At the L.A. Times, Dean Baquet Dispatched a Strike Force to Rescue Stories Held Hostage

Dean Baquet: At the L.A. Times, he went looking for good stories that had suffered a premature death.
Dean Baquet: At the L.A. Times, he went looking for good stories that had suffered a premature death.

In 2000, a few months after Dean Baquet became managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, one of the paper's veteran investigative reporters asked me to stop by his office. He said he needed my help on an assignment from Dean. I was a reporter on the metro staff at the time.

Bill Rempel was a reporter who worked on the biggest investigative stories - those involving heads of state, or international drug lords. He had an office in an obscure corner of the building, not even on the same floor as the newsroom, and few people knew what he did or to whom he reported.

I had only met Dean in passing then, and didn't know what to expect. I certainly wasn't expecting to hear what Bill told me. "Dean assigned me and Marc [Duvoisin, now L.A. Times' managing editor] to find stories that were killed that need to get into the paper," Bill said. "I told him you've got some. Go up and see him. He wants me to work with reporters to get these stories out."

So these were the first things I learned about Dean: First, he knew newspapers buried great stories under layers of bad decisions. Second, one of his first acts as a new managing editor was to assign two editors to see that these buried stories were unearthed for readers.

Since Dean became editor of the New York Times May 14, he has been criticized by some for killing a 2006 story on U.S. government surveillance of citizens while at the Los Angeles Times. The incident is being held up as an example of Baquet being somehow weak in taking on government.

I had no connection to the 2006 national security story the Los Angeles Times declined to run. But I did witness Dean's absolute support for reporters whose work challenged those in power. It was one of his defining qualities in Los Angeles, and on at least two occasions he stuck his neck out for me. 

The Times had, since the 1970s, acquired a reputation among reporters as a paper that sat on stories - not owing to any ideological agenda but out of complacency. According to newsroom lore, the paper had received the Rodney King videotape first and didn't do anything with it.

By 2000, the Times was stressed by the circulation and revenue declines of the broader newspaper industry, but it was still a very comfortable place for its well-paid managers. In that environment, with basically no competition, it was always safer to stick to formulaic stories.

A complex investigative piece at best meant a cumbersome, multilayered editing process with weeks if not months of lengthy meetings. There could also be a backlash, such as a community protest or lawsuit. It was clearly in a manager's self-interest to avoid risk.

The story Bill Rempel told me to take to Dean involved a Los Angeles city councilman's complex web of campaign donations from Koreatown nightclub owners. One of the club owners had been convicted in a multimillion-dollar money-laundering case, and another had spent a year in prison in South Korea for bribing officials there on behalf of U.S. defense contractors seeking a $200 million arms deal.

The nightclub owners had steered tens of thousands of dollars in campaign money to the councilman, given him a Rolex watch and loaned one of his staff members $15,000 for a house down payment. The permits granted with the councilman's help transformed the landscape of Koreatown, turning it into the city's busiest nightlife district.

For some unexplained reason, the paper's editors did not want to pursue the story. Whenever I brought it up, I was told to stick to my other assignments. No editor offered an explanation.

Even when Dean called for the story to advance, editors resisted. They ducked out of meetings to discuss it, or said they were too busy to look at drafts when I submitted them. This went on for nearly three years. Yes, nearly three years.

Dean finally prevailed.

The next year, he again intervened. I'd turned in a story alleging a candidate had laundered political money through churches. Editors refused to run the story, again with murky reasons. I learned they were meeting with Dean and Duvoisin, who were advocating for the story.

One night, I got an email from Dean, saying merely, "Peter, sometimes you have to fight to get your stories out."

When I got to work the next morning, another editor told me my story was to run. I learned that the night before, a few editors had been in Dean's office urging him to spike it, and he refused. He sent me that email after that meeting.

In later months and years, Dean would disagree with me on other stories, and also told me bluntly I was not fit for some assignments. I wasn't always happy with his decisions - but I always understood his motivations. There was an absolute consistency in his decision-making. The integrity of the journalism mattered above all else. He did not favor friends or worry about accommodating the establishment.

I remember him cringing, reflexively, when I mentioned the cozy social relationships between some journalists and people in power. Dean was never sanctimonious, but I did hear him say, almost matter-of-factly, that doggedly covering the government was a moral duty.

I don't know what was said when, in 2006, he spoke to then - director of national intelligence John Negroponte and then - NSA director Gen. Michael Hayden. My guess is he listened politely to whatever their concerns were and thanked them. Then he would have proceeded in leading the reporter and editors on that story guided only by the merits of the evidence in hand.

Dean has spoken on the record on that matter. His explanation, that the story just wasn't ready, may not be enough for some. But his actions, including embarking on a mission to revive spiked investigative stories as soon as he started work at the Los Angeles Times, show that Dean was at his core driven to make sure worthy stories are told.

Peter Y. Hong was a Los Angeles Times reporter from 1994 to 2009.

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