‘I Know People Want a Richer, More Thoughtful Explanation’

The New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet discusses a controversial headline decision and why the paper’s editorial process needs to change.

"It is a headline we didn’t like, obviously, and we changed it when we saw it." — Dean Baquet (Mike Coppola)

Yesterday, The New York Times received intense criticism from journalists, readers, and politicians for its initial front-page headline: “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism.” The article was about the president’s televised address on Monday, after the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, in which he mentioned the need to “condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy”a stark contrast from his typical “both sides” rhetoric.

Though the story itself examined Trump’s history of spewing divisive language, and questioned his ability to unify the country at this moment, the headline sparked outrage and disappointment. The columnist Connie Schultz called the title a “betrayal.” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that the headline served as “a reminder of how white supremacy is aided by—and often relies upon—the cowardice of mainstream institutions.” A Times spokesperson told me that the paper saw a “higher volume” of subscription cancellations yesterday than normal.

By the second edition, the Times headline had been changed to “Assailing Hate but Not Guns.” The paper’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, has called the original “a bad headline.” Perhaps predictably, there was backlash to the backlash, with the president and others voicing their disapproval about the change. Baquet talked with me yesterday afternoon about the editorial process that led to the headline, and the fallout. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Lizzie O’Leary: So, “Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism.” How did it happen?

Dean Baquet: It is a headline we didn’t like, obviously, and we changed it when we saw it. I think what happened was the print newspaper is a mechanical thing. Sometimes people forget that. And in addition to being a beloved thing, I think we created a design for the front page that gave the copy desk too few words to play with on a story, and in an area of coverage that was incredibly subtle. I mean, yesterday’s coverage had to do with whether a president who had himself said many divisive things could get away with saying “Let’s all come together.” Whether that same president and whether the country was willing to confront gun violence. And meanwhile, the dramatic turn of attention to white supremacy. A lot of stuff going on in the story. And I think we designed a page that gave the copy editor about five words to capture the news of the day. The copy desk came up with a headline that was too simple and didn’t have enough skepticism or questioning about Trump and his motives, and whether or not he was qualified to call for unity.

O’Leary: Did you see it beforehand?

Baquet: No. And to be honest, that’s not unusual in the era we’re in.

O’Leary: This is a high-profile story, though.

Baquet: Yeah. But we have high-profile stories all across the internet all day—and by the way, some of what I’m about to say should change now—but the days when half a dozen masthead editors focus all day on the print front page, and that is the main vehicle for getting news to Americans, that has changed dramatically in the era we’re in. We have video; we have an internet that is constantly updated.

And I think I, personally, should pay more attention to the print front page, maybe, than I did yesterday. But in this case what happened is the page is drawn. The headline is written and then the page is sent later that evening to masthead editors—all of whom are home at that point. I personally don’t focus enough on it; I should focus on it more. But as soon as we all saw the headline, Matt Purdy, one of the deputy managing editors, pretty quickly sent me a note questioning the headline. And we immediately started … but one edition had already gone out.

O’Leary: It’s the one that landed on my doorstep this morning in Michigan.

Baquet: I think it’s probably the edition that landed in the middle of the country, which is unfortunate. So the first edition closes, at this point we see we have a bad headline, and we all start scrambling to recast the headline before the next edition deadline. We came up with a headline that I think was better, but not perfect, because we were still working under the construct of a page that I think should have given more room for more words. I know people want a richer, more thoughtful explanation. But the reality is, some of putting out a daily print newspaper is mechanical. So that’s what happened. Somebody jumped in and said we were getting killed on social media, but we recognized this before that and started working on the headline before we knew that.

O’Leary: You have taken time out of your day to talk to me, to talk to a whole bunch of reporters, which makes me think you recognize that explaining this process is important, and that the Times is getting “killed” over this.

Baquet: Yes. Both. I’ve responded a lot to people individually, and none of those people actually understand, because we never explain it in the news business, how this stuff comes together. One person said to me, “You had all day to write the headline,” which is not how the newspaper business works.  And when people don’t understand stuff about journalism, they leap to conclusions. My own view is: I need to be transparent explaining what happened. And also, yeah, we’re getting beat up, and some of the getting beat up, I think, is because in lieu of a greater knowledge, bigger conspiracies develop.

O’Leary:  A newsroom is obviously a professional place. But it’s a very human place. And I was wondering, did you talk to your reporters about this today?

Baquet: Yeah. To several reporters and several editors, and it goes without question [that] a lot of people didn’t like the headline. A lot of people were unhappy. There were reporters and editors who themselves don’t know the processes of print, because a lot of them have come into The New York Times and other newsrooms post-print. I wouldn’t want to quantify the unhappiness, but people have made it clear. What I hope to have is a newsroom where people can come in to me and tell me that they don’t like stuff.

O’Leary: The Times has taken a lot of heat lately. I went back and I looked at the news piece from July 14 about when the president tweeted at four members of Congress—women of color—to go back to their countries. And the paper’s copy reads, “Wrapped inside that insult, which was widely established as a racist trope, was a factually inaccurate claim.”  It seems like the Times is very careful not to use the word racist in news pieces. And I’m curious: What’s the standard for using it?

Baquet: That’s correct. My view is that we are always better off telling and laying out comments rather than characterizing them. All the best journalism I have read about race and racism—and I grew up in the South—is usually describing what people say, and I think that’s a lot more powerful than to just use the word racist loosely. I think the same is true of lie. I think it is much more powerful to describe what someone says with some historical perspective than it is to use the word. I just do. I know many people disagree with me, and I understand that. But that’s my own view.

I think that the weekend when Trump first used the “go back” [trope], Peter Baker wrote a very powerful analysis piece that did what I think we’re supposed to do. It collected Donald Trump’s history, going back to birtherism and going back to his time as a real-estate developer. And without using the word racist, it said, “This is a portrait of a guy who has often used language to divide people.” I think that’s far more powerful than to just drop in the word racist. I believe in the power of reporting, and that’s the way I’ve chosen to go. I know others disagree. I get it, but that’s my view.

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?

Baquet: Yeah. In fact, I think we’re there. I think if we look at some of the analysis pieces we wrote this week, including one by Peter Baker and Mike Shear, that raised the question of whether Donald Trump (because of his previous language and the things he has said in his life and in his career) could be the person to bring the country together in a moment of crisis, that’s very strong analytical language. So I do think we and other news organizations are there. The one thing I would say to Margaret, and to John Temple (who I know from Berkeley), is: So what’s your alternative? Is it to not cover?

If you think our only job is to figure out how to stop the tragedies, I get what you’re saying. That’s not our only job. Part of our job is to make the country look itself in the face. Part of our job is to make sure that the family of some kid who gets shot in a Walmart—that they have a voice, and that people like you and me, who fortunately were not in that situation, get to hear their voice. I think what I would say to John and Margaret [is]: “That’s a really interesting intellectual construct. Let’s cover this completely differently. Let’s not do all the stories we used to do. I get the need for more analysis. I get the need for less objectivity on some subjects, but boy, part of our job is, in fact, to witness and show it.” And we can’t get away with saying “I witnessed and I showed it and nothing changed.” You know, that comes with the territory too.