On Monday, New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet presided over a “crisis townhall meeting” of the Times’ staff after the paper was met with massive backlash from readers for a straightforward headline deemed too kind to Donald Trump by his Democratic opponents. On Thursday, Slate published a leaked transcript of the 75-minute meeting that includes Baquet openly laying out the new agenda for the Times on how it covers Trump.
The “crisis” meeting was called in response to forceful criticism from Democratic politicans and left-wing readers over the Times’ coverage of Trump’s speech following the horrific mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, the former by a man who espoused anti-immigrant and white supremacist ideas and the latter by a self-described leftist who had an obsession with violence. In his speech, Trump unequivocally condemned racism and called for greater national unity. “In one voice our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy,” he said. “These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America.”
The initial headline the Times posted in a preview of the next day’s paper read, “TRUMP URGES UNITY VS. RACISM.” That title inspired strong rebuke from many on the Left, including Democratic presidential candidates. In response, the Times quickly altered its title to “ASSAILING HATE BUT NOT GUNS.”
As revealed in the leaked transcript, Baquet began the meeting by referencing the paper’s “significant missteps” and then explaining how these “missteps” stem from “something larger”: the paper’s approach to reporting on Trump. “This is a really hard story, newsrooms haven’t confronted one like this since the 1960s,” said Baquet. “It got trickier after [inaudible] … [it] went from being a story about whether the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia and obstruction of justice to being a more head-on story about the president’s character.”
Baquet then admits that the Times had “built our newsroom” around covering the ultimately debunked narrative that Trump “colluded” with Russia. “We built our newsroom to cover one story, and we did it truly well,” said Baquet in comments highlighted by the Washington Examiner‘s Byron York. “Now we have to regroup, and shift resources and emphasis to take on a different story.”
As York notes, in case it’s unclear, Baquet later spells out that “one story” the paper covered “truly well” for so long and how it was derailed:
Baquet: Chapter 1 of the story of Donald Trump, not only for our newsroom but, frankly, for our readers, was: Did Donald Trump have untoward relationships with the Russians, and was there obstruction of justice? That was a really hard story, by the way, let’s not forget that. We set ourselves up to cover that story. I’m going to say it. We won two Pulitzer Prizes covering that story. And I think we covered that story better than anybody else.
The day Bob Mueller walked off that witness stand, two things happened. Our readers who want Donald Trump to go away suddenly thought, “Holy shit, Bob Mueller is not going to do it.” And Donald Trump got a little emboldened politically, I think. Because, you know, for obvious reasons. And I think that the story changed. A lot of the stuff we’re talking about started to emerge like six or seven weeks ago. We’re a little tiny bit flat-footed. I mean, that’s what happens when a story looks a certain way for two years. Right?
After gliding over the hard reality that Mueller’s exhaustive, two-year investigation found no substantive evidence of “collusion” after a two-year investigation, Baquet then laid out his “vision” for coverage of Trump for “the rest of the next two years”: focus on racism and division.
Baquet: I think that we’ve got to change. I mean, the vision for coverage for the next two years is what I talked about earlier: How do we cover a guy who makes these kinds of remarks? How do we cover the world’s reaction to him? How do we do that while continuing to cover his policies? How do we cover America, that’s become so divided by Donald Trump? How do we grapple with all the stuff you all are talking about? How do we write about race in a thoughtful way, something we haven’t done in a large way in a long time? That, to me, is the vision for coverage. You all are going to have to help us shape that vision. But I think that’s what we’re going to have to do for the rest of the next two years.