A crowd of over 1,000 gathered in the Staller Center on Feb. 23 to hear a candid conversation between Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times, and School of Journalism Dean Howard Schneider.
“Dean comes here at an extraordinary moment in the life of journalism and in the life of the country,” Schneider said while introducing Baquet. “Not only in Washington, where journalists are being described as enemies of the people, but in living rooms across the country, there is this battle that’s raging about what we can trust and what we can believe … the country is totally divided.”
Baquet opened by praising Schneider, calling the dean of the School of Journalism “a truly creative spirit.” He and Schneider have maintained a professional relationship since their days serving as editors of the Los Angeles Times and Newsday respectively, which were both owned by the Tribune Company at the time.
The conversation started with a discussion of President Donald Trump, mainly the Times’ coverage of the 2016 presidential election and subsequent coverage of the newly minted president. Early on, Baquet made a case for the ultimate objectivity of The New York Times, responding to criticism that the paper’s coverage of President Trump has served to normalize the new administration.
“It is our role to provide muscular and fair coverage of the transformation of government under Donald Trump,” Baquet said. “It is not our role to be the house organ for the loyal opposition. In this country, the opposition eventually comes back to power. They expect us to remain loyal, and then we become nothing more than a pathetic lapdog.”
The biggest round of applause for the evening came when Baquet reaffirmed that he is still willing to go to jail in order to publish Trump’s tax returns. Baquet’s comment launched a discussion with Schneider about the possible erosion of press freedoms.
“It doesn’t deter me,” he said. “It just worries me.”
Schneider said the crowd at this “My Life As” event was the largest crowd to date, which he attributed to a renewed interest in journalism with the election of Donald Trump.
“Donald Trump’s presidency has made the country aware of a lot of very important issues regarding the press and its future,” Schneider said. “I wish we would’ve had some Trump supporters asking questions. They may have been in the audience, but it would have been nice to hear from them.”
After the lecture, The Statesman’s Skyler Gilbert posed a question to the editor, wondering what Baquet would do in the event that the Trump administration rescinded the press briefing credentials of Times reporters.
“I don’t care,” Baquet said. “We’ll cover them other ways. I might even be a little relieved not to have to go to those goddamn press briefings. There are advantages to reporting when the person you are reporting on doesn’t want to give you access. It forces you to go find sources someplace else, it forces you to go to coffee shops with people who work in the White House, it forces you to get out of the press room and just work the room and find different sources. It forces you out of the bubble where the press conferences were held, and that’s good too.”
Baquet’s comments on the matter now hold a newfound relevance, as reporters from The New York Times, CNN, The Los Angeles Times and Politico were barred from the White House press briefing just one day after his statement.
Baquet grew up in a family of five in New Orleans, the son of a mailman who left his job and sold his home in order to start a restaurant. He took his first ever plane ride at the age of 18, flying north in order to study English at Columbia University.
While Baquet would remain at Columbia from 1974 to 1978, he ultimately dropped out before receiving his degree to begin working for The Times-Picayune, a paper operating in his hometown. Baquet joined the Chicago Tribune in 1984, where he won a Pulitzer Prize for his involvement in the investigation of corruption within the Chicago City Council. He rose to his current position at the Times in 2014, after serving as managing editor for three years under the previous executive editor, Jill Abramson.
His early work in the trenches taught Baquet a lesson he would touch on, in one way or another, throughout the lecture.
“Everyone, literally everyone, has a story,” Baquet said. “We just have to shut up and listen.”
When asked about his paper’s coverage of the election cycle, Baquet expressed regret at what he saw as a lack of understanding of Trump supporters on the part of the Times.
“We have to understand the people who say we don’t understand them,” Baquet said.
In particular, Baquet said he wished he could go back in time and remove the election prediction meter from the homepage of The New York Times website, which at one point had given Hillary Clinton a chance of victory above 80 percent.
“That meter was more confident than any of us in the newsroom,” he said.
Although Baquet did not mince words about his paper’s less than perfect election coverage, he stood by the Times’ coverage of Hillary Clinton — particularly her email scandal — when confronted by an audience member who was applauded by the crowd after saying the paper’s biased coverage of the Democratic nominee led him to cancel his subscription. Although the attendee thought the Times was unfair to Clinton, the paper chose to endorse her in the 2016 election.
“I don’t regret our coverage of Comey’s letter,” Baquet said. “I don’t think we were unfair to Hillary Clinton. We have also tried to cover Trump aggressively, I think if you don’t read us, you’ll miss out on important information.”
In the face of an adversarial presidential administration, an abundance of fake news and an ever-changing business model, Baquet still managed to characterize himself as an optimist, excited for the future of journalism as a whole. Citing the increase in the Times’ print circulation, he said Trump’s presidency has mobilized a greater interest in journalism than he has seen since the 1960s.
“I honestly believe that in the long haul, if you are tough, if you are accurate, you are a must read,” Baquet said. “People will read you because they have to. I’m not worried, in fact I’m profoundly optimistic. If that’s the future of journalism, I want in.”
After the lecture, Nomi Solo, the wife of late Stony Brook chemistry professor Dick Solo, praised the efforts of the School of Journalism in bringing Baquet to campus.
“We’re very thrilled with the presence of the journalism school on the campus,” Solo said. “We think Howard Schneider has done a fabulous job in making this school stand out and by bringing to us fabulous journalism dignitaries right to our backyard.”