National Press Club

Trump’s criticism becomes “background music” as Times and Post push for truth, executive editors say

October 17, 2017 | By Gil Klein | gklein@american.edu

The New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet speaks about media criticism by President Donald Trump at The Kalb Report, Oct. 16, 2017 at the National Press Club.

The New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet speaks about media criticism by President Donald Trump at The Kalb Report, Oct. 16, 2017 at the National Press Club.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

White House reporting can be challenging as President Trump demeans news coverage as "fake," but the executive editors of two of the nation’s leading newspapers said it can be done 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,” The New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet told moderator Marvin Kalb on the latest edition of “The Kalb Report" at the National Press Club on Monday.

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, but there is such a thing as truth,” he said. "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.”

Even though more than 30% of the American people may buy the president’s assertion that anything that does not laud him is “fake news,” Baron and Baquet no longer see it as the threat it once appeared to be.

The criticism, 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.”

That challenge has prompted the newspapers to more aggressively 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.”

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 of them.

For more than a century, newspapers made as much as 80% of their revenue from advertising, but in the face of competition from the Internet, print advertising dropped drastically.

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

“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.

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 that the opportunities are greater.”

Now at the beginning of its 24rd season, The Kalb Report is a joint project of National Press Club’s Journalism Institute, the 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 the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.