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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Dean Baquet's Historic First

Given the particular media tastes of folks who read this blog, some may be interested in learning more about Dean Baquet, the new executive editor of the New York Times and the first African-American executive editor in the paper's history. Baquet grew up in a working-class family, living "in the back of a Creole restaurant that his father — a former postal worker with only a grade-school education — owned and operated." His first ride on an airplane came at the age of 18. He made it to Columbia but dropped out to pursue a career in journalism, winning the Pulitzer in 1988, among other achievements. Pretty well universally liked by his colleagues at the Times and elsewhere--one profile of him is titled, quite accurately, Nothing But Fans--Baquet is also well-known in the field for his stint as editor of the LA Times, where he pushed back against the publisher and was ultimately pushed out.

Much has been made in the past day of an anecdote in which Baquet punched a wall after a newsroom argument. At the risk of overanalyzing it, I was surprised that none of those discussions pointed to one potentially interesting aspect of that anecdote. As others, both scholars and journalists, have written, a traditional stereotype by which black men are often characterized and then rejected as unsuitable leaders or executives is the trope of the "angry black man." Perhaps there is a slim glimmer of hope in the fact that Baquet is and remains widely admired and respected as a collegial, hands-on editor, rather than having been relegated to the realm of stereotype and judged as presumptively "angry" or "temperamental" by this minor incident. Again, I would hardly want to draw too much from any particular anecdote; and I am not much given to punching walls myself. But I was surprised that, given the sheer volume of identity politics discussions surrounding the Times in the past day, not one of them mentioned the ways in which this anecdote might have been, but ultimately was not, viewed through the lens of a fairly typically recognized racial stereotype that often unfairly holds back or constrains black men in the workplace, for whom the slightest departure from coded workplace norms can be a heavy professional millstone. Within the profession, Baquet is one of the most popular and respected journalists of his generation. His ascension is both impressive and historic. 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on May 15, 2014 at 09:39 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


Professor Wasserman: You seem to be conflating two issues as well: (1) Whether Baquet's race in some sense "made it easier" to fire Abramson, and (2) whether Abramson would have been fired if her heir apparent had been someone else, ie, whether Baquet's race was a but-for cause of Abramson's firing.

On the first question, I agree with you that it was helpful from a PR perspective. On the second question, I agree with Professor Horwitz that there is insufficient evidence and little likelihood that Baquet's race was a but-for cause of Abramson's firing. There is no direct evidence (eg, statements by NYT management) and given that Baquet was the heir apparent, there is no circumstantial evidence either. There is only speculation.

Posted by: AF | May 17, 2014 9:56:41 AM

There are two distinct issues. One is whether Baquet is a qualified for the job and whether his race had anything to do with him getting it. The other is whether his race made it easier for the Times to unceremoniously push Abramson out for what appear to be weak and ill-explained reasons. For the Times, the optics of replacing Abramson with Baquet are better than the optics of replacing her with Howell Raines. So the question is more whether Abramson would have been fired if her heir apparent had been someone else.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | May 16, 2014 1:57:50 PM

Professor Horwitz: I agree with you that Baquet's race seems unrelated to the Times' motivation here, given that Baquet was the longtime heir apparent. On the other hand, I'm sure that if you gave their PR people a truth serum they would admit that it doesn't hurt.

As to media coverage, I sympathize with where you're coming, but I think you miss the main reason for the disparity, which is that someone getting fired suddenly and for inadequately explained reasons is inherently more interesting than the NYT promoting its longtime new managing editor, which is, in itself, a complete snooze. In the articles I have read, Baquet was given a reasonable amount of attention insofar as he was part of the drama.

Posted by: AF | May 15, 2014 2:18:19 PM

Howard, I agree that the zero-sum dynamic you mention has been at play before; as it happens, I think there is insufficient evidence and little likelihood that it was at play here, except in the most attenuated of senses.

That said, one could discern in the media coverage so far a kind of zero-sum aspect like the one you discuss. Slate, for instance, has run five pieces on Jill Abramson in the past 24 hours and, as far as I can tell, zero on Dean Baquet. Of course, maybe the last day's events are worth five Slate stories on Abramson and zero on Baquet. And Slate, in fairness, does run a daily, multi-person column on gender issues, but does not run a regular column on issues of race. So perhaps it's all as it should be. But I suppose it is also, maybe, just barely, possible that there is a slight underside to the otherwise commendable solidarity that has been expressed so loudly in the past day by generally affluent bien-pensant readers of these kinds of publications.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | May 15, 2014 1:42:22 PM

Pushing along on Matt's point: While I have no doubt that Baquet is qualified for this job, it no doubt made it easier on The Times (in terms of optics) to fire a woman when an African-American man was there to take her place. Just as it was much easier for Democratic voters to reject Hillary in favor of an African-American man. The dynamic--playing women against African-Americans in zero-sum games--is an old and unfortunate one.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | May 15, 2014 12:00:35 PM


I'm the first to admit that observations like these are not my metier - despite the fact that they could potentially hit quite close to home for me personally. However, this seems a silly example for you to draw attention to as part of a misguided trope.

From the countless movies I've seen about newsrooms, they are high-tension places, and there's often a lot of yelling. So, I'm not personally bent out of shape by the prospect of someone punching a wall (presumably as he exhorts his reporters to "get the story right"). However, one should acknowledge that public displays of violence towards inanimate objects are rarely a good way to build office harmony, and often inspire genuine fear in lots of people.

In other words, it's not implausible to think of Baquet as, in fact, an angry black man, at least on that day. But, as your post notes, no one seems to be deploying this trope right now. Instead, we have you suggesting that this anecdote could be used to make that point - which would seem literally true - and we should be on the lookout for anything like that. Got it.

Posted by: adam | May 15, 2014 10:55:51 AM

It's a shame his ascension came with the cost of Abramson's termination, which raises questions like these:


Posted by: Matt Bodie | May 15, 2014 10:19:54 AM

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