Dean Baquet, the New Orleans native who rose from The New Orleans States-Item to become executive editor of The New York Times, was the speaker tonight at the 6th annual Ed Renwick Lecture Series at Loyola University, which packed the university's Nunemaker Hall with a crowd of students, faculty and a good number of local journalists, many of whom worked with Baquet at The Times-Picayune.
"My life is a story about what's wrong with New Orleans and what's so great about it," Baquet said, mentioning that he came up as the son of a Treme bar owner duriing a time when New Orleans largely was segregated. "I don't remember being outside Treme except when my father would go to the French Quarter to buy cigarettes for his bar. I don't recall going Uptown or any place beyond Canal Street when I was a teenager." (The current generation of the Baquet family owns Li'l Dizzy's Cafe in Treme, and Dean Baquet's brother, Terry Baquet, is a top editor at The Times-Picayune.)
Baquet, who has covered politicians from former Gov. Edwin Edwards to President Bill Clinton, said his first exposure to the world of politics came when he was a student at St. Augustine High School. Then-Gov. John McKeithen spoke to his class, which left a negative impression, but it was a speech by then-Mayor Moon Landrieu in the St. Aug schoolyard that stuck with him.
He enrolled in New York's Columbia University and came home to New Orleans during his sophomore year, homesick. "I walked into the newsroom of the States-Item almost 40 years ago. I was lost, unsure, I was a sophomore at Columbia University with intense but scattered reading habits, making B's and C's."
He stayed, because "somewhere in there I picked up a relentless ambition that has pushed me to this day."
His biggest lesson? "Everyone has a story if you just listen and shut up."
[jump] From The Times-Picayune, Baquet moved to the Chicago Tribune, where he was part of a reporting team that won a Pulitzer Prize. He later served as managing editor of both The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times before becoming The New York Times' first African-American newsroom leader in 2014. He replaced Jill Abramson, the paper's first woman editor, in a dramatic move that created gossip and raised questions about women leadership in America's biggest newsrooms. (That topic wasn't raised either by Baquet or moderator Lee Zurik of WVUE-TV.)
Baquet discussed some close-to-home subjects like covering the trial of mob boss Carlos Marcello ("Anyone who tells you Carlos Marcello plotted the Kennedy assassination is a moron ... He mainly planned lunches and dinners and he griped he couldn't get a table at Mosca's. What I learned was that the boss of all bosses was a Yat") and being the reporter on the Edwards campaign bus who first wrote down EWE's most famous quote: ""Only way I lose is if I'm caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy."
In those days before cellphones were ubiquitous, "you couldn't tweet it, you couldn't text it," Baquet said. When the bus stopped, he rushed to a pay phone and "called in what I thought was the coolest, most politically incorrect quote of all time." But the copy desk removed it; the quip was too "tasteless" for The Times-Picayune. It took three days before it finally appeared in the paper.
With executives and employees from both NOLA Media Group | The Times-Picayune and The Advocate both sitting in the audience just a few feet apart, Zurik asked Baquet about the city's news wars between its two daily/semi-daily/mostly-daily whateveryouwanttocallit papers.
"New Orleans is one of the few cities in America right now with a real newspaper competition," Baquet said, "That's great for journalism, that's great for the city." Asked if two papers could last in one medium-sized city, Baquet said, "I don't know enough about the economics of either news organization to say if it's sustainable." He cited the New York Post and the New York Daily News as two papers "owned by rich guys" which are losing tens of millions of dollars per year. (The T-P and The Advocate are, of course, owned by some pretty rich guys themselves: the Newhouse family and Louisiana businessman John Georges.)
"I have as much of a romance with print as anyone, but that's not how the next generation reads the news," Baquet said. "But we have let digital journalism be associated with something bad, with chasing clicks."
Other topics included his controversial decision not to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons satirizing Muhammad that resulted in the terrorist attack on that newspaper's offices; Baquet said that the truly representative, graphic Charlie Hebdo cartoons weren't suitable for the Times, and he called the more tepid ones run by other newspapers "chickenshit." He also discussed President Barack Obama's administration and its proclivity for attempting to punish whistleblowing journalists like James Risen, and the number of "secret wars" it was conducting in foreign countries.
The New York Times has kept a national correspondent in New Orleans in recent years even as bureaus have dwindled in other American cities. Baquet said he saw that as his safety net, "given the history of New York Times editors getting bounced. The goal was if you got bounced, you got to be London bureau chief.
"If I get bounced, I figure I can ask for New Orleans."