as the women who complained about it have said, doesn’t rise to the level of sexual harassment, and as such, it’s not disqualifying on its own,” Amanda Marcotte, an avowed feminist and author of the book “It’s a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments,” told Politico.
A far fiercer attack against the Times was launched by Judith Shulevitz, who writes for the paper on issues related to feminism. “Don’t pretend to be having an elevated discussion of public policy when you’re conducting character assassination. You have come to bury Uncle Joe, not review his record. Own up to it,” she is quoted in Politico, railing against her “fellow pundits.”
Michelle Goldberg, a regular New York Times columnist, also lambasted what she saw as a disproportionate response to the allegations and to the attempt to stigmatize Biden in a way that would force him to abandon his possible plan to run in the 2020 election. “I don’t necessarily blame him,” she wrote in the paper, explaining that his “avuncular pawing” is not “a #MeToo story,” but rather a testimony to the growing disparity between Biden and “an increasingly progressive Democratic Party.”
Baquet is not rattled by the uproar, as he makes clear in our conversation: “There were the easy cases, like Harvey Weinstein, and there are some really difficult cases, like the Joe Biden case,” he observes, “where different people have different interpretations of his actions.” Baquet does not think his paper was wrong to publish the story about the former senator and vice president: “I think it’s healthy for society to debate these things and talk about them.”
Weinstein should not be the yardstick when it comes to what to publish, adds the editor: “Women said they were uncomfortable with Joe Biden. They didn’t feel like he was coming on to them, but there were women who said he made them uncomfortable. I think we need to listen to these women.”
Blow to the ego
In any event, it’s not just the Biden reports that gladdened Trump’s heart in recent weeks. The president has also been buoyed by the conclusions of the report by special counsel Robert Mueller, according to which there is apparently no evidence of a conspiracy between the president or his confidants and Russia, to attempt to tilt the 2016 presidential election. “No collusion, no obstruction,” Trump tweeted before shifting to a characteristic attack mode. He labeled the investigation a “hoax” and added that a probe like this “should never happen to another president again.”
For Baquet, even if he won’t admit it, the outcome, as things stand now, was more than a glancing blow to the ego. After all, the Times published numerous investigative reports and myriad op-eds and articles about the problematic connection between Trump and individuals with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. As in the case of Weinstein, coverage of the story landed the paper a Pulitzer this year (together with The Washington Post), giving the Times a grand total of 127 of the prestigious prizes since they were first awarded in 1917.
Trump, who was elected president while riding the wave of a furious war he waged and continues to wage against the media, called on the Pulitzer people to revoke the award. In response, the Times issued a statement clarifying that, “Every @nytimes article cited [by the prize committee] has proven accurate.”
Baquet continues to stand behind the paper’s position: “I’m comfortable with our reporting, I think it was accurate, I don’t think we overplayed the story. It was a huge story, I mean what Mueller did find was that the Russian government, Russian intelligence influenced the presidential election. That’s an amazing story.”
Do you really believe that Trump was not aware of this, as Mueller contends?
“I don’t know the answer, to be honest. I do know that people went to individuals around Donald Trump and offered Russian assistance, like Don, Jr., and they all said yes, bring it on.”
For Trump and the Times, the Mueller brouhaha is one more skirmish in the conflict the two sides have been engaged in since Trump emerged as the leading candidate in the Republican primaries three years ago. The confrontation reached a peak this past February, when the president seemed to cross a dangerous red line and descend even lower than usual in terms of vulgarity and militancy. “The New York Times reporting is false,” Trump tweeted. “They are a true ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!” He was responding to another Times investigative report, about the president’s attempt to sabotage Mueller’s inquiry.
Unusually, the Times’ publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, decided himself to publish a rebuttal. “In demonizing the free press as the enemy, simply for performing its role of asking difficult questions and bringing uncomfortable information to light, President Trump is retreating from a distinctly American principle,” Sulzberger wrote. “It’s a principle that previous occupants of the Oval Office fiercely defended regardless of their politics, party affiliation, or complaints about how they were covered.”
The statement added, “As I have repeatedly told President Trump face to face, there are mounting signs that this incendiary rhetoric is encouraging threats and violence against journalists at home and abroad.”
(Trump repeated the “enemy” characterization this week in a tweet, and said the Times’ editors needed to “get down on their knees & beg for forgiveness.”)
Despite the ongoing assault by Trump, there’s no need to be overly concerned about the Times’ situation or status: Far from bringing the paper to heel these past years, Trump has only empowered it; instead of marginalizing the Times, the president thrust it into the heart of the public dialogue. But most important for Baquet and Sulzberger – Trump’s tirades have helped to bring about an improvement in the paper’s financial situation, increased its public exposure dramatically and indirectly bolstered the activity of the newsroom.
Specifically, according to data publicized by the Times in February, in the last quarter of 2018, the paper’s number of digital subscribers stood at an all-time high, with an unprecedented 27 percent leap compared to the identical period in 2017 and no fewer than 265,000 new subscribers to the digital edition in the last quarter. “More than 3.3 million people pay for the company’s digital product… The total number of paid subscriptions for digital and print reached 4.3 million, a high,” the Times reported.
With the surge in digital subscribers in 2018, revenues from advertising in the internet editions rose at a record rate of 23 percent in the last quarter of the year. The improvement in the paper’s balance sheet, contrary to the dominant trend in the traditional print press, allowed the Times last year to hire the particularly large number of 120 new newsroom staff, thereby increasing the number of journalists at the paper to no fewer than 1,600, the highest number since its founding, in 1851.
“Short-term, he did help us,” Baquet says about Trump’s effect on the paper. “Long-term I fear he hurt us.” He attributes the sharp rise in readership since 2016 to the fact that people “are just more interested in politics and care more about the news, either because they love him or they don’t like him. And lots of people started to subscribe, partly to support us, because he was attacking independent journalists, and partly because they wanted us to get him.”
If things are so good, why he is worried? “If the president keeps saying we are fake news, we are enemies of the people, I fear that’s going to hurt us in the long run among other readers.” Most of the paper’s readers are liberals, notes Baquet, “but I don’t want to be read by just one segment of the population. If we’re not read widely, I think that that’s not a healthy place for a newspaper to be. I want people to read us, otherwise you can’t have impact.”
‘Journalism is a struggle’
Trump may have been the first to speak about the paper in terms of “fake news” and as “an enemy of the people,” but he’s not the reason the Times has been identified with the liberal wing of American politics for decades. Baquet agrees that the Times’ official editorials are liberal, but in the same breath emphasizes, “In regard to news coverage, I think it’s fair, even if we’ve slipped up occasionally.”
But Fox News says exactly the same thing. If they’re accused of being conservative, they insist that a distinction has to be made between their commentary programs and their news coverage. So what’s the difference?
“The difference is that I try to be fair, I work really hard at that. I don’t think they try. Journalism is a struggle, a struggle to make sure you’re being accurate and being fair. But their business model is based on selling their opinion to the public, not on chasing news stories.”
Still, even Times staffers question Baquet’s distinction between liberal editorial line and the balanced news pages. “Why is it that conservatives, and even many moderates, see in The Times a blue-state [Democratic] worldview?” the paper’s public editor, Liz Spayd, wrote in 2016. (The public editor, a position that the paper abolished in 2017, served as an ombudsman, checking complaints about factual accuracy and objectivity, and so on.) Referring to a view that Baquet also espouses – that readers are capable of distinguishing between opinions and news – she wrote, “I’m not so sure all do [make the distinction], especially when the website makes neighbors of the two and social platforms make them nearly impossible to tease apart.”
Baquet is aware of the criticism. “In print, you know, the news was on the front page, the opinion stuff was 20 pages in. Now with the phone, the little surface, it’s harder to make that separation, and we have to figure out how to do that. And we also have to keep telling people that there’s a difference between news and opinion.”
Spayd also objected to the decision to allow political advertisements in 2016 on the homepage of the paper’s internet site – and it’s a safe guess that the ads in question were not in favor of Trump’s candidacy. “Even for me, who fully knows an ad from a news story, seeing [Hillary] Clinton’s smiling face when I’ve come to read the news can be rather jarring,” she wrote.
In February, Jill Abramson, Baquet’s predecessor as executive editor (2011-2014), published “Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts” – 544 pages of riveting analysis of the work of the American media in the 21st century. The book will probably be remembered for a few paragraphs containing a direct attack by her on the newspaper and on Baquet personally. “Though Baquet said publicly that he didn’t want the Times to be the opposition party, his news pages were unmistakably anti-Trump,” Abramson wrote – and, unsurprisingly, became the instant new heroine of Fox News and numerous other conservative media outlets.
For the only time in our conversation, Baquet squirms a bit when he’s asked to comment on Abramson’s critique. Although it’s plain that he disagrees with her, he doesn’t want to turn the argument into a story about a personal rivalry between the two of them. Finally, he says, “I think she was probably trying to sell the books. I’ll be forgiving of her in that regard.”
An example of the fine line that exists between opinion and news can be found in the headline of a much talked-about item that the paper published in September 2016, just two months before Election Day. “Donald Trump Clung to ‘Birther’ Lie for Years, and Still Isn’t Apologetic,” the headline read, referring to a claim that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. The use of the word “lie” in this context was exceptional even in Times terms.
In retrospect, Baquet, despite all the criticism he’s faced lately, far from being contrite about that headline, takes credit for it. “I made the decision, so I was very involved in that,” he says, terming it “a big moment in the history of The New York Times.”
“All politicians lie to some degree,” he continues, “but there are degrees of lying. Some politicians say, ‘My program will feed a million people,’ and they know it’s only going to feed half a million. If you called all of those things lies, think what your newspaper would look like. Trump is in a different class: His exaggerations and his falsehoods are strong. But a lie assumes that the person actually consciously knows they are lying. And there was no question in this case. This wasn’t an offhand remark, this was a sustained powerful public statement by a man who was now vying to be the president of the United States.
“When Trump said, ‘I will admit that Barack Obama was born in the United States,’ the politics editor raised the question of now using the word ‘lie.’ I went and read everything Trump had said about Barack Obama and where he was born over the years, and it was clearly a lie. So I made the decision. It was the right decision and I am very proud of it.”
When Baquet takes pride in labeling Trump a “liar,” it’s important for him to stress that he is wearing the mantle of an objective news editor – or a “fair” one, as he insists – and not to treat it as the expression of a personal political viewpoint. Similarly, when he’s asked if he thinks Trump is dangerous, he distances himself from the issue diplomatically and tries to look at the question through the chief-editor prism. “I think he’s done some things that are particularly dangerous to the press and to other independent institutions, like the judiciary. I think it is dangerous when he calls us ‘enemies of the people’ – I mean, that’s a very powerful statement. I’m reluctant to say whether or not he’s dangerous. I’ll let others make that determination.”
So maybe instead of insisting on news coverage fairness, it’s time to take off the gloves and take a stand with the opposition against the president?
“Once you take that path, you can never go back. Once you decide that we’re going to discard all of our history of trying to provide some sort of open-minded coverage, then this is who we are. I not only have the job of running The New York Times’ coverage, I have the job of preserving The New York Times for my successors. Once we do that, we will be seen as an institution that takes sides.”
But you will be seen like that regardless.
“I know, but I can say honestly that I don’t believe that description. I don’t love the word ‘objective,’ I think the right word is ‘fair.’ And here’s the other reason: If you become the opposition, you really are aligning yourself with the rest of the opposition, right? Well, eventually the opposition in the United States comes back into power, and then what are you? There are some really good opposition news organizations in America. Take The Nation [a progressive, liberal American weekly]. If The Nation had written a story about Donald Trump’s tax returns, nobody would read it, nobody would believe it. People would assume that The Nation is opposed to Donald Trump, so they went and found a story in order to get Donald Trump. But when we did that, even if you don’t like us, you read it and you believed it. If we were seen as the opposition, anything negative we would write would be taken as part of that stance.”
Listening to Baquet talk about Trump and about the danger he believes the president poses to such important U.S. institutions as the media and the judiciary – it’s hard not think about Trump’s political ally and friend Benjamin Netanyahu. In Trump’s wake, the Israeli prime minister adopted the term “fake news,” to refer to any coverage critical of him, and long before him treated the Israel media and judiciary as integral elements of the opposition.
“Trump and Netanyahu are one person,” the Times’ senior columnist Thomas L. Friedman told the financial newspaper Globes last month, in an interview during a visit to Israel. “They both merge into the same personality. They’re like ‘Donald Netanyahu Trump’ or ‘Benjamin Donald Netanyahu.’”
Baquet laughs at hearing this. “Well, Tom gets to have his opinion, and I have to accept it,” he says. But Baquet also takes note of the striking resemblances between the two leaders. “I think they are both people who are pretty certain of themselves and I think they are both politicians who know how to talk over the elites and over the press, and talk to their constituency directly. I think they both have the ability to create the notion that they are under attack by elites and want their constituents to protect them. I think they are very good at that.”
As an outside observer, do you think that the fact that Israel has already had a president and a prime minister who have gone to jail, and now has a prime minister facing possible indictment in three separate cases, is testimony to a corrupt democracy or, on the contrary, to the resilience of the Israeli democracy, which doesn’t let its leaders off?
“It’s a sign of the strength of a democracy that you can indict politicians. I do think American democracy is resilient. I can make the case that the election of Donald Trump is a sign of a very strong democracy. The people who voted for Trump sent a signal to professional politician: ‘Guys, we’re angry at you.’ And then, when they got mad at Trump, they threw out a bunch of members of the House of Representatives, which was their way of saying, ‘Mr. President, we want people keeping an eye on you.’ That shows a very strong democracy. Americans constantly elect the people they want and then make sure they elect people to keep an eye on them.”
We are seeing attempts by both Trump and Netanyahu men to separate the personal aspect from their political activity. Do you think a leader can be judged solely by his achievements, divorced from his personal comportment?
“I think you can’t be a great leader if you are corrupt. Part of leadership is getting things done, but that’s only part of it. Leadership also involves setting a tone. For example, Barack Obama showed America a black man with a strong wife and two smart children. That has nothing to do with policies, but it’s still part of leadership. If you’re corrupt, that’s also part of leadership. It sends the wrong signal to the country, to people. One of the things I would criticize Donald Trump for is that he’s made the debate a little bit nastier. Leaders should elevate the debate and not ridicule people who disagree with them. That has not been a helpful element in the leadership style of Donald Trump.”
Baquet is polite, affable, laughs abundantly, doesn’t evade any question and displays not one iota of self-importance despite his lofty position at the vaunted New York Times. Perhaps it’s not surprising to find that, while embarrassing details continue to emerge in Israel about secret meetings and personal ties between party leaders and local newspaper editors, Baquet himself makes a point of keeping the greatest distance possible between him and the centers of power in Washington.
“It’s a matter of principle,” he explains. “Being the editor of a big newspaper puts you very close to power. Power is very seductive and power can be corruptive. I don’t want to know things that I can’t tell my reporters. I don’t want to be a guy who goes to dinner at the White House and chuckles with the president, whether Democrat or Republican. I think that’s very corrosive and unhealthy.”
Baquet wants it to be clear that this is an issue of principle, not related to Trump’s politics or his war on the Times. He recalls that when he was the paper’s bureau chief in Washington, he refused, for the same reasons, to meet with President Obama for off-the-record conversations. “I didn’t even go to the White House Christmas party,” he adds.
Do you see anything positive in Trump’s term in office so far?
“I think he has forced America to pay attention to people who felt disenfranchised. There are people in the center of the country who feel like they have been left behind, who feel like the people in positions of power don’t want to listen to them. Some of those people voted for Bernie Sanders, too. Many people in America thought that after the last financial crisis, everything was fine, but now people are telling us, ‘Stop, no, that’s not the case, pay attention to us.’ And I think Donald Trump has helped send the signal that we need to pay attention to those people. And I think that has been important.”