Proving that media companies know how to manipulate the news just as well as politicians or over-the-hill pop tarts, the news broke yesterday — a day in which all of the country was focused on a total re-alignment of political power in the country — that the Tribune Company has finally forced out Dean Baquet as the editor of the Los Angeles Times. Baquet fought valiantly against Tribune Co.-mandated staff cuts, but a year and a couple of months after John Carroll, Baquet’s former boss and mentor, quit in protest, Baquet is out as well.
There’ll be lots of hand wringing and debate over what this means for the state of journalism in America. But I want to focus on what’s really important: what this means for The New York Times.
Back in 2003, after Howell Raines was forced out as the Times‘s editor in the wake of a staff revolt against his autocratic ways, Baquet, who’d been the national editor in New York before heading out to L.A., was heavily recruited by Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger. Baquet was all but offered the managing editor position by Sulzberger, with an implicit promise that he’d be in prime position to become the Times‘s first African-American editor in the not-distant future, but Baquet, out of loyalty to his troops in L.A. and a belief in what he and Carroll were trying to accomplish, decided to stay put. (So determined was Baquet that he used his decision to stay as an argument as to why his reporters should resist the urge to jump ship and head to New York.)
It’s hard to imagine Baquet hasn’t had some restless nights reliving this decision. Still, Baquet may be just as well positioned to take over the Times when Bill Keller steps down as he would have been had he taken Sulzberger up on his offer three years ago. Before Baquet became a free agent, there was really only one viable candidate to replace Keller: current managing editor Jill Abramson. After all, a century of white, male editors would have made it difficult for Sulzberger — and avowed and vocal proponent of increased gender and racial diversity in the newsroom — not to promote Abramson. Baquet offers what is likely the most politically acceptable alternative: it’ll be hard to criticize the Times for passing over a woman if the paper ends up promoting an African-American.
I doubt this angle will get much play; for all its coverage of and obsession over race and gender, the media isn’t that great at discussing difficult issues in its own house (just as it’s often a bit clumsy when it comes to increasing diversity in its reporting ranks — see Blair, Jayson). But a couple of years down the line, when Keller (who seems as if he’s always enjoyed reporting and writing more than managing) approaches the mandatory retirement age of 65 (Keller is 57; Abramson is 55 and Baquet is 50, which means in theory both Abramson and Baquet could both get the Times top post), this will likely be one of the major issues and intrigues facing the paper.