The 10 Best Books Of 2016 Faced Tough Topics Head On
I hesitate to say it, but the one word that characterizes my best books of 2016 list is "serious." These books aren't grim and they're certainly not dull, but collectively they're serious about tackling big, sometimes difficult subjects — and they're also distinguished by seriously good writing. Here are 10 that you shouldn't miss.
Other segments from the episode on December 8, 2016
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross who has a bad cold. Yesterday just before she lost her voice, she recorded the interview we're about to hear with The New York Times' executive editor Dean Baquet about the challenges facing The New York Times and its coverage of President-elect Donald Trump. Trump's had a contentious relationship with the press, or the dishonest press, as he sometimes refers to it. He's tweeted negative comments about specific journalists and news organizations, including The New York Times.
And Trump threatened to sue The Times over a story they ran about allegations from women who say Trump touched them inappropriately. As executive editor, Baquet runs all the news and features coverage but not editorials and opinion pieces.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Dean Baquet, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me start by reading some tweets about the press and about The New York Times, specifically, tweeted by Donald Trump. Here we go. (Reading) If the press would cover me accurately and honorably, I would have far less reason to tweet. Sadly, I don't know if that will ever happen, exclamation point. Wow, The New York Times is losing thousands of subscribers because of their very poor and highly inaccurate coverage of the Trump phenomenon.
The failing New York Times just announced that complaints about them are at a 15-year high. I can fully understand that but why announce? I canceled today's meeting...
DEAN BAQUET: (Laughter).
GROSS: ...With the failing New York Times when the terms and conditions of the meeting were changed at the last minute. Not nice. Perhaps a new meeting will be set up with The New York Times. In the meantime, they continue to cover me inaccurately and with a nasty tone, exclamation point. The failing New York Times is so totally wrong on transition. It is going smoothly, and I have spoken to many foreign leaders. The New York Times states today that DJT, Donald J. Trump, believes, quote, "more countries should acquire nuclear weapons," unquote. How dishonest are they? I never said this, exclamation point.
The New York Times sent a letter to their subscribers apologizing for their bad - in capital letters - bad coverage of me. I wonder if it will change. Doubt it. So, Dean Baquet, have you...
BAQUET: (Laughter) Forgive me.
GROSS: Have you ever had a president or a president elect tweet criticisms of you like this, of your paper?
BAQUET: Well, I've never had anybody in my life tweet that much at me. But, no, I've never - this is highly unusual. Part of it's funny. It's filled with obvious inaccuracies. I mean, for one thing, our subscriptions have gone up dramatically since the election and since the president elect started tweeting. I've made no apologies for our coverage. I think our coverage was very tough but fair. No, but this is pretty unusual and creates all kinds of issues that are compelling for us.
GROSS: So what is most confounding for you as the executive editor of The New York Times about how to cover Donald Trump's tweets?
BAQUET: You know, I don't find covering his tweets confounding. I actually don't, even though many of them are inaccurate, as we said. I mean, I think that's, like, basic blocking and tackling journalism. The president says something, you fact-check it, you report it and you say whether or not it's accurate. I don't find that confounding. I mean, I find a lot about covering Donald Trump confounding, as we did during the election, but I don't find the covering the tweets so confounding. I mean, I think it's - journalism is holding powerful people to account.
There's nobody more powerful than the president of the United States. What he says is important to question. If he tweets that he doesn't like something that he saw on television the night before, that's a different issue. But if he makes a tweet that involves national security or if he makes a tweet that involves an appointment or if he makes a tweet that involves an American company, you report it out.
GROSS: So when Donald Trump says something that is not true, how do you decide if you want to call it a lie or just say it's not true or use a word like baseless? For example, he tweeted (reading) in addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally. The New York Times headline was "Trump Promotes A Baseless Claim On Illegal Voting. No Proof Of Millions."
GROSS: So what was the conversation like about what word to use there - baseless, fraudulent, lie, untrue?
BAQUET: Yeah, that was a great headline. I think - and, you know, this perplexes our readers because people want very simple resolutions to complicated issues of language. And I live in the world of language, and language is really important. I authorized and pushed us to use lie for the first time in relation to Donald Trump when he finally acknowledged that he thought Barack Obama was born in the United States. I thought there was no other word that would carry that...
GROSS: Can I read that headline?
GROSS: The headline was "Donald Trump Clung To Birther Lie For Years, And Still Isn't Apologetic." Is that the headline you're thinking of?
BAQUET: Right, that's the headline I'm thinking about. And the story throughout uses the word lie. A lie implies that it was done with complete, total knowledge that it was a falsehood and that the person pushed it despite all evidence against. And I think what Donald Trump pushed about President Barack Obama not having been born in the United States was a lie. And I think there's no question he knew it was a lie. He said at various points that he had hired detectives to examine it. And the detectives had come back and said and found things that were really important and a big deal.
I don't think there's any question that that was - that all of that was a lie in retrospect. That is different from the normal sort of obfuscation that politicians traffic in. That's different from the politician who says, my tax plan will save a billion dollars and when in his heart of hearts, he knows it's $1.9 billion that it's not going to save, that, in fact, it'll cost people. That's different. And that's different partly because it's sort of the way people have accepted politicians talking. It's also - there is no clear answer to it.
That's just - I thought this was just a different order of business. But we use baseless, we use incorrect. I think lie is an important word. I have - I'm not reluctant to use it again, but it would have to be the right calculation.
GROSS: Lie implies intent. So...
BAQUET: Lie implies intent...
GROSS: ...Is that part of the calculation? Yeah.
BAQUET: Yes. To my mind, lie implies intent and longstanding intent, not just intent as of yesterday but intent over a long period of time. And I think Donald Trump pushed the birther lie for a long, long period of time. And to my mind, that makes no question that it was a lie.
GROSS: So let me read a letter from a reader that The New York Times printed in response to The Times' headline "Trump Promotes A Baseless Claim On Illegal Voting. No Proof Of Millions." So the reader, David E. Langford (ph) wrote, I'm a former newspaper reporter. And he said he was saddened by the (reading) continuing blurring between editorial commentary and news coverage. In another age, the word baseless in your front page headline would have been reserved for the editorial page where it belongs.
The Times and other respectable news organizations should resist the temptation to join others, most notably Fox News, as they drop their conclusion into news stories. Please allow me, the reader, to draw a conclusion for myself.
BAQUET: I think what I would say to Mr. Langford, and I've said this to a lot of readers with all due respect is that that's a misreading of the history of news coverage in America. If you go back to the 1960s and look at the way the best news organizations covered the Civil Rights Movement and covered discrimination against black people in the South, you will see very powerful language. I went back and I read The New York Times' coverage of Mississippi in the 1960s. It was really powerful.
It was in the news pages, it was in the magazine, it was compelling and it has stood up to the test of time. And I'm not making the comparison between Donald Trump and the civil rights movement, just - I want to make that clear. But this was an era when the most courageous journalists in the country, people like Gene Patterson, wrote front-page editorials, used very powerful language. And I think had they obfuscated in the face of what they were witnessing, that would have been cowardly. And I think history would prove me right.
I think that when we believe something is baseless, which is a real word, it's not an opinion. It is a word in the dictionary, and it means without any foundation in truth. I think if that word can be used very clearly and in this case accurately, I think that's journalism. And I think in fact to do the opposite would not be journalism. It would somehow be using language as a guard instead of using language to do what it's supposed to do, which is to tell the truth.
I'm very careful. Lie has not appeared a lot. Lie is a big deal word it has powerful implications, and I will continue to be careful using it. On the other hand, if somebody says something that is known not to be factual, to actually say some people say it's factual and some people say it's not factual is a bad journalistic construct that was created, you know, I don't know how long ago but is actually a relatively new one and has not existed for the life of journalism and probably should go away.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is The New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet. We're going to take a short break here and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is The New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet.
When did you become aware of the fake news that's all over the internet now and the impact that it's having?
BAQUET: You know, not early enough, not early enough, to be honest. I bet most editors would say that. I think it was only near the end - I mean, I would get stuff myself in my email and on my Facebook feed with outlandish allegations about the Clintons and outlandish allegations about other people. I guess I thought at the time that it was just sort of part of the traffic of the internet and that - and we could ignore it and that people were ignoring it. I think - I'm not convinced that it had impact on the presidential election, by the way.
But I think that probably I wish I had paid more attention to it earlier than I did. I bet every news organization is saying that now. We wrote about it, but I wish we had paid more attention to it. I just thought some of it was so outlandish. I mean, even the - I mean, the most outlandish one that's come into the news in recent days that the Clintons ran a child porn ring out of a pizza shop in Washington, D.C. I guess I thought nobody would believe that. I thought that was so outlandish a claim.
GROSS: Yes, until a man walked in with an assault weapon and started shooting.
BAQUET: That's right. And until we learn that the son of a future Cabinet member sort of was retweeting it.
GROSS: And Donald Trump fired Michael Flynn, the son of General Michael Flynn...
BAQUET: That's right. That's right.
GROSS: ...Who Donald Trump has appointed as his national security adviser.
BAQUET: That's right. That's right.
GROSS: So we're recording this interview on Wednesday the 7 of December. And a headline in today's New York Times is Fake News Spread, More Readers Shrug At The Truth.
GROSS: So do you feel like fake news is affecting how people read The New York Times - because one of the experts who's quoted in the article says that one of the effects of fake news is that it gets people to disbelieve real facts.
BAQUET: I think that if I understood then what I understand now I would have taken it much more seriously. I think there's a group of people who are saying enough. I want somebody who just tells me the truth, tells me the facts. But I do think that if there's so much fake news and so much stuff that people are believing, of course, it hurts all of us. And I think Facebook and other platforms need to take it seriously within the First Amendment, of course. And I think we need to devise more ways to go after it, write about it and sort of take it down, meaning to make clear that it's not true. Of course, if you read the follow-up to Mike Flynn's son being removed from the transition operation, you'll also see that there were people who came back even after the shooting and said they still thought it - they still believed it.
GROSS: During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump said that he was going to, if elected, open up the libel laws to help deal with a dishonest press. So what would that mean? Like, what power would President Trump have to change the libel laws?
BAQUET: I don't think he would have particular success changing the libel laws. But I think a president of the United States who does not like the press can do a lot. I mean, even the Obama administration, which people thought of as friendly to the press, dramatically increased the number of journalists who got subpoenaed, dramatically increased the number of leak investigations. I don't think Donald Trump can do much damage to the libel laws in this country, though some lawyers may disagree with me.
I think - I think a president who chooses to go after the press could do some real damage. He can make it harder to cover him. He can make it harder to go to his press conferences. He can make it - he could have fewer press conferences.
People think that journalists are whining when they complain that press conferences are important. But the difference between a press conference and a tweet is you can't ask a question of a tweet. You can certainly ask a question at a press conference. You can ask hard questions at press conferences. So I think that journalists are worried. I think that President-elect Trump has personalized his distaste for independent journalists and made it clear that he likes journalists who say nice things about him.
On the other hand, when he visited The New York Times last week, we asked him about it and he said essentially that we would be happy with the way he treated the press. So I guess we can all hope that his being nasty to the press during the campaign will not carry through when he's president of the United States and give him the benefit of the doubt but hold his feet to the fire, as we're supposed to.
GROSS: Donald Trump threatened to sue The New York Times during the campaign to sue for libel in response to an article...
GROSS: ...That featured women accusing him of touching them appropriately years ago. And his lawyer demanded that The Times retract the story and issue an apology. The Times declined to do that, and I want to quote something that The New York Times' lawyer, David McCraw, wrote which was printed in The New York Times.
(Reading) The essence of a libel claim is the protection of one's reputation. Mr. Trump has bragged about his non-consensual sexual touching of women. He has bragged about intruding on beauty pageant contestants in their dressing room. He acquiesced to a radio host's request to discuss Mr. Trump's own daughter as a piece of ass. Multiple women not mentioned in our article have publicly come forward to report on Mr. Trump's unwanted advances. Nothing in our article has had the slightest effect on the reputation that Mr. Trump through his own words and actions has already created for himself. If Mr. Trump believes that American citizens had no right to hear what these women had to say and that the law of this country forces us and those who would dare to criticize him to stand silent or be punished, we welcome the opportunity to have a court set him straight.
How did you decide to make that letter public? And I guess the larger question is how did you decide what your strategy was going to be?
BAQUET: So the letter from Donald Trump's lawyers went directly to me, and I had in the past - and I think he even responded to this one very briefly, you know, with a sort of newspaperly anodyne, you know, about a statement about our right to publish. I forwarded this one to David McCraw, and he said that he wanted to respond. I thought it was a very powerful statement about the independent press and the First Amendment. I thought only our lawyer could have written it. I thought if it had been written by the executive editor, it would have seemed odd in a certain kind of way. Plus, David understood the law a lot better than I did. I thought it was a statement to a campaign that had been really, really rough on the press that we're tough and we're independent. I love that letter.
GROSS: Did either Donald Trump or his attorney respond directly to the letter?
DAVIES: No. No. No, they did not.
GROSS: And how do you interpret that?
BAQUET: I think that his lawyers realized that there's no libel case here. The woman was on tape. The tape we wrote about - we were the first ones to get a - to get someone to actually describe her interaction, if you will, with Trump. I think we had it on tape. We reported it out. We went to them. We did a tremendous amount of reporting. We did everything you're supposed to do. And there is no greater public figure than the Republican nominee for president of the United States which is what he was at the time. I don't think we've ever been worried about a lawsuit.
GROSS: Are you concerned since - say Donald Trump does tighten the libel laws or sues you - sues your paper. Are you concerned that the courts who would make the decision are becoming politicized themselves, that the judges are becoming politicized?
BAQUET: You know, I guess I'm not. I guess I think that the laws are so fortified in the country. I am more worried - and it is more problematic - if Donald Trump and the people around Donald Trump - and, again, I'm going to take him at his word when he says that he's going to behave differently as president of the United States. But if he doesn't, I'm more worried the president of the United States has tremendous power to thwart the flow of free information. The greatest stories of our generation have come from people who decided inside government that they wanted to talk to reporters secretly, whether it was Edward Snowden, whether it was the Pentagon Papers, whether it was The New York Times' publication of the NSA wiretaps.
These were stories where if a president had chose - and, in fact, some presidents did choose - but if presidents had chosen to aggressively go after the leakers and delete the people who sort of courageously provide information about how the government works, if a president decided to do that that would be really bad for the country and the free flow of information. That worries me more than libel. We're big boys. We have lawyers. We have a whole list of precedents behind us including some precedents created by The New York Times and its propensity to defend itself in court. I worry more about the other.
DAVIES: We're listening to the interview Terry recorded yesterday before she lost her voice with Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times. They'll talk more about covering Donald Trump after we take a short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's out with a bad cold. Let's get back to the interview she recorded yesterday with Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times, about the challenges of covering candidate and now President-elect Donald Trump, who has a contentious relationship with The New York Times and the press in general. He's described the press as dishonest and singled out The Times for, quote, "covering me inaccurately and with a nasty tone."
DAVIES: The Times has investigated his taxes, his businesses and the potential conflicts of interest they pose, his real estate practices and allegations by women who say Trump touched them inappropriately.
GROSS: So what are some of the things your reporters faced during the campaign covering candidate Donald Trump? At his rallies, he became famous for calling out the dishonest press at which a lot of people in the audience would boo and cheer.
GROSS: Some reporters I know felt, like, directly threatened by that.
BAQUET: It was - it was bizarre. I mean, on the one hand, many reporters for The New York Times and other publications felt threatened. He would point to reporters in the audience. He would accuse them of telling untruths in audiences where there was just - where people were angry and loud. And it was - and it was really uncomfortable.
On the other hand, can I say one odd thing about Donald Trump and the press?
BAQUET: I have never encountered a presidential candidate who is easier to get on the phone and to defend himself and to say what he has to say. Go back and look at all of the coverage, all the tough stories about Donald Trump done by big news organizations like ours. He picks up the phone. He gives you comment, gives you denials.
There's a story - a really compelling story that Jason Horowitz did about Donald Trump's brother, who died - Donald Trump had an older brother who died of alcoholism. And there's some very compelling quotes in there from Donald Trump. Jason Horowitz called him up and said at one point, do you think your brother's feeling that he was a failure had anything to do with your success? And there's a pause on the phone and he says, I don't know.
I say all that to say this is a complicated guy. It would be a mistake for people to say this is just a guy who wants to kill all reporters. This is a guy who also lives - and has died on occasion - by the press. This is a guy who pretty much owned Page Six in the New York Post. This is a guy who is a salesman. This is a guy who toots his own horn. This is a guy who likes to talk to reporters. This is a guy writes handwritten notes to reporters. But it's also a guy who has said some of the most vile things about journalists of any politician of his generation.
GROSS: Have you been on the...
BAQUET: Go figure that...
GROSS: ...Phone directly with him?
BAQUET: I have met him. When I was a reporter on the Metro staff of The New York Times, I covered a hearing. And I - I mean, I was 30. And he called me after the hearing just to see how accurate my story was (laughter). He was buttering me up. And the first time he came to The New York Times and he met with the editorial board and I was there just as a bystander, he sent a handwritten note afterward just saying how great it was to meet and how great my question was.
I'm sure he wrote that note to 200 reporters, but all I'm saying this is - this guy's relationship with the press is really complex, really, really complex. It's not - it's not just screaming at the press. It's a really complex relationship.
GROSS: You met with the president-elect. Part of it was on the record, part of it off the record. This was at The New York Times, a meeting between Times and...
BAQUET: All of this stuff involving the reporters and me was on the record, by the way.
GROSS: Donald Trump had tweeted before the meeting (reading) I canceled today's meeting with the failing New York Times when the terms and conditions of the meeting were changed at the last minute. Not nice.
BAQUET: That was factually inaccurate. The ground rules were always the same. The ground rules were that we would have an on-the-record lunch with reporters and editors. There was no change to the ground rules, which is why even after the tweet he ended up showing up at The New York Times.
GROSS: Did you ask...
BAQUET: And it was a very polite discussion, by the way. It was not a tense lunch.
GROSS: What was the biggest surprise at that meeting?
BAQUET: How open he was, how candid he was. You know, he answered every question. You know, he answered questions about foreign policy that Tom Friedman asked him. You know, who knows - history will tell us whether - whether, you know, he was playing to a group of people he thought he felt it necessary to play to.
But, you know, he made some news. He said that he had no intention of launching an investigation into Hillary Clinton. He said had had no - he thought that it was time to - you know, to sort of end the tensions with the Clintons. He may - he said - that was the biggest surprise, and the fact that he answered every question. And he opened up by saying that we had - the press had been tough on him, that nobody had been tougher on him than The New York Times but that he hoped that over time that would change because he thought The New York Times was a great jewel in journalism. I agree that we're a great jewel in journalism.
GROSS: Did Donald Trump try to make an implicit deal such as if you're nice to me, I'll be nice to you?
BAQUET: No, he didn't say anything like that. I mean, in fact, we made the full transcript available to people so that they can see everything that was said. No, I think he would know that that's not a deal we would buy. What is being nice to us mean, right?
I mean, if you - if my choice is doing big investigative reporting or get - or getting the sort of daily scoops that lubricate Washington, if my choice is doing real deep explanatory journalism or getting the sort of one-day-ahead leaks that fuel Washington - I like the leaks, but I'll take the deep-dive investigative reporting and explanatory reporting any day. And I think - and I think that's what our readers want from us. No, there was no - no implicit, explicit offer of a deal. I mean, I guess you could say that by saying nice things to us about how important a news organization we were, he was trying to make nice. But no, there was no - no implication of a deal at all.
GROSS: During the campaign, WikiLeaks leaked documents from the DNC's email, from John Podesta's email, and Podesta was Hillary Clinton's campaign manager. And the U.S. intelligence agencies seem confident that Russia was actually behind a lot of these leaks. So that - you know, you had to figure out, well, how do you deal with that?
I want to read something that The New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg wrote on October 23. He wrote, (reading) the Russians seem to be using the U.S. free press - a great symbol of our democracy - against it while setting up an impossible choice for American newsrooms - run with stolen and in many cases and verified correspondence and potentially assist an audacious Russian attempt to disrupt a presidential election, or decline to print it and betray their mission to combat the great political fog machine.
So what were some of the questions you had to deal with in deciding how to cover these leaks?
BAQUET: First off, I'll say one thing, we don't fully know yet just how involved the Russians were in the campaign. And I think that that's an area of great reporting interest by me and others. But that's a beautifully written paragraph. I don't think it was quite as hard a choice as Jim described it. John Podesta is a powerful figure, was a powerful figure in Hillary Clinton's campaign, a lobbyist, a former lobbyist in Washington, one of the most powerful figures in the Democratic Party.
If you get email correspondence of newsworthiness from any source, you have an obligation to publish it, assuming it's true, which in this case it was. You have an obligation to publish it. You also have an obligation to keep reporting on what the sources of the information was, which is why we kept reporting on the possibility of Russian hacks and how the information became public. But I think that truth, Trump's strategy and everything else every day.
And if a powerful figure writes emails that are newsworthy, you've just got to publish them. I mean, look, Edward Snowden stole documents. We, The Guardian, The Washington Post and others reported them. I think they provoke one of the most compelling arguments about national security we've had in a generation.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dean Baquet, and he's the executive editor of The New York Times. We're going to take a short break and be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is the executive editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet. We're talking about covering President-elect Donald Trump. On November 13, you co-wrote with the publisher of The Times a letter to readers that asked, did Donald Trump's sheer unconventionality lead us and other news outlets to underestimate his support among American voters? So what do you think?
BAQUET: It did, oh, yeah. That letter has been interpreted as some sort of apology. It was not. It was an attempt to do what journalists do, which is to sort of talk about how they did things. There's no question that the press, well, let me speak for The New York Times 'cause I don't want to speak for the rest of the press. We wrote a lot of stories about anxiety in America. We even did a series called "Anxious America." But we did not have a handle on just how much anxiety there was in the country. And we did not have a handle on just how much that anxiety was going to drive the election.
So while we wrote about it, we didn't write about it, if I can put it in capital letters. While we wrote about it, and I can pull out now - if you and I were having a debate, I could pull out 25 stories that would prove the point that we wrote about it. But I would be dishonest if I didn't say those stories didn't quite add up to a powerful portrait of an angry electorate, an electorate that just wanted change. So, yeah, I think that's a story we could have done better. By the way, I think even Donald Trump was surprised by the level of that anxiety in the country - everybody was.
But I'm answering for me.
GROSS: So I want to quote something that The New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg wrote on August 7. He wrote, (reading) if you're a working journalist and you believe that Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation's worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the U.S. nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him? Because if you believe all of those things, you have to throw out the textbook that American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half century. So he speaks for himself, he is a columnist...
BAQUET: Jim Rutenberg is one fine writer (laughter).
GROSS: Yeah, he speaks for himself and not for The Times.
GROSS: But as a working journalist, as the executive editor of The Times, are you wrestling with any of the questions that he's asking?
BAQUET: In a very, very different way. Here's how I choose to wrestle with these questions. There is no question that we have a truly unusual figure who's about to occupy the White House, who won the election, by the way. And he's bringing along with him other truly unusual figures. My plan is to double down on explanatory and investigative reporting in the Washington bureau because I think we have to understand what happens when - what usually happens when unusual figures arrive in Washington, as somebody who's spent a big chunk of his career in Washington, is really interesting things happen.
And I want to make sure we're set up to cover that. I want to make sure that we are much more creative about beats out in the country so that we understand that anger and disconnectedness that people feel. And I think I use religion as an example because I was raised Catholic in New Orleans. I think that the New York-based and Washington-based too probably, media powerhouses don't quite get religion. We have a fabulous religion writer, but she's all alone. We don't get religion. We don't get the role of religion in people's lives. And I think we can do much, much better. And I think there are things that we can be more creative about to understand the country.
That's how I look at it. I now have two big jobs. Big job one is to cover the most compelling and unusual president we have had in my lifetime. Big job two is to really understand and explain the forces in America that led to Americans wanting a change so much that they were willing to select such a different figure for the White House. Those are my two big jobs.
GROSS: One of the language things that a lot of media organizations have been wrestling with is the expression the alt-right, which a lot of media organizations consider to be a rebranding of extremist white nationalist groups, of hate groups. So what has The New York Times' approach been to dealing with this?
BAQUET: What we did was we did a tremendous amount of reporting. And we came up with a definition, and I can't remember the exact definition...
GROSS: I think I have it here.
GROSS: A racist, far-right fringe movement that embraces an ideology of white nationalism and is anti-immigrant anti-Semitic and anti-feminist. And...
BAQUET: I think that captures it (laughter).
GROSS: And I think the memo that The Times issued said it's appropriate to use the term alt-right, but not without defining it.
BAQUET: Right. And the reason I think it's appropriate to use the term alt-right even though, of course, the term was a construct to not say what they were is because it's - it is now become a recognized part of the lexicon. It's now a phrase people know that it's a shorthand for. But I think as long - I think what that memo from our standards editor says is as long as you include in it what it really means, that's fine. And the reason, by the way, we took our time doing it - I mean, there have been petitions piling up in my mailbox saying, you know, to call these - call it out for what it is. My - our job - words are like all we got (laughter). My job - before we wanted to call anything anything, we had reporters look at the writings read, you know, some of the traffic to Breitbart, just look at the whole world of the alt-right before we came up with that conclusion.
GROSS: When someone questions whether The New York Times is balanced or not during the campaign, for example, in its coverage of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, do you do like accounting where you count like the number of stories that have investigated Hillary Clinton versus the number of stories that have investigated Donald Trump? Is there like, you know, a metrics analysis of fairness or do you measure fairness in another way?
BAQUET: No. In fact, I think balance is sort of a - is a - and I'm not sure I buy the constructive balance. To me, it's fairness. You should always ask yourself - you would never say I've done 17.3 stories that the Clinton campaign isn't going to like, and I've only done 14.7 stories that the Trump campaign isn't going to like. So let me do 3.6 more that the Trump campaign isn't going to like. I think you'll - your - not only will your head explode, but that's imbalanced coverage because to do that, you're actually having to turn up the volume on other stories to make them equal to the others. No. I think you say we want to be fair.
Fairness could mean that some candidate gets tougher coverage. Fairness could mean, you know, that you look at Hillary Clinton's record on foreign policy. And we actually did a two-part series on Hillary Clinton's role in shaping Libya policy which is her most important foreign policy endeavor. We didn't do a two-part series on Donald Trump's foreign policy. He didn't have one. We did much, much more reporting on Donald Trump's finances because the Clinton - we did much reporting on the Clinton Foundation. We didn't do much reporting on the Clinton's finances because their personal finances were not in the league with Donald Trump, and they weren't running as successful business people.
I think once you get into the actual measurement of metrics, you make yourself crazy, and, in fact, you'll actually end up being unfair because you will have to do more of something and less of something else. And the rule to me is - this is going to sound weird - but the rule is you want each campaign to think you were really tough on them, and that's what happened in this case. That's for sure. I don't think any candidate of the Republicans or the Democrats from Bernie Sanders to Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump thought we were not tough on them. I think they all thought we were tough on them and said it.
GROSS: Dean Baquet, thank you so much for talking with us.
BAQUET: Thank you. I really enjoyed it.
DAVIES: Terry recorded that interview yesterday with Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan tells us her choices for the best books of the year after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has her list of the 10-best books of the year. From historical fiction to rock 'n' roll memories to biographies of nasty women, it's a packed list.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: I hesitate to say it, but the one word that characterizes my best books of 2016 list is serious. These books aren't grim and they're certainly not dull, but collectively they're serious about tackling big, sometimes difficult subjects. And they're also distinguished by seriously good writing.
"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead is my pick for the book of the year. When Whitehead made his debut in 1999 with "The Intuitionist," he was praised for his ingenuity. After all, who thinks up a novel about race featuring elevator inspectors? "The Underground Railroad," set in antebellum America, is every bit as imaginative while its vision of the surreal insanity of racism is even more devastating.
Whitehead's premise is that the Underground Railroad was an actual network of trains running beneath the soil of the American South. His story follows an enslaved woman named Cora in flight from a plantation in Georgia. Whitehead's novel bows to other great African-American writers from Harriet Jacobs to Ralph Ellison, who've chronicled similar journeys. Yet even in doing so, Whitehead's "Underground Railroad" is one of a kind.
Two other terrific novels this year also confronted slavery. "Homegoing" by Yaa Gyasi was the best debut novel I read. It's a vivid multigenerational family saga that opens in 18th-century Ghana with a depiction of the slave trade among Africans. "Underground Airlines" by Ben H. Winters approaches the topic of slavery through the genres of alternative history and noir suspense. Winter's novel is set in a present time where the Civil War never happened and slavery still exists on corporate plantations in some Southern states called the Hard Four.
Jonathan Safran Foer's "Here I Am" is also set in the present. It's a thick novel about a marriage and family falling apart, a personal disaster paralleled on a grand scale by a devastating earthquake in the Middle East. "The Wonder" by Emma Donoghue is just that - a wonder of a story about religious delusion and self-denial set in 19th-century Ireland.
Like her 2010 breakout novel "Room," which was also a film, "The Wonder" is set in a confined space. But these small rooms of Donoghue's teem with drama and great moral questions. Olivia Laing also writes about small rooms in her arresting hybrid work of memoir, biography and criticism called "The Lonely City."
Laing investigates the connection between loneliness and creativity in the work of artists like Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol. For most of her life, Eleanor Roosevelt battled bouts of depression which she called her Griselda moods that stemmed from her lonely childhood. In the third and final volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook's grand biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, Cook chronicles how Eleanor nevertheless contained her personal demons to push for New Deal programs and civil rights, even as FDR's attention was claimed by the war.
Another woman who wasn't afraid of a good fight is the subject of one of this year's most compelling biographies. "Eyes On The Street" by Robert Kanigel traces the life of Jane Jacobs, the writer and activist who fought Robert Moses's plan to build an expressway through the heart of Lower Manhattan. Jacobs also wrote "The Death And Life Of Great American Cities," one of the classic books about New York.
Two memoirs complete my list of the year's best. Bruce Springsteen's "Born To Run" is a lyrical and self-aware spin on the essential American story of the kid from nowhere who grows up to become somebody, in this case The Boss. About holding onto his roots, Springsteen says, I didn't want to erase, escape, forget or reject. I wanted to understand. No one you have ever been and no place you have ever gone ever leaves you. The new parts of you simply jump in the car and go along for the rest of the ride.
Most of us move forward in denial that the ride will someday end. But neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi was caught up short at the age of 36 by a diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer. His posthumously-published memoir "When Breath Becomes Air" is by turns a raw and elegant inquiry into the meaning of it all in the face of death. Several times he quotes the famous Samuel Beckett line I can't go on. I'll go on. His memoir is in part Kalanithi's own way of going on. That's a qualified kind of miracle that books make possible.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. You can find all of Maureen's year-end recommendations at freshair.npr.org. And to browse more than 300 titles recommended by NPR staff and critics, visit the Book Concierge at npr.org/bestbooks.
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