When he was growing up in Treme, two visits from early politicians helped shape Dean Baquet’s view of the world.
Baquet, who would go on to a distinguished career in journalism before being named executive editor of The New York Times last year, said the first time he met a politician, it was then-Gov. John McKeithen, who had showed up to give a speech at his school in segregated New Orleans. But with his thick accent, McKeithen “mangled the word ‘Negro’ in a way that made us all sad and angry,” Baquet said.
The next time he saw a politician, it was then-Mayor Moon Landrieu, who approached the students with energy and excitement — something that Baquet said was inspirational.
“I always thought if some enterprising reporter could find a lot of those kids and find out what they’re doing today, how many are in politics, how many care about politics, how many care about events ... you’d find that I wasn’t the only one moved,” Baquet said.
Those experiences, the importance of journalism and the challenges of running perhaps the world’s most prestigious newsroom were all among the topics Baquet touched on Monday as he spoke as part of the Ed Renwick Lecture Series for Loyola University’s Institute of Politics.
Baquet started his journalistic career at the The Times-Picayune after attending Columbia University. He left New Orleans in 1984 for The Chicago Tribune, where he served as the chief investigative reporter, covering politics and the garbage industry, and assistant metro editor for investigations.
While there he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for a series on corruption on the Chicago City Council and was a finalist for another Pulitzer two years later.
Baquet reflected back on his experiences at school in relation to a perhaps surprising topic: The New York Times’ decision not to run examples of the cartoons published by the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo after its offices were attacked and many of its employees were killed by terrorists.
“Maybe, just maybe, it was because the poor kid who was offended by a politician’s racial slur could relate” to a Muslim kid offended by the cartoon and who had nothing to do with the attack, Baquet said. He later added that the graphic nature of many of the publication’s cartoons would also have been too much for the paper.
In defense of the use of anonymous sources and a call for an aggressive press, Baquet noted that as the United States fights against “stateless enterprises,” it is increasingly fighting wars in secret.
“It’s more important we write about those wars,” he said. “If we don’t, we’ll never know how the U.S. government conducts its policy. If they can stop us or they can shut us down, we’ll never know what war looks like in this era.”
President Barack Obama’s administration has been worse than former President George W. Bush’s administration when it comes to secrecy, and it has been more aggressive about prosecuting journalists, Baquet said.
The serious discussions of journalism and politics were balanced with lighter touches. Baquet noted that he’s made sure his obituary in The New York Times will give him “sole and full credit for the best political quote of all time,” when Gov. Edwin Edwards told him on a campaign bus that “the only way I can lose (a coming gubernatorial election) is if I’m caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.”
Baquet said it took him three tries to get that quote past his editors, who thought it was tasteless.
Baquet, whose brother Terry is director of print at nola.com, demurred when asked about the ongoing battles in New Orleans media, other than to say the city is lucky to have major news outlets in real competition.
More generally, he did address the ongoing shift toward online media, saying that media organizations have not reached the “magical moment everyone’s waiting for” when digital revenues can support an operation. While he said The New York Times would be the last media organization to abandon print, he also acknowledged that he doesn’t think “anybody thinks that 40 years from now there’s going to be a lot of print around, if any.”
Pointing to online packages focused on the Ebola crisis in Africa and wars in the Middle East, Baquet said such digital journalism can be as powerful or more powerful than traditional stories.
“The biggest mistake we made over the past five or six years is I think somehow we have let digital journalism be associated with something bad,” Baquet said. “We’ve let digital journalism be associated with chasing clicks.”
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.
Editor’s note: This story was changed on March 17 to reflect that Baquet attended Columbia University but did not graduate.