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NYT editor Baquet rooted in New Orleans, leading in news media

30th March 2015   ·   0 Comments

By Nayita Wilson
Contributing Writer

Dean Baquet, a New Orleans native and the first African American to serve as executive editor for The New York Times, recently shared candid moments of his career trek during the Institute of Politics at Loyola University New Orleans’ 6th annual Ed Renwick Lecture Series. Fox 8 news anchor and investigative reporter Lee Zurik moderated the conversation.

During the lecture, Baquet discussed the various stages of his life from his formative years as a young boy who had little exposure to the world outside of his historic Tremé neighborhood to his ascension to his current role in one of the nation’s leading newspapers where he’s an authoritative voice on the newspaper’s publishing of international affairs, politics, national security and other events.



Baquet grew up during the Civil Rights era. He was raised in a home where both his father and mother were present. His parents, Eddie and Myrtle Baquet, were respected restaurateurs in the community, and his family and educational encounters impressed upon him a solid work ethic and ignited his interest in politics.

“My New Orleans, much like the New Orleans of today, was segregated by race and economics. My mother didn’t have a high school education. There were few books in the house. I don’t ever recall going to uptown New Orleans or anywhere beyond Canal Street when I was a teenager. But I had a father who wanted desperately for us to succeed, and he was a constant and forceful presence in my life,” Baquet said.

“I don’t recall feeling this at the time, but his insistence that we mop the bar before school every morning helped instill in me a work ethic. He gave us the sense that we could succeed; though, what success meant in a world that seemed relatively small was pretty elusive. Somewhere in there I picked up a relentless ambition that has pushed me . . .,” he said.

Baquet’s upbringing, coupled with early memories of two former Louisiana politicians left indelible impressions on his life and interest in politics. While a student at St. Augustine High School, he encountered racial and political realities when former Louisiana Gov. John McKeithen visited the school. The visit was a “big deal”; however, the hype took a quick downturn when an uncomfortable McKeithen spoke to the students.

“But what I remember most is that his (McKeithen’s) deep accent caused him to mangle the word ‘Negro’ in an embarrassing way that left all of us feeling a little bit humiliated and angry, and a little sad that we couldn’t do anything about it,” Baquet recalled.

Sometime after that visit, Moon Landrieu, former New Orleans mayor, judge and legislator, visited the students in the school yard and spoke to them with his “fist pumped in the air.” Landrieu was more comfortable, according to Baquet, and the students left energized.

The two contrasting events shook Baquet to the core, and that’s where he was introduced to politics.

His reporting career began in the late 1970s in New Orleans where he worked for The States-Item and The Times Picayune. During that time, He grabbed hold to mentors in the field such as Walt Philbin, Jim Amoss and Jack Davis to learn the craft. He said, “When I ran out of teachers, I grabbed newspapers from the library and deconstructed the way stories were put together until I could do it myself.”

Throughout his career, Baquet has covered and/or made executive decisions on some of the most controversial political figures and matters.

While working in New Orleans, he profiled former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards and crime boss Carlos Marcello.

At The Chicago Tribune, he served as assistant metro editor and chief investigative reporter, covering politics and the garbage hauling industry. In 1988, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his investigative work. Prior to joining The New York Times, Baquet was managing editing for the Los Angeles Times, a job he lost for reportedly refusing to cut jobs in the newsroom.

Today, he said the New York Times is sustainable in the changing media landscape and secures half of its revenue from consumers who pay for print and online subscriptions.

Content and reputation wise, Baquet defended his approval of the New York Times’ use of anonymous sources and his decision not to run Charlie Hebdo cartoons so as to not offend Muslims and because he found the cartoons to be sexually explicit.

On matters of national security, Baquet has made decisions to withhold information with regrets and confidence.

For instance, on the WikiLeaks coverage, Baquet was the intermediary between the administration, The Guardian and Wiki. The deal was that the other publications would withhold whatever information The New York Times withheld. In one case, it was decided not to release certain information about one of Muammar Gaddafi’s visits to New York, which could have jeopardized a source from within Gaddafi’s camp. He stands behind that decision.

Conversely, he regretted a decision to withhold information at the request of the CIA that would have provided geographic details about where the U.S. drone that killed U.S. citizens, Islamic militant and al-Qaida recruiter Anwar al-Awalki originated. Baquet made the decision while on deadline and without consulting with the reporters, who later made a case for publishing the info. The information was released days later.

On such matters, Baquet said “You shouldn’t hold stuff if it’s a political argument.”

As it relates to the 2016 presidential election, Baquet said he doesn’t get a lot of questions about Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and said that Jindal is in a “very difficult position if he wants to rise nationally.”

On the flip side, The New York Times broke the Hillary Rodham Clinton email story. “We broke the story, so I’m happy,” he said, adding that he believes it’s a legitimate news story that’s worthy of public discussion.

This article originally published in the March 30, 2015 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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