If The New York Times was a person, I would say that they were going through it. On Tuesday, a top editor in the Washington bureau was demoted after he couldn’t stop posting racist tweets. A print headline on Tuesday about Donald Trump’s statements on a weekend of mass shootings was criticized, as the Times itself described it, “for lacking important context.” In order to bring order to chaos, Times executive editor Dean Baquet hosted a 75-minute town hall — and Slate has the transcript.
Highlights (can you call them that?) of the meeting include Baquet’s inability to decide if Trump is too racist to be called “racist” or not bad enough to be called racist. Of calling Trump’s rhetoric and/or actions racist, Baquet initially said, “The best way to capture a remark, like the kinds of remarks the president makes, is to use them, to lay it out in perspective. That is much more powerful than the use of a word.” Only a few minutes later, Baquet was asked about historical use of the word racist. He cited the demonstrations by segregationists in 1957, which were classified as racist, unlike Trump. “I don’t think anybody would avoid using the racist in a scene like that.”
Baquet’s reasoning seems contradictory when reading, and it seemed to be in the room as well. Spread through the transcript are long, long questions by staffers asking Baquet to explain his reasoning, like this one:
Staffer: Yeah, I want to follow up and disentangle a couple of things that I’ve often seen conflated in these meetings. You have questions like “should we call Donald Trump a racist” and these broader discussions of our coverage getting flattened with the reason that I think we’re here today, which is really narrowly the question of how we present the work that we do and the headlines that end up on our work. Because this is sort of the thing that a lot of us who are, in some capacity, public representatives of the Times feel ourselves called to answer for. Because there are these patterns of getting headlines wrong in a very specific way that recur repeatedly and in a way that makes me think that it’s a process issue. And to me, the question of whether you put a phrase like “racial fires” in a headline is not actually about whether we think it’s OK to call Donald Trump racist. It’s whether we think it’s OK to use euphemisms instead of direct, clear speech in a headline. Which I think is a question you would ask of any administration.
And the issue with last week’s headline was not really about Trump per se. It was really more broadly about what kind of credulousness we want to reflect in terms of an administration—any administration. Or about other cases where we’re sort of shying away from the real content of the story to put a milder spin on it in the headline, which is sometimes actively misleading. And the process by which these headlines end up on stories is often kind of opaque, and it’s not always clear whether we’re taking on board the criticism that I think is very valid of a lot of these headlines. It is a real storyline about the Times out there now, that we are kind of repeatedly making mistakes that other people aren’t making so much. And it is something that’s kind of baffling to me from where I sit, and I guess I’m curious what is our process? How are we thinking about it? Do we perceive ourselves making the same errors repeatedly, or do we see these as sort of isolated episodes?
Wildly, Baquet responds to that series of questions with, “I’m going to be really honest. I actually don’t think we make a whole lot more mistakes. I think I’ve made clear I’m going to own up to my mistakes.”