Pressing Matters

Dean Baquet, the NYT’s Executive Editor, on Jill Abramson, Race, Surviving Cancer—and TMZ Envy

The first months of Dean Baquet’s editorship of The New York Times have been dramatic. Here he talks about the departure of his predecessor, punching walls, and why assigning reporters to warzones keeps him ‘most awake at night.’

09.16.14 9:50 AM ET

Four months ago, when Dean Baquet was elevated to the executive editorship of The New York Times, it was hard enough that his promotion came amid the very public firing of his predecessor—a seismic event in the news biz that generated reams of scandalous coverage.

Worse still, just as Baquet was attempting to reassure his traumatized newsroom in the wake of Jill Abramson’s abrupt departure, he learned that he had a malignant tumor on his left kidney.

“The doctor’s quote to me was something like, ‘I don’t know what your plans are for the next month, but for the next month, you’re mine,’” Baquet (pronounced back-ay) tells me during an exclusive interview in his surprisingly modest office on the third floor of the Times’s Renzo Piano-designed skyscraper. (He has a majestic view of the dingy back entrance of a Hilton hotel.) “It was a complete shock. But I’m fine, by the way. No chemo. They removed the kidney. And it was also an introduction to how public it is to be editor of The New York Times.”

Baquet got a lot of media attention for undergoing emergency surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital. He also received what he describes as “a very nice note” from Abramson—whose tension-filled, 33-month reign was cut short by Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. after Baquet, then managing editor, complained to the publisher over dinner that she’d blindsided him on a key personnel decision (i.e. trying to hire The Guardian’s U.S. editor, Janine Gibson, as Baquet’s co-equal on the masthead.).

“I responded equally warmly,” Baquet says about Abramson’s get-well card. “I would be lying if I said we’re in contact. We’re not.”

Like Abramson, the first woman to lead the Times newsroom, Baquet is an historical figure: He’s the first African American.

“I feel historical pride. I don’t feel weight on my shoulders,” says Baquet, a slightly-built man with graying, close-cropped hair. In 2006, he was fired as top editor of the Los Angeles Times for defying the demands of the Tribune Co. to slash the newsroom staff, and he returned to The New York Times, where he’d started out as a metro reporter in 1990, as Washington bureau chief in 2007. Editing while black is “the kind of position I’ve been in for long enough that I don’t feel pressure. I feel pressure to succeed, because I’m the editor of The New York Times, but I don’t think that’s race-based.”

Baquet acknowledges, however, that race does play a role in his perspective as an editor when approaching such stories as the recent fatal police shooting of an unarmed African American teenager in Ferguson, Missouri.

“Sure, race is a factor in my decisions,” says Baquet, noting that his mother didn’t get past the fourth grade and his father didn’t graduate from high school, but they succeeded anyway and owned a restaurant in his native New Orleans.

Baquet, who left Columbia University without a degree to take a job as a reporter (though he boasts a couple of honorary doctorates if not a B.A.), hasn’t avoided the unpleasant encounters with law enforcement authorities, the frustrations of trying to flag down a vacant taxi and other indignities inflicted by white folks, especially in the South, that are common to black males of a certain age.

“I’m sure that’s why I became an investigative reporter,” he says. “I’m sure that not growing up as part of the power structure makes me want to question the power structure. Sure, it influences the way I look at the world. It’s one of a lot of things that influence the way I look at the world. It’s part of who I am.”

By most accounts, the Times newsroom has calmed since Baquet resumed his duties full time a few weeks after going under the knife. Unlike Abramson, who was notoriously tough on underlings and sometimes a poor and abrasive communicator, Baquet has a people-friendly, inclusive leadership style, albeit punctuated occasionally by an explosive temper. He has been known to punch office walls in fits of anger.

“That only happened twice,” he says sheepishly—once when he was Washington bureau chief, when he actually made a hole in the wall, and another time in New York after an argument with Abramson over whether the paper was “buzzy” enough.

“I have an unfortunate temper that flares up not too often, thank God,” Baquet says. “My temper is usually aimed at people who outrank me—which is a good thing. I get passionate about things. Once it was when a story I cared about wasn’t going on the front page. It explodes every few months. Maybe that’s the price I pay for having my even keel on display all the other times. It hasn’t happened lately.”

Maybe that’s because Baquet is top dog, and the only person who outranks him, aside from Sulzberger, is Times Co. CEO Mark Thompson, a solidly-built, 6-foot-2 import from the BBC. “Mark’s a big guy, so I don’t think I’m going to do that,” Baquet jokes, dating his occasional fiery flashes to childhood. “When I was a kid I used to have temper tantrums on the basketball court,” he says.

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Baquet turns 58 on Sept. 21—meaning that if all goes well, he’ll have enjoyed a 7½-year run as the paper’s top editor when he hits the mandatory retirement age of 65. Still, there are no guarantees. Of Baquet’s recent predecessors, Howell Raines lasted less than two years, his editorship collapsing under the Jayson Blair scandal, and Abramson lasted less than three.

Baquet, who has a long lunch every Wednesday in the executive dining room with Sulzberger, Thompson, Executive Vice President Denise Warren, and Editorial Page Editor Andy Rosenthal—“It’s 70 percent social,” he says—describes his relationship with the publisher as “very good.” Although he wasn’t invited to Sulzberger’s recent wedding to investment portfolio manager Gabrielle Greene, a family affair in Martha’s Vineyard, he did attend a celebratory wedding dinner this past weekend at Barbetta on West 46th Street.

And yet, I tell Baquet, a mere 10 months before Sulzberger fired Abramson and publicly accused her of all sorts of deficiencies, he praised her effusively over a breakfast with this reporter for a Newsweek profile of his then-treasured executive editor.

“Is that a warning?” Baquet asks with a hearty laugh.

In due course, the publisher himself appears, tieless like Baquet on a casual Friday.

“My God!” exclaims Sulzberger, who is also the Times Co. chairman, when he realizes that his editor is being grilled by an outsider. I explain that I’m checking in with Baquet on how it’s going, and I ask Sulzberger the same question.

“I thought you were checking in with Dean,” Sulzberger parries. “Can I steal him for a moment?” he adds, indicating that I should leave. “I thank you, sir,” he adds with baroque gallantry.

Sulzberger shuts the glass door behind me and, after a few minutes’ chat, punctuated by laughter, he departs, saying as we pass each other, “My apologies for the interruption.”

Baquet explains that the publisher had dropped by to consult on Baquet’s first formal meeting with the New York Times Co. board of directors, which takes place this week in San Francisco.

Baquet and his evolving leadership team (he has yet to appoint a managing editor) face daunting challenges. They include turning an institution still dominated by ink-stained wretches into a multi-platform digital powerhouse—the subject of a highly critical internal study delivered a week before Abramson’s dismissal and led by Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, the publisher’s son. It was widely seen as a stinging rebuke to newsroom management, and Baquet says he has been focusing urgently on the Sulzberger report’s prescriptions—changing the focus of the daily 10 a.m. news meeting from the front page of the printed paper to the home page of the digital Times.

“It would be ridiculous of me to say that [the blood lines of the study’s lead author] didn’t have some impact,” he says, adding that he has just tapped Sulzberger cousin and deputy sports editor Sam Dolnick, who was a Polk Award-winning Times metro reporter, to work on the crucial area of how the paper is being presented on mobile devices. “Part of the job of executive editor,” Baquet says, “is to help groom the generation of the [Sulzberger] family that will play leadership roles in the future.”

The Times must also figure out how to overcome the Obama administration’s aggressive criminal prosecutions hampering national security reporting that uses confidential sources and classified material (including the very real prospect that Times reporter James Risen will go to jail for refusing to reveal a source). Abramson was repeatedly and publicly critical of the Obama White House for its attempts to quash public-interest reporting on sensitive national security subjects.

“I am deeply concerned about it…it’s disturbing,” Baquet says of the White House stance. “I’m probably not as likely to get into a public feud with the Obama administration, because I think my job is to cover it. I don’t think it’s my role as executive editor to attack them.” He quickly adds: “That’s not knocking Jill.” 

Baquet responds robustly to a charge by Glenn Greenwald, the pugnacious journalist who won a Pulitzer this year for his reporting in The Guardian on National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, that Baquet caved to the Bush-era intelligence establishment when he was a top editor at the L.A. Times. Greenwald claims that Baquet killed a scoop, provided by a whistleblower at AT&T, on how the NSA was monitoring private communications in a secret room at the telecommunications giant. 

Baquet says that quite the contrary, he put a team of reporters on the tip, and although it turned out to be true a decade later, they could never confirm the facts for a publishable story at the time. “In this case, Greenwald is shooting from the hip,” Baquet says, “and he doesn’t know what the hell he is talking about.”

In addition, Baquet is anguishing over having to send a new generation of war correspondents into harm’s way as President Obama plans military actions in Iraq and Syria. “My biggest concern is how to cover the world right now when it’s really dangerous,” he says, adding that as veteran correspondents rotate home from war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, he’s going to need younger, equally brave but prudent reporters to take their place. “How the hell are we going to cover what is a new, heightened U.S. intervention in a region in which the enemies of the U.S. have proven that they do really bad things to journalists? That’s the thing that keeps me most awake at night.”

It fell to Baquet last month to notify the mother and husband of Times foreign correspondent Alissa J. Rubin, a close friend, when she went down in a helicopter crash in Kurdistan, breaking bones and fracturing her skull. Baquet—who didn’t know the seriousness of Rubin’s condition when he made the distressing phone calls—says she’s now in New York recovering from the ordeal.

Meawhile, on Baquet’s watch, the paper has continued to publish remarkable journalism. Baquet, who earned his reporter’s stripes on the New Orleans Times-Picayune and shared a Pulitzer Prize at the Chicago Tribune for an investigation into corruption on the city council, is especially proud of such recent scoops as an influential account of how Middle Eastern terrorist organizations have reaped at least $165 million in ransom cash by kidnaping European hostages, and a blockbuster investigative piece on aides of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s brazen manipulation of his much-ballyhooed anti-corruption commission in Albany, making sure it didn’t probe the governor’s office. “I was deeply involved in that,” he says.

Still, for all its excellence, even Baquet is hard-pressed to name a recent Times story that has equaled the explosive impact on the popular culture of the gossip website TMZ’s release of the Ray Rice elevator video. For the past week, the images of the Baltimore Ravens running back cold-cocking his now-wife, Janay Palmer, have dominated a spirited national debate from kitchen tables to the White House about the National Football League and spousal abuse.

“You’re not going to hear any dis of TMZ’s Ray Rice video from me,” Baquet says. “I’d like to know how they got it.” Baquet notes, however, that a great deal of public conversation was also sparked by Times reporter Walt Bogdanich’s stunning investigation last April of how local law enforcement authorities dropped the ball on a rape allegation against Florida State University Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. “But I ain’t knocking the fact that TMZ had a great scoop,” Baquet says. “I wish I had it.”