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NYT’s Dean Baquet gets DePaul award, says nation’s in ‘divisive era’ on race

Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times, talks with College of Communication journalism students about his professional experience on Thursday, before receiving the Center for Journalism Integrity and Excellence's Distinguished Journalist Award honoring work that embodies the highest principles of journalism, including truth, accuracy, fairness and context. | Photo: DePaul University/Jeff Carrion

As the first African American to hold the highest ranked position in The New York Times’ newsroom, Executive Editor Dean Baquet steered members of his staff to two 2019 Pulitzers for an investigation into President Donald Trump’s family finances and editorials on America’s race history and continuing race battle.

Regarding the paper’s work intensive, hugely sensitive and much attacked Trump reporting, Baquet, who oversees the paper’s news gathering, said the report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller released this month was vindication.

“When the report first came out, and I read it, I sent a note to the handful of reporters who were covering this thing, saying, ‘I cannot believe you got everything right,’ ” Baquet, 62, said at DePaul University’s annual Center for Journalism Integrity & Excellence luncheon Thursday, where he received its Distinguished Journalist Award.

Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times, speaks after receiving DePaul University’s Center for Journalism Integrity and Excellence Distinguished Journalist Award Thursday at the Union League Club. Baquet is the first African American to hold t
Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times, speaks after receiving DePaul University’s Center for Journalism Integrity and Excellence Distinguished Journalist Award Thursday at the Union League Club. Baquet is the first African American to hold the highest position in the Times newsroom. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/SunTimes

“It was a high-wire act, obviously, because the stories we did were based on anonymous sources,” Baquet said of “The Trump Family Finances” series, which found the president had actually inherited much of his wealth from his father and had participated in questionable tax schemes, including outright fraud.

“You had to have a certain number of sources for every story. But this is a White House that encourages people to be sources. I think there are a lot of people around the president who are mad at him and will talk. But we were cautious, and a little bit lucky,” he said.

“That report is a remarkable tribute to the best of Washington journalism, not just the New York Times, but the Post and others, that much of the reporting proved accurate, given two years of stories that depended on anonymous sources. It makes me proud of American journalism, especially when it’s so much under attack.”

Previous recipients of the DePaul award include Lester Holt of “NBC Nightly News” and Jane Pauley of “CBS Sunday Morning.”

Last week’s Pulitzers cap a storied career that includes Baquet winning his own Pulitzer in 1988 — here in Chicago, as part of a Chicago Tribune investigative team documenting corruption in the City Council. They won for a series of stories disclosing alleged fraud by one-time powerful Congressman Dan Rostenkowski and the similarly powerful Ald. Ed Burke.

Rostenkowski later went to prison on unrelated charges, and Burke was recently charged in an attempted shake-down of a business seeking his help.

“At a time when local journalism is fighting for its life, there is no question that a city with great competitive local journalism is better for it. Ambitious, big-hearted journalism makes a city take a hard look at itself. It forces us not to look away from people in pain, and forces the powerful to be accountable, even if it’s 30 years later, as in the case of Eddie Burke,” said Baquet, who was also a 1994 Pulitzer finalist for investigative reporting with the Tribune, where he worked from 1984-1990.

Baquet, who got his start at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, where he worked for nearly seven years, spoke briefly at the event honoring his trailblazing career at the Union League Club of Chicago, then chatted with the Chicago Sun-Times.

After his time in Chicago, he’d gone on to serve as managing editor and then editor of the Los Angeles Times, before moving on to the Times, where he has spent the past five years, moving up from Washington bureau chief, metro editor and national editor.

Baquet told the Sun-Times the nation’s racial division, which garnered Times Editorial Board member Brent Staples the top prize, has become more glaring under the Trump presidency.

“I think we’re in a divisive moment for our country. I think we’re having a difficult, tense conversation about race in America. I don’t think that this White House has made it an easy conversation. I think they’ve contributed to it, and I think in a lot of ways, the debate over immigration is also a debate about race,” Baquet said.

“My own view, and this is personal, is that I don’t think we should aspire to be race-blind. I don’t want people to regard me as something else. I think we can have everybody be happy about who they are and still get along. But I’m optimistic. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that we elected a black president.”