Trump’s Criticism Becomes “Background Music” as Times and Post Push for Truth, Executive Editors Say

While reporting on President Trump can be challenging as he demeans critical stories about him, often calling them fake, the executive editors of two of the nation’s leading newspapers told a National Press Club audience recently that it can be done, but only by maintaining high standards and not snapping at the president’s bait.

“If you tell the truth, if you’re accurate, if you’re aggressive, and you’re fair, and you hold onto your principles, I think in the end, that’s the only way you can cover him,” New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet told moderator Marvin Kalb on the latest edition of “The Kalb Report.”

For Marty Baron, the Washington Post’s executive editor, the mission of the newspaper in covering the president has not changed.

“Truth may be elusive,” he said, “But there is such a thing as truth.  It’s not just a matter of personal opinion. And our job is to come in every day, do our job, do our work, and try to determine the truth.”

The president’s criticism of news coverage, said Baron, has almost become “background music” because it is so repetitive.

“If we were to react to this every single day, get all worked up about it, and spend our time making an issue out of it all the time, we wouldn’t be able to do our jobs,” Baron said. “If that’s what he wants to do, that’s what he wants to do. We know what we want to do.”

One aspect that is different in covering this administration compared with those of the past is the aggressiveness of the newspapers’ efforts to fact-check statements by the president and other politicians.

“We no longer wait for two or three days to evaluate whether a politician is telling the truth,” Baron said. “We set up systems to do it immediately.”

From left: Dean Baquet, New York Times, and Marty Baron, Washington Post. Photo by Noel St. John

Both Baquet and Baron said their newspapers have turned the corner financially so they have the resources to do the type of investigative reporting that readers expect from them.   For more than a century, newspapers made as much as 80 percent of their revenue from advertising, but in the face of competition from the internet, print advertising has dropped drastically.

“We now make more money on subscribers in print and online than we do in advertising,” Baquet said. Paid digital subscriptions have grown dramatically during the 2016 presidential campaign season and in the first few months of Trump’s presidency. Baron said the Post’s now exceed 1 million. Some reports have put the Times’ at 2 million.

“I would much more want to be dependent on my readers than on advertisers,” Baquet said, “because readers demand quality.”

But outside of Washington and New York, journalism is in deep trouble, they said, and that threatens democracy. In the next four or five years, many local newspapers are going to go out of business, Baquet said.

And that loss reflects a decline in accountability, they agreed. School boards are not being covered, Baron said. City budgets are not being analyzed. Few papers can afford Washington bureaus to keep tabs on local House members and senators. Only the biggest papers are staffing state capital bureaus.  These news organizations can’t cover the basics, much less do investigative work.

“That’s catastrophic,” Baquet said. “We’re in the middle of a crisis that people have not woken up to.”

Yet both editors said this is a wonderful time to be a journalist.

“It’s going to have a future,” Baron said. “Notwithstanding the enormous challenges, one person can make a difference.”

Baquet noted the many new ways of reporting and distributing news.

“There is no question that the best news organizations are like a billion times better than they ever were before,” he said, “and the opportunities are greater.”

View the program in its entirety on the National Press Club webpage.

About the Kalb Report
Now at the beginning of its 24th season, The Kalb Report is a joint project of National Press Club’s Journalism Institute, University of Maryland University College, the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center, the Gaylord College of Journalism at the University of Oklahoma, and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. It is underwritten by a grant from Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Photo credit: Noel St. John