During Saturday’s edition of The Axe Files With David Axelrod, host David Axelrod sat down with New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet and The Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron. The first portion of the interview focused primarily on President Trump and his relationship with the media.
Axelrod did his best to get the two men to bash President Trump on multiple occasions throughout the interview. At one point, Axelrod mentioned the ethnic backgrounds of Baquet and Baron as he sought to get them to criticize the President’s rhetoric on immigration and race, saying “We have a President who has said incendiary things about immigrants, about race...How do you process that? And how does that impact how you make decisions?”
After Baron told the story about how his parents came to the United States, Axelrod tried once again to get Baron to call the President a racist: “So when you hear this sort of anti-immigrant screed from the President and taking steps to reduce immigration and so on, how do you react to that personally?” The first part of Baron’s answer probably did not impress Axelrod all that much. According to Baron,
I think that we are professionals and we treat this as journalists. And we in so many instances sort of set aside, you know, whatever our personal feelings are about things. The American public has the right to debate policy about immigration and all of that. I believe in the democratic, the democratic process that there should be an honest debate about these sorts of things.
Axelrod may have liked the second part of Baron’s answer a little bit more, where he declared his concern for the President “demonizing people and drawing sweeping generalizations of who people are because we know as both as individuals and as journalists that when you actually dive into it, when you start talking to people, they don’t fit the generalizations. They’re all individuals with their own individual circumstances.”
Baquet then weighed in on the President’s “demonization” of immigrants, saying: “I would say I’m sensitive to the demonization of groups. I mean, I grew up as a black kid in the segregated south. And I am sensitive to when the President or anybody in a position of power makes sweeping statements about groups of people.” Axelrod continued the conversation on race by bringing up the President’s reference of his Former Staffer Omarosa Manigault-Newman as a “dog,” asking Baquet “Did you view that as a racist comment?”
Baquet responded by saying “I have two reactions to that. My first reaction is when somebody calls a black woman a dog, my visceral reaction as a black man is to, is to feel the sort of… the pain and anger of a black man. So here’s where journalism comes in. He actually calls everybody a dog.” Even Axelrod had to concede that point.
Axelrod asked the duo how concerned they were about the safety of their reporters in light of the fact that President Trump refers to some of the media as “the enemy of the people,” playing a clip from one of the President’s rallies where he uses the terms “fake news” and “enemy of the people” as the crowd cheered. Baquet said that he was very concerned, adding “I think that the President has sent a message to despots abroad that you can disrespect the press...I can’t tell you how concerning it is that this President has told those governments, ‘you can beat up the press, you can call them enemies of the people.’”
Axelrod seemed eager to give the impression that Trump-inspired hostility toward the media will eventually translate into violence, asking Baron “have there been threats to reporters in your newsroom that you have had to act on?” Baron responded: “Yeah, I too can’t get into details. But certainly during the campaign, there were an extraordinary number of threats, great concern about the security of our people who were covering the campaign.”
He then brought up the Capital Gazette shooting in Annapolis, Maryland; where a person with a “grievance against journalists” opened fire in a newsroom. Based on the fact that Axelrod had played a clip of Trump supporters cheering the President’s attacks on the media and the overall context of the segment, it seemed like the panel wanted to tie the attack to President Trump. However, Baron did eventually make it clear that he did not believe the President deserved the blame for that shooting.
A transcript of the relevant portion of The Axe Files With David Axelrod is below. Click “expand” to read more.
The Axe Files With David Axelrod
DAVID AXELROD: Dean Baquet of the New York Times, Marty Barron of The Washington Post. I figured I would introduce you alphabetically. Welcome to the Constitution Center in Philly and we chose this place not just because it’s roughly halfway between your two cities but because of what the Constitution means and the, and the meaning of that First Amendment. You are the editors of two of the most influential papers in this country. You are also the heads of news organizations that the President of the United States has called fake news. You lead a corps of journalists who he’s described as enemies of the people.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Just stick with us, don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news.
AXELROD: How have you recalibrated to deal with this very volatile President?
DEAN BAQUET: He has not changed the fundamentals. I mean and it’s important to make that clear. He has not changed the fundamental fact that we are independent and that our job is to ask hard questions of not only him but his most powerful opponents. That hasn’t changed. But he’s changed significantly around the edges. I mean, he’s, in my newsroom and I suspect the same is true in Marty’s, we discussions we didn’t have before. We have discussions about how do you cover a President who obviously does not always tell the truth?
BAQUET: How do you often do you use the word “lie,” how do you make sure that when you use powerful words like that they don’t use their, they don’t lose their import and currency? Those are debates we have not had in previous administrations.
MARTY BARON: And I think we also have to be more transparent about our work and we are trying to be more transparent about our work, is show more of that work, how did we, how did we obtain that information, what are the statements in our stories based upon? I think that’s a necessity these days is that we almost need to make an argument for the work that we’re doing.
AXELROD: Yeah because there’s a high level of skepticism. We do have a President who has a penchant for making stuff up. So how do you grapple with that question of, well, do we just call it a lie?
BAQUET: We use the word lie, I think, just a couple times. Significantly, most people don’t remember when we used it and what the lie was; which tells me that we have to be very careful not to throw the word around so loosely that people don’t know what we're talking about. I would rather show what the President says and then as the case warrants, show what the truth is than to have readers so preoccupied with whether or not The New York Times uses the word “lie” that they don’t even remember what was said.
AXELROD: Marty, you, your fact checkers have been very busy over the last…
BARON: Busier than ever.
AXELROD: …couple of years and just a few weeks ago you released your latest tally or the paper did of 4,229 false or misleading claims in 559 days in office. Now some of those are blatant. Some of them are more subjective.
BARON: Yeah, misleading. Right. I mean, look, truthfulness in government I think is extraordinarily important and I think it’s important for us to call out when people are being misleading or actually lying and so that’s what we endeavor to do there.
AXELROD: Let me just ask you guys bluntly, I mean, do you think the President habitually lies?
BARON: Well, you know, this gets into the use of the word lies. He has to know that what he is saying is false. And it’s hard sometimes to get into his head. And I agree with Dean that it’s important for us to focus on the actual substance of what’s false rather than the language that is used.
BAQUET: I mean, does it matter whether The New York Times or The Washington Post has used the word lie three times, seven times, ten times, 20 times or does it matter more that their fact checker has found 4,000 examples of misleading…does it matter?
BAQUET: Does it matter what the use of the word is?
AXELROD: Whatever his strengths and weaknesses, one thing is for sure; he understands modern media and he understands how to dominate the news and how to change the meme with a tweet or a statement. Do you feel like you, in sort of Pavlovian fashion, then have to follow him?
BARON: Well, I think we’re learning as we go along. I think this is a new situation for all of us. We were learning throughout the campaign and we are learning still during this administration. There is no guidebook for this kind of a Presidency. Look, I mean I do think that the President has used this to some degree as a performance. And, you know, Neil Postman wrote his book Amusing Ourselves to Death a couple of decades, some decades ago about how we are moving toward the show quality of politics and that the show has become the thing. And I think the President actually understands that and uses that, uses that to his advantage. Some of the tweets are designed as distractions and some of the tweets are actually a window into his mind. A lot of those tweets are a precursor to actual policy and it’s important that we pay attention to them.
BAQUET: In the beginning, it was such a novelty, right? We both grew up in an era whenever the President said something it was news because Presidents didn’t say things that often. So to have a President…
AXELROD: I can tell you, Dean, just to interrupt for one second, as someone who worked for a President, we thought every word mattered, that, you know, Presidents speak and they can send armies marching and markets tumbling and we better be very cognizant of the words that he uses.
BAQUET: That’s right. So we came in with a set of, I don’t want to say rules, but with a set of beliefs. And it was novel. And I think that we have learned over time that not every tweet is as important. The President tweets five or six times a day. You can’t treat each one the same. And I would use the example of the one most recently where he actually described one of his former aides as a dog. They do give a sense of the character of the President and they do give a sense of how he deals with people. And I don’t think that’s unimportant.
AXELROD: One thing that is striking about you guys is you both have great personal stories. Marty, you are the son of Jewish immigrants who originated in Germany. You’re the son of Creole parents from New Orleans, a person of color. We have a President who has said incendiary things about immigrants, about race. How do you as people, how do you process that? And how does that impact how you make decisions?
BAQUET: That’s a good one.
BARON: Well, look, I mean, my father was born in Germany. He went to what was then Palestine and my mother was born in what was then Palestine became Israel. And they left that country, they were in Paris for a couple of years and then came to the United States.
AXELROD: Why did they come here?
BARON: My father believed in the American dream. That’s what he wanted. He loved the opportunity of the United States. You know, certainly for myself, I feel pretty accepting of lots of different kind, different kinds of people and recognize that this country is made of a lot of people who came from a lot of different countries and a lot of different backgrounds and I believe that people are making the kinds of contributions that my parents made to this country.
AXELROD: So when you hear this sort of anti-immigrant screed from the President and taking steps to reduce immigration and so on, how do you react to that personally? I’m the son of an immigrant as well, I should…full disclosure so…
BARON: Right. Well, you know, look, I mean, I think that we are professionals and we treat this as journalists. And we in so many instances sort of set aside, you know, whatever our personal feelings are about things. The American public has the right to debate policy about immigration and all of that. I believe in the democratic, the democratic process that there should be an honest debate about these sorts of things. What always concerns me and it’s not just relevant with regard to the immigration debate, is if you start demonizing people and drawing sweeping generalizations of who people are because we know as both as individuals and as journalists that when you actually dive into it, when you start talking to people, they don’t fit the generalizations. They’re all individuals with their own individual circumstances.
BAQUET: I would say I’m sensitive to the demonization of groups. I mean, I grew up as a black kid in the segregated south. And I am sensitive to when the President or anybody in a position of power makes sweeping statements about groups of people.
AXELROD: So you mentioned that he called Omarosa this past week a dog. Did you view that as a racist comment?
BAQUET: You know, it’s funny. I have two reactions to that. My first reaction is when somebody calls a black woman a dog, my visceral reaction as a black man is to, is to feel the sort of re…the pain and anger of a black man. So here’s where journalism comes in. He actually calls everybody a dog.
AXELROD: Yeah. Fair enough.
BAQUET: He’s called Ted Cruz a dog. Yes, I feel it, I feel it more because of who she was. But I also dig a little bit deeper and find that he uses that kind of language sort of pretty openly with a lot of people.
AXELROD: Lesley Stahl had something interesting to report recently. She said off camera after she was interviewing, I think then President-Elect Trump, she asked him why he bashed the media so relentlessly. And he said, “I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.” And he’s had some success with that, hasn’t he? At least with his base of supporters.
BARON: Yeah, and I think that that was an honest answer on his part is that he wants to disqualify the press as an independent arbiter of fact and that’s what he is trying to do. You remember at some point he said, if you see any negative polls on me, they are fake. He quoted the polls when they were favorable and then when the polls are unfavorable, he says that they are fake. So he does not want there to be an independent arbiter of fact. He certainly doesn’t want the press to be that arbiter. He doesn’t want scientists to be that arbiter, he doesn’t want the courts to be that arbiter. He doesn’t want the intelligence agencies to be the arbiter. He wants himself and his White House to be the arbiter of fact and that is exactly what he is trying to achieve and I think he was incredibly honest in that answer to Lesley Stahl.
AXELROD: On this notion of the White House being the arbiter of fact, the White House briefing used to be a place where reporters would go and get facts and get official administration policy. Is that still true?
BAQUET: Less so, to be honest. I mean, I think there have been numerous instances in which the two White House press secretaries have acknowledged that they knew that they said things that weren’t true. Less so…I still think we have to cover it. There’s a clamor for us to like not even go to the press briefings and I sort of understand that. But again, this is the person, the press secretary, who speaks for the most powerful human being in world. I don’t think it’s our job to make a political statement by not showing up. I think our job is to find stuff out, our job is to listen, test, fact check, do the best we can to make sure they are telling the truth.
AXELROD: It’s interesting this last week, the question came up as to whether the President used the N word and the press secretary said she couldn’t guarantee…
BAQUET: That was a remarkable moment in the life of press secretaries. I mean, to actually say, to leave open the possibility that the President said one of the most vile things and that it might even be on tape was a pretty remarkable moment and I’m glad we were there to cover it.
AXELROD: This leads me to the question of how concerned you are about the safety of your reporters right now. Your publisher met with the President recently and delivered a message about this rhetoric of enemy of the people and so on and we’ve seen some of the…some of the scenes at his rallies.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Now you know, we have a lot of fake news back there; these fakers. The enemy of the people I call them.
BAQUET: I’m deeply concerned. Not only concerned, by the way, about what happens inside the United States at some of the volatile Trump rallies. I think that the President has sent a message to despots abroad that you can disrespect the press. We’ve had Presidents attack the press. We’ve never had a President go on foreign soil and attack the press so both of us have to manage newsrooms with people who operate in a third world. Both of us manage newsrooms with people who cover, you know, governments that don’t like the press. It’s…I can’t tell you how concerning it is that this President has essentially told those governments “you can beat up the press,” “you can call them enemies of the people,” how can my correspondent in Cairo who covers a government that’s often antagonistic to the press. How can he make the case for the First Amendment and the power of the press and for covering that government independently when we have a President of the United States who says the things he says about the press?
AXELROD: Have you, have there been threats to reporters in your newsroom that you have had to act on?
BARON: Oh Sure. Yeah, I too can’t get into details. But certainly during the campaign, there were an extraordinary number of threats, great concern about the security of our people who were covering the campaign. And now even during the administration, similar concerns. Look, I just spoke a few weeks ago at an event to memorialize the five individuals at The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, who were killed. I think four out of five were journalists and there was a person with a grievance against journalists who just walked into their office and started shooting. And certainly, I’m not saying the President’s responsible for that because there’s nothing to connect the President to that. On the other hand, I think that the President should not be creating an environment that describes the press as an enemy, as disgusting, as scum, as the lowest form of, as the lowest form of humanity, and the lowest form of life, as traitors to the, as traitors to the country, I mean that’s the most extreme rhetoric that you can, that you can imagine.
AXELROD: You guys have this weird symbiotic relationship with him. He attacks the press, the press is vigorous in reporting on him. Even though calls you failing, you have gained exponentially in terms of readership since this administration began.
BAQUET: For all of the attacks on the press by the way, by this President, it’s got to say something that our audiences have gotten larger. That means that people in this sort of cacophony of stuff in the air and the fake news and the made-up stuff, that when people want to find out the truth, they do come to these institutions that have set themselves up, The Times, The Post, The Journal and others that have set themselves up as standard bearers and as institutions that try to get at the truth and as institutions that have sort of, have held on to their soul. I think that’s, I mean, that’s great.