New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet was being grilled by his own media columnist recently during a sardonically titled talk, “Covering POTUS: A Conversation with the Failing NYT,” when someone in the audience asked: “Better slogan: ‘The truth is more important now than ever,’ or ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness?’
The former was from a brand campaign the Times kicked off during the Oscars; the latter was The Washington Post’s new motto, an old saying that had been invoked by owner Jeff Bezos in an interview last year with Marty Baron, the Post’s editor.
“I should say that I love our competition with The Washington Post, I think it’s great,” said Baquet, grinning as if he was about to do something that might get him in trouble. “But I actually think their slogan — Marty Baron, please forgive me for saying this — sounds like the next Batman movie.” Later on, Baron shot back, “No apology necessary from the people of Gotham.”
Baron and Baquet are the two most important newspaper editors in America right now, at a time when the media is tackling the most epic and consequential story of the past 40 years. Donald Trump’s presidency has revved up the competition for news organizations far and wide; big and small; print, broadcast and digital. In the process, he has sparked a resurgence of storied legacy outlets like the Times and the Post, each of which has struggled with changes in the news business while doomsayers augured its demise. As with the rest of the media, their so-called “Trump bump” has been a boon in terms of scoops and subscribers, even if it may seem a bit like a huge bubble that’s destined to deflate one of these days.
Many news organizations have been moving the needle on the Trump story in different ways — CNN, NBC News, The Wall Street Journal, POLITICO, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and BuzzFeed, among others — whether through clean news breaks or relentless inside-the-room reporting on White House palace intrigue. But when it comes to inside reports from intelligence and national security agencies, the Times and the Post, with their expanding rosters of veteran correspondents, have the greatest institutional advantages.
In particular, the investigations into whether the Trump team colluded with Russia in the 2016 election have played to the historic strengths of both newspapers. They put a focus on the kind of source-driven reporting on the FBI and CIA that the Times and the Post have long cultivated, in which senior officials leak to veteran reporters who’ve proved their reliability and capacity to protect their informants.
The result has been a resurgence of ink-stained combat that makes NYT v. WaPo the most compelling journalistic rivalry since the days of Baquet and Baron’s respective forefathers, Abe Rosenthal and Ben Bradlee. The other thing that makes the rivalry compelling is that unlike Rosenthal and Bradlee, who were cordial at most, Baron and Baquet are legit pals. Actually, according to Baquet during that recent Trump talk, at SXSW in Austin, “He is like, one of my best friends. … We have dinner occasionally, and we go to art galleries sometimes.”
People close to them confirmed that the bestie talk isn’t hot air, saying they’re known to confide and consult about personal and professional matters, and that a mutual passion for art was indeed the spark from which their friendship initially developed. Both were working at the Times back in the late ‘90s, when they became tight enough that Baron would be invited to small dinner parties at the Upper West Side apartment of Baquet and his wife, Dylan Landis.
And yet, looking back on their journeys to the ivory towers of American journalism, it’s equally clear that Baron and Baquet have been formidable competitors, if collegial ones, over the course of their professional lives. Perhaps no two editors’ careers have overlapped and shadowed one another so closely. In the past, they’ve each contended to be the top editor at The New York Times and to have all the power and influence that goes along with it. After decades of ups and downs for both men, Baquet eventually got that job, but at the same time, Baron got the glory and fame that only the most Herculanean journalistic achievements can confer. Now, their competition defines not only their careers but, to no small degree, the fate of the Trump administration. Every morning, each goes to work knowing that part of what he needs to do that day is to be better and faster than the other, while girding for the inevitable blowback from Trump’s defenders.
“This is not a personal rivalry,” said Baron in declining to be interviewed, echoing the sometimes brusque, bottom-line manner cited by admirers and detractors alike. “In fact, there’s nothing personal about this. I don’t see myself as the story here, and so I’m averse to participating in a piece might frame it that way. … These are two strong news organizations competing vigorously with each other, as they should.”
Baquet, who is regarded as the more congenial of the two — and also the one more likely to offer long-winded assessments and analysis — put it this way in Austin: “The competition between The Washington Post and The New York Times is — 20 percent of me hates it, because they beat us sometimes, but 80 percent of me thinks, this is amazing. I think having two great news organizations fight it out day in and day out, as painful as it is when they beat us, it’s terrific. Can you imagine if that wasn’t the case? Can you imagine if either one of us wasn’t in the position to cover this story the way we’re trying to cover it now? That’s an unimaginable state of affairs.”
The caveat: “I hate it when he beats me. I’m sure he hates it when I beat him.”
In many ways, Baron and Baquet are a study in contrast. Baquet oozes warmth and amiability, which engenders devotion in many of the …read more
Read more here: The Not-So-Bitter Rivalry of Dean Baquet and Marty Baron