In the swirl of the Jill Abramson firing, a couple of things being said about the new executive editor, Dean Baquet, didn’t sync with my impression of him. I looked back at this video of a forum I hosted at USC Annenberg with Baquet when he had just become managing editor of The New York Times, and saw why.
What I had found most worrisome was Glenn Greenwald’s charge that Baquet has “a really disturbing history of practicing this form of journalism that is incredibly subservient to the American national security state.” When I looked back at the video of Baquet at the USC Director’s Forum on Oct. 27, 2011, I was struck by the fact that he had opened the session with an impassioned call for national-security reporting.
He talked about a call he got, when he was executive editor of the Los Angeles Times, from George Tenet, then director of the CIA. Tenet asked him to hold a story about the CIA, which was spying on the Iranian community in the U.S. Baquet told us that he held the story for a day so as to be able to review it, then called Tenet back and said he’d be running it.
Baquet talked to the gathering of students and faculty about other such stories, as well, including the New York Times reporting on National Security Agency surveillance. He noted that he had had conversations with folks in both the Obama and the Bush administrations on national-security issues, “and the argument is always the same.”
“But so far, not a single bit of evidence — even in the case of Wikileaks, which I edited — has emerged to prove that any of these stories has threatened national security. I’d argue that, in each case, it’s the newspaper that’s being the patriot.”
Like most editors I know, Baquet has indeed presided over decisions not to print. But his remarks at the forum speak to a strength of conviction that I found reassuring. (More reassuring than Baquet’s retort to Richard Prince, calling Greenwald “idiotic” for making the charge.)
The second striking thing in the video was what Baquet had to say about Jill Abramson’s hiring as editor.
A piece about Abramson by Ken Auletta had just run in the New Yorker when the USC forum occurred. I asked Baquet about the notion in that story that, in the end, Arthur Sulzberger’s choice had come down to Jill or Dean, and if the publisher had chosen Dean, he would have lost Jill. In picking Jill, he got both of them. Baquet nodded, adding: “I actually think… Arthur made the right decision.”
“I think that Jill had a lot going for her. She had worked in that newsroom.” (Baquet had been running the New York Times Washington bureau). “She’s a terrific editor.” The Auletta piece “didn’t capture some of the things she had done,” he added, saying it should have been “more about the journalism.”
Baquet continued: “When Arthur called me, I thought, ‘terrific!’ ” (He also noted that he’d been a managing editor twice, and executive editor once. “Being managing editor is about a billion times more fun. Like being coach versus being general manager: You get to hang out with the players.”
As for some of the things Auletta reported about Jill’s leadership style, “I do think that when women in leadership – the tradition of this sort of a cantankerous editor is a much more acceptable tradition for male editors than it is for women who become editor.”
Referring to the infamously difficult Times editor Abe Rosenthal, Baquet said: “In her defense…Abe is portrayed by history as a tyrant. I don’t think that’s Jill. That’s not Jill at all.”
One other thing worth noting about the forum is that Baquet speaks at length about his great enthusiasm for journalism’s new tools. Given that his supposed relative lack of passion — and relative inexperience — on the digital side of things was another concern voiced in the wake of Abramson’s firing, the eagerness with which he talked to students on this topic is noteworthy.