The Times executive editor and White House reporters talk about how news coverage has changed in the Trump era.
By B. L. Wilson
In President Donald Trump’s latest critique of the media, he said, “It is frankly disgusting the press is able to write about whatever they want to write, and people should look into it.”
The president’s attack on the media came the same day the New York Times held its Timestalks D.C. at the George Washington University’s Jack Morton Auditorium. It had been scheduled weeks ago, but throughout the presidential campaign and his administration, Mr. Trump has regularly lobbed accusations of “fake news” against the news media.
Dean Baquet, The New York Times executive editor, found the most recent comments disturbing. “I’ve never been involved with covering a president, governor or a mayor who really loved the press,” Mr. Baquet said. “But I’m not sure I’ve seen someone who so boldly challenged the press’ right to cover him and the world the way this president does.”
Peter Baker, the newspaper’s chief White House correspondent, found more serious a threat tweeted by the president to seize a broadcaster’s license though in fact the target was a network that is not licensed by the government. NBC News had reported that the president sought to expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal 10 times, which the president characterized as “fake news.”
Jim Rutenberg, The New York Times’ media columnist, who served as moderator, wondered whether the president’s relentless tweets have to be taken seriously or have become a kind of shtick.
There was general agreement among the panelists that it isn’t a matter of either/or but what impact the critiques have on journalism and reporters.
To the extent that it is a shtick, Mr. Baker said, “We are big boys. We are big girls. We can take it.”
It has been an effective policy tool for his administration, said Maggie Haberman, who covered Mr. Trump’s campaign and is now a White House correspondent for The New York Times.
“Everything becomes whether you are with him or against him,” she said, “and because Twitter is 140 characters, it’s incredibly black and white.”
The president may enjoy tweeting and doesn’t really hate the media,” she said. “His supporters are not always in on the joke.”
Mr. Baquet said the newspaper is nowhere near the president’s tweets not being considered a story. “Statements from the president are an important story,” he said.
On the other hand, when it comes to the use of Twitter and other social media platforms by people who work for news organizations, there is a very strict policy.
“New York Times journalists should not be able to say anything on social media that they cannot say either in the pages or any of the platforms of The New York Times,” said Mr. Baquet.
“We’re doing extraordinarily aggressive reporting about this administration, partly because it’s a transformational administration, partly because it’s raising questions we’ve never contemplated before from a president,” he continued. “We’re not doing this because we have a vendetta, and we’re not trying to take him out. I can’t [say] that if I have a hundred people working for The New York Times sending inappropriate tweets.”
A member of the audience was concerned that reporters’ observations of Mr. Trump influence their views of him as the president.
In response, Mr. Baker said that he avoids social media and “…stopped voting or doing anything that could be perceived as taking a personal position.”
“I think it is important to stay in a zone where we are open to input, and we do not come to strong personal conclusions that would prevent us from being open journalists,” he said.
The other big topic during the evening’s discussion was the story of sexual harassment by movie producer Harvey Weinstein that the newspaper first reported.
“These stories are really hard,” Mr. Baquet explained, saying he was deeply involved with the coverage. “You have to convince women to tell deeply personal stories on the record. You have to have a little bit of something else, that there were settlements. They’re tough.”
He said that he reviewed past efforts and concluded, “It is unimaginable to me that The New York Times would have folded on this.”
It is unclear whether the Harvey Weinstein story renews discussion about the president’s controversial remarks in the Access Hollywood tapes, he said. “But there is a much bigger conversation going on about sexual harassment than there was in the country a year ago,” Mr. Baquet said.