Inside The New York Times as it debates its coverage of Trump and racism
Last Friday, employees at The New York Times received an email from Dean Baquet, the newspaper’s executive editor. Baquet was announcing a newsroom town hall. “It’s an open forum and I’ll take your questions or concerns about anything that is on your mind,” Baquet wrote employees.
The decision was prompted largely by a controversial front page headline The Times had changed following a torrent of backlash, particularly from the left. The first iteration of the headline, which was paired with a story about Trump’s remarks following the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, declared, “Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism.”
The headline drew passionate condemnations from Democratic politicians. Beto O’Rourke said it was “unbelievable.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez argued that it served as “a reminder of how white supremacy is aided by — and often relies upon — the cowardice of mainstream institutions.” And Cory Booker called on The Times to do better, saying that “lives literally depend” on it.
The incident was representative of a larger discussion ongoing within The Times about how to cover Trump and more specifically his racism, according to nine employees who spoke to CNN Business. Unlike some other major newsrooms, more than two years into Trump’s presidency, The Times has not plainly labeled Trump’s series of racist actions and statements as such. Instead, Baquet has opted to explain what Trump has said, allowing readers to decide for themselves whether they consider his comments racist.
The tactic hasn’t been without opposition internally, and it has touched off an internal debate which came to a head last week with the controversial headline. As one staffer explained, “I think there is a general feeling of frustration that we are doing a lot of good work, but there is also a feeling that we need to be doing more to hold Trump rigorously accountable.”
Baquet had already explained to the public what had happened with The Times’ headline. Speaking to The Atlantic, he had largely blamed what he described as a process issue. Baquet said the error was a result of constraints on the amount of words available for the headline on the front page, and that the copy desk “came up with a headline that was too simple and didn’t have enough skepticism.” In his comments, he stressed that the newspaper “is a mechanical thing” which “people forget” sometimes. Nevertheless, The Times recognized its error, he said, and had moved quickly to craft another headline. (Though he freely acknowledged that the second headline was perhaps not ideal either.)
But, Baquet told CNN Business, because of the conversation the headline had let loose inside The Times’ newsroom, and because a series of tweets from a top editor had further frustrated employees, he wanted to talk with his staff. At first, Baquet said, he “started grabbing groups of journalists” together for conversations. Soon after, Baquet said, “It just struck me that I should talk to the whole newsroom.”
Accompanied by The Times’ publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, Baquet convened his staff for a meeting that lasted more than an hour. He explained his position, that it is more powerful to show the reader Trump’s actions than to merely attach a label to them. And, as his invite promised, he took questions. “I took any question anyone wanted to ask,” Baquet recounted to CNN Business during a phone call on Tuesday. “I think most people were thankful that I did that.”
Depending on who you ask in The Times newsroom, Baquet either hit a home run, or took a big swing and missed. Maybe both. “I think it was a mix,” explained one staffer. “Some people felt good about it, and some people did not.”
One thing that bothered some staffers was that Baquet did not spend time at the Monday meeting directly addressing tweets by Jonathan Weisman, a deputy Washington editor at The Times, that had been an embarrassment for the paper. “It was sort of jarring,” one staffer told CNN. But, as some staffers noted, the absence of a conversation on Weisman at the meeting was likely because Baquet didn’t receive any questions from employees on the topic. (The Times announced Tuesday afternoon that Weisman had been demoted for what it termed his “serious lapses in judgment.” Weisman did not respond to a request for comment.)
In regard to the debate on how to cover race, some staffers inside The Times agreed wholeheartedly with Baquet’s approach. “Using that language is a turn off to some readers,” one said. “And there are a lot of people that think The Times is too liberal, and when you start throwing words like that around, people will accuse us of editorializing.”
On the opposing end, another Times staffer countered that the desire to “show and not tell” might be “well intentioned,” but it is ineffective. “It puts a burden on readers and especially those who are maybe less savvy,” the staffer explained. “And when the stakes are so high and so many people feel personally threatened and there’s real danger in the air, the show don’t tell approach feels inadequate.”
When he spoke to CNN Business, Baquet himself acknowledged this tension inside his newsroom. He also acknowledged that it is playing out largely across generational lines. Younger staffers generally feel The Times should be more aggressive and explicit in its coverage of Trump. Older staffers generally prefer taking the more traditional approach espoused by Baquet.
“There is a generational divide in newsrooms right now,” Baquet said. But he flatly rejected the notion that The Times has not covered Trump boldly enough, saying, “My own view is that we are covering Donald Trump very aggressively.”
What Baquet is certain about is that The Times should not serve as a publication of the left. “Our role is not to be the leader of the resistance,” he said, adding that “one of the problems” that would come about if the paper took that role is that “inevitably the resistance in America wins.” Baquet further explained, “Inevitably the people outside power gain power again. And at that point, what are you? You’re just a chump of the people who won. Our role is to hold everybody who has power to account.”
Inside The Times’ newsroom, including from those pushing for more aggressive coverage, most there is a lot of agreement. “We have to remember we are not advocates for the left,” one staffer stressed, adding more bluntly, “We are not f—ing part of the resistance.”
As the political climate intensifies ahead of the 2020 election, Baquet said he does anticipate more criticism of The Times. He noted that politicians have always “sought to discredit independent journalism when they didn’t like what was being reported.” But he also granted that criticism of the press has increased, and took issue with some of what has come from the left.
“I think [Bernie Sanders] did it in a very inappropriate way,” Baquet said, referring to Sanders this week suggesting The Washington Post does not cover him more positively because it is owned by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. “I have never seen any evidence in my conversations with friends at The Washington Post that Jeff Bezos has any influence over coverage. I think in the realm of criticism, that one particularly crossed the line.”
Outside that incident, Baquet did allow that not all criticism is unwarranted. “Sometimes we deserve it,” he said.