There was a bullet in the barroom wall. And the kid reporter had to have it.
It mattered little to Dean Baquet and his reporting partner, another youngster named Jim Amoss, that the owner of this particular French Quarter watering hole was less than enthusiastic about them chiseling into the architecture. The bullet, which had been fired by a rogue cop, would make their story.
So they got their bullet.
Here was Baquet, who became the first African American executive editor of the New York Times on Wednesday after the abrupt firing of his predecessor, in his formative stages, but already in his element. It was a story that required charm and persistence. A story that really mattered. He’d razzed Amoss, now the editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, about writing “sissy features” and pushed him to join him on tougher assignments, Amoss recalled. A bullet in the wall of the Habana Bar on Decatur Street, rogue cops in a prostitution sting. That mattered.
Baquet (pronounced “Ba KAY”) ascends to one of the most prestigious perches in American journalism at age 57. He embodies all sorts of archetypes: He is the prize winner with a Pulitzer for ferreting out City Hall corruption in Chicago. The pioneer who is not just the first African American to lead the New York Times, but also the first to sit atop the masthead of the Los Angeles Times. The martyr who was forced out of Los Angeles for resisting staff cuts.
But to truly understand him, you have to circle back to New Orleans, a place that infused him with an easy social grace endearing to reporters and editors, and honed his eye for scandal. He was Eddie’s boy. His family owned Eddie’s, a classic New Orleans Creole restaurant in the 7th Ward neighborhood. For a time, they lived in back.
New Orleans has a way of tugging on people, and it tugged on Dean Baquet. He tried to go to college, enrolling at Columbia University, but he came home for a newspaper internship and never went back. At the States-Item and later at the Times-Picayune, he chased mobsters and pimps. While working on a series of articles about the Mafia kingpin Carlos Marcello, he somehow managed to cultivate the old man’s secretary as a source, Amoss recalled. Once Baquet and Amoss parked a car outside Marcello’s office on Airline Highway, a seedy stretch of no-tell motels. They were more like cops on a stakeout than reporters on a beat. They waited. Marcello never showed.
Baquet’s stories were getting noticed and he was about to go on a tour of America’s great newspapers. First the Chicago Tribune lured him, but not before Doug Frantz, an investigative reporter who helped recruit him, went down to the 7th Ward. One night at Eddie’s, Baquet’s dad came out of the kitchen and told Frantz: “Take care of my boy.” From Chicago, Baquet would go to the New York Times, where he served as national editor, and then to the Los Angeles Times.
In his New Orleans days, Baquet drove a beat-up brown Audi that was forever breaking down. When he was hired as managing editor of the Los Angeles Times in 2000, he bought a convertible BMW and would glide along the freeways with the top down. He bought a nice house in Santa Monica, which friends say he was later able to sell for a substantial profit.
Working alongside John Carroll, who had persuaded him to leave a top job at the New York Times, he helped his paper win boatloads of prizes. If you were lucky, you’d get invited for dinner at Baquet’s house. He’d do the cooking — Creole, of course. There’d be cigars afterward, always cigars, although he wouldn’t join you for a glass of wine because he’s not a drinker. You could take in his impressive and ever-evolving art collection. If you ran into him downtown, he’d be wearing cuff links and a tailored suit.
“It was a requirement you go to [art] galleries with Dean in New York and clothing-store shopping in Los Angeles,” recalled Frantz, a former Washington Post editor who helped recruit Baquet from New Orleans to the Chicago Tribune and later worked with him in Los Angeles and New York.
Which stores and which galleries? “Only the best,” Frantz said.
When Carroll was vetting Baquet, he said he learned that “his department was the happiest department at the Times.”
“He has more fun being an editor than any editor I’ve ever worked for,” says Doyle McManus, who was Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times under Baquet. “He loves every good story he hears. And he loves other people’s good stories as much or more than his own.” But he was always pushing for more. “We used to joke that his mantra was ‘what else ya got?’ ” McManus said.
“His enthusiasm for chasing the news and getting to the bottom of the story is infectious,” said Russ Stanton, who served as business editor under Baquet and later became executive editor of the paper.
Baquet was living the life. And then he wasn’t.
The Los Angeles Times came under more and more financial pressure as its corporate owner, the Tribune Co., pressed for budget cuts. “We had a feeling it was just being done to make the quarterly numbers,” Carroll said. It sometimes fell to Baquet to deliver the bad news that some well-regarded reporter or another had to go. “He was a grownup about it,” Carroll said. “He was not the kind to go pout.”
When Carroll left the paper, Baquet wasn’t sure whether he should leave, too. He didn’t know whether he wanted to stay. “We talked night after night,” said Carroll, who believes Baquet stayed on because of loyalty to the staff.
Baquet’s 11 / 2-year tenure was marked by journalistic ambition, but marred by ongoing feuding with Tribune executives. He was popular with reporters, lauded as a hands-on editor with a knack for improving stories, both at the conceptual stage and once they’d been written.
There were occasional blips. Some staffers were annoyed by an incident that, in some respects, mirrors a controversy that contributed to the downfall of Jill Abramson, his predecessor at the Times. Abramson’s boss was irked that she didn’t initially return to the newsroom to oversee coverage of Superstorm Sandy in 2012; Baquet bothered some Los Angeles Times staffers by vacationing during Hurricane Katrina, the storm that devastated his hometown in 2005.
“There was a lot of water cooler talk like, ‘Wow. This guy is a native. He could really help out coverage,’ ” a former high-ranking Los Angeles Times editor said.
By late 2006, Baquet had had enough. On the day of the midterm elections in 2006, he climbed onto a desk and announced his resignation, instantly making him a symbol of the principled editor who fought against the corporate overlords. He was a hero to many, but at the Los Angeles Times, some “felt like abandoned children” and had hoped he would have “toughed it out” with them during a difficult period, according to several former top staffers.
Baquet returned to the New York Times to head the newspaper’s vaunted Washington bureau. But friends never expected him to stay long — the tip-off was that he rented an apartment above the Lansburgh Theatre in Penn Quarter, rather than buying a home.
They knew he was destined for a higher spot on some masthead. At a Georgetown dinner party one night during his tenure as Washington bureau chief, he regaled the table with stories of a journalistic coup. But he wasn’t talking about his Pulitzer or his time as the boss at the Los Angeles Times. He was talking about Louisiana.
Baquet proudly recounted how he was the young reporter who got one of the most famous quotes in American political history: The boast by Edwin Edwards that he could only lose an election if he was caught in “bed with a dead girl or a live boy.” That’s what he would like in the lede (the first line) of his obituary, Baquet told the table.
On Wednesday, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. might have forced a rewrite of that lede.