NYT's Dean Baquet says role of press is "clearer now than it's ever been"

Less than a week after President Trump wrote on Twitter “the fake news media” is “the enemy of the American people,” The New York Times is launching a national ad campaign that focuses on truth.  

“The truth is hard.

The truth is hard to find.

The truth is hard to know.

The truth is more important now than ever,” the ad declares.

The Times’ executive editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dean Baquet said the timing of the ad is not entirely a coincidence. 

“I think there is no question that this president has attacked the press pretty relentlessly, and there’s also no question that our role in covering him is being questioned by him,” Baquet said Thursday on “CBS This Morning.” “I think this is our way of saying that we have a very powerful role in the society.” 

The role of the press – “to ask tough questions of powerful people” and “not accept easy answers from either powerful people or people who are not so powerful” – is “clearer now than it’s ever been,” he said.

The New York Times, a frequent target of Mr. Trump’s attacks against the media, has allocated an additional $5 million to cover the Trump administration and has hired more reporters for its White House team and investigative units.  

“Because this is not just the story of Donald Trump. This is the story of a politician who has come into office with a mandate to transform entire systems of government,” Baquet said.

If Mr. Trump is able to achieve his goals, Baquet said “politics aside, it will be a revolution of how government functions.”

“Most Republican and Democratic presidents reach into the sort of world of professional bureaucrats to pick their leaders. He didn’t,” Baquet said. “We don’t know these people. We need to examine them. We need to tell people who they are.”

“We have a head of the EPA who questions whether there should be an EPA. We have a businessman running the State Department. We have three generals at the top of the national security apparatus. That is unusual. That’s not a normal system of government,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s just unusual. And unusual is a bigger story that requires much greater scrutiny.”

Mr. Trump’s senior strategist Steve Bannon, former chairman of Breitbart, a platform for the alt-right, has repeatedly referred to the media as “the opposition party.” In an interview last month with The New York Times, he said the media “doesn’t understand this country.”

“They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States,” Bannon told the paper.

“I think the media in general, including us, did not quite have a handle on how much anger there was in the country,” Baquet said. Mr. Trump and his campaign understood and exploited that “tremendous anger,” he added.

“I think that he energized that anger in the country to his political benefit. And I think the whole press – not the whole press, but a lot of the press – missed that. And I think that’s a fair criticism of us,” Baquet said.

But did the newspapers make a mistake in how they covered Mr. Trump?

“No,” Baquet said. “I think the coverage of Donald Trump has been sensational, I mean sensational in a good way. Not sensationalistic. I think it’s been tough. I think it’s been aggressive. I think he’s not used to it.”

For comparison, he pointed to The Times’ coverage of then-Sen. Barack Obama’s relationship with former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle back in the 2008 campaign.

“Nobody remembers what happened when Tom Daschle emerged as the most powerful aide to Barack Obama and the media went after him hard because he was a lobbyist,” Baquet said.

As for recent criticism from White House chief of staff Reince Priebus over the use of anonymous sources in reporting, Baquet defended the practice.

“We can be clearer to readers about where the sources come from, but let’s be clear: anonymous sources have been responsible for the most important journalism. Watergate. The New York Times’ disclosure of the NSA spying on Americans. The CIA black sites,” he said.

The anonymous sources are people “who are uncomfortable with government, who are uncomfortable with the actions of their superiors.”

“I will defend the proper use of anonymous sources. I don’t think you can cover national security or this government without a lot of anonymous sources,” Baquet said.

Despite the tensions between the Trump White House and the press, Baquet said this is the most “energized” he’s ever felt over his 40-year career in journalism.

“I think that it’s very clear at this moment what our mission is, and I think it’s time to toot our horn and tell people that our mission is to find the truth – that’s hard work – and that we want you to read us because we care deeply about the truth at a time when, to be frank, a lot of people don’t,” he said. 

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