“So, who’s right — Donald Trump, who thinks institutions like the Washington Post and New York Times were too hard on him, or people who think that we made him?” asked New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet in a talk with the Erik Wemple Blog. It surely cannot be both. Those folks who believe Trump was the handiwork of media misfeasance, argues Baquet, aren’t facing down reality: “I think people who think that the media created Donald Trump are people who refuse to believe that millions and millions of Americans voted for Donald Trump even though they knew all the things that the New York Times and [the Post’s] David Fahrenthold reported, and that’s what happened,” Baquet said.
The Times had news-cycle-dominating stories on Trump’s tax returns, along with exclusives on sexual-harassment claims and a whole bunch of other stuff; The Post, via Fahrenthold, did a series of stories on how Trump’s claims to be a philanthropist not only didn’t add up, but also obscured some shady dealings by his Trump Foundation — among many other deeply reported pieces on the GOP nominee. “It’s a testament to the old dogs still having a lot of kick in them,” Baquet said, noting that other outlets also did admirable investigative work.
As Tuesday night’s election madness wore on, screengrabs of The Upshot’s crossing trend lines became a staple of social media chatter, showing how the Times — along with other media — had erred in polling and forecasting.
Asked about those dubiously crossing lines, Baquet said, “I think, probably, if we had to do it over again … we would be clearer about what it meant and what it didn’t mean. … I would accept the criticism that we could be clearer about what those things mean.” Of the forecasts, he said, “they run on polling, and in this case the polling turned out to be flawed. … If the polling is wrong, they visualize wrong.” Referring to the sweeping swerves that the forecast lines were following on election night, Baquet said, “Once they became based on real votes, they were really accurate.”
The Upshot’s forecasting charts, Baquet said, will continue to be a part of the newspaper’s coverage. “I think they’re interesting.”
As media organizations come face to face with the reality that they missed the surge of Trump support in rural America, long-ago proclamations about the worldview of the New York Times come to mind. Jill Abramson, who preceded Baquet as executive editor, called the paper’s approach “cosmopolitan.” And more than a decade ago, public editor Daniel Okrent quoted publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. as labeling its perspective “urban.” Whichever of those two you choose, it doesn’t quite mesh with the Trump phenomenon. “I do think our New York location makes it harder to be connected to the rest of America,” Baquet noted, “though I will point out that I’m a black guy from Louisiana, and that has to count for something in the mix. We have to work harder to understand how religion plays out elsewhere, just as an example. Religion is a different experience here than it is in, say, New Orleans. So yes, that puts far more pressure on us to really get outside of New York. We do, though, have a pretty robust and diverse national staff.”
As pointed out in this space a number of times, Trump has hinted that he’ll be suing the Times once the “little process” — i.e., the presidential election — is concluded. Baquet said he’d heard of no imminent litigation from Trump. “I’m betting that, in fact, as president of the United States, he changes his tune … and he will see that suing news organizations for accurate stories is not the most fruitful line to pursue when you’re leader of the free world. We will continue to cover him aggressively.”
In mounting his campaign for the presidency, Trump played selective with media access, stiffing various outlets for protracted periods before easing up. Does Baquet have any concerns about access to President Trump? “He’s still got to get up and explain his legislation. When the prime minister of England shows up for a state dinner, he’s still got to do the joint press conference. He still has to give the State of the Union address. He has to explain how he does things, not only to the 40-something percent [of his followers], he has to convince those other Americans that he represents them, too. When he sends soldiers into harm’s way, I don’t think you can explain that in a tweet.”