On Monday’s Late Show, Stephen Colbert asked New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet if noted Times critic and foot-stamping baby-man Donald Trump has ever called him personally to complain about the paper’s coverage. “Yes,” responded Baquet succinctly, before admonishing the curious Colbert, “But I’m not going to tell you what he was complaining about.” Well, Baquet’s paper may have just won three Pulitzer Prizes and all, but Colbert cracked Baquet with a few followup questions, at least to the extent that he got Baquet to admit that Trump was upset about something the Times had written about his healthcare proposals. As to how that phone call went, Colbert deadpanned that he was sure Trump, after listening to Baquet’s explanation of why the paper’s story was not “fake news,” apologized and admitted he was wrong. “He did not,” replied the tight-lipped Baquet, who did admit that telephone Trump was at least “polite” and not “nasty.”
Still, Baquet admitted that Trump’s daily toilet tweets attacking the Times—and the non-Fox free press in general—constitute an attempt to undermine the very concept of independent journalism in a functioning democracy. He went on to say that, while it’s no fun, Trump’s transparent attacks on the press’ habit of reporting inconvenient reality have “energized” the press to a greater extent than it’s been in a long time. Said Baquet, “All of a sudden people understand what we do, and why what we do is important.”
Colbert, to his credit, pressed Baquet on the Times’ infamous pre-election headline declaring that the FBI had found “no clear link” between the Trump campaign and Russia, a boldly stated and subsequently and thoroughly disproven conclusion that some point to as having cost Clinton a lot of votes, if not the presidency. Baquet conceded that the Times got it wrong, although Colbert steered things back on track after Baquet diverted to discussion of online headlines sometimes being wrong because of the lightning-paced news cycle. “This was in print though,” responded Colbert, “A lot of thought went into it.” To that, Baquet responded that the Halloween, 2016 story was a result of the Times “writing what we knew at the time” and that the headline in question “made it look like we knew more than we did.” Touting the paper’s subsequent admission of its error in the stories documenting the many, many revelations about just how much the Trump campaign was, in fact, in contact with Russia, Baquet explained that the stories the Times runs are “99 percent accurate,” and that, when they do make mistakes, “we own up to them.”
Speaking of the Sunday premiere of Oscar-nominated director Liz Garbus’ Showtime documentary series, The Fourth Estate (about the inner workings of the Times newsroom), Baquet told Colbert that he’s confident that viewers—even those Trump supporters fed a daily diet of Trump’s Times-bashing—will come away thinking, “Boy, they’re better than I thought they were.” Here’s hoping that optimistic assessment isn’t part of the one percent of things Baquet later has to apologize for.