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'Hold powerful institutions to account': Retired editor Marty Baron on journalism's core mission

Berkshire County resident Marty Baron served as the editor of The Miami Herald, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post.

Baron retired in 2021 after running the Post's newsroom for more than eight years. He recently published a book on his experience called "Collision of Power: Trump, Bezos and The Washington Post."

Baron was at The Post during a time of massive change. The Grahams, the publishing family who had shepherded the paper through Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, sold it to one of the wealthiest people in the world, Amazon owner Jeff Bezos. A few years later, Donald Trump became president.

Baron began the book with a description of a dinner at the White House that he attended in June 2017 along with other Post brass, including Bezos.

“As we dined on cheese souffle, pan-roasted Dover sole and chocolate cream tart, [Trump] went on to disparage other media outlets — The New York Times came in just behind us in his ranking at the time — whose journalists he had labeled for months as scum and garbage.”

Nancy Eve Cohen, NEPM: Back when you were at The Globe, you led an investigative team that looked at child sexual abuse at the Boston archdiocese. Is it possible that your experience standing up to the archdiocese helped you when you were interacting with President Trump?

Marty Baron, author: Yeah, I think so. I think it certainly reinforced my instincts already, which was that it's very important for the press to hold powerful institutions to account. I saw that as at the core of the mission of journalism — the more powerful the individual, the greater the obligation, regardless of what kind of pressure might be brought.

In Boston, obviously, a huge portion of the population is Catholic, and we imagined that we would receive a lot of criticism for the investigation that we did. But people saw that what we did had value. They saw that we had not betrayed the church. The church had betrayed itself and had betrayed its parishioners and its principles.

And, in a way, the same issues came to the fore in the investigations of Donald Trump. We needed to make clear what kind of impact his policies could have on ordinary people, and tell the public. And the public can decide what to do with that information.

As an editor, as a top editor, how do you not flinch when there's pushback from powerful people? Or did you flinch and nobody saw you?

Well, I don't think I flinched. But, I don't know, it's a strong sense of mission as to why are we there, why do we have journalists in this country? I think fairly deeply about what our responsibilities are. If you're going to be in charge of a major news organization in this country, or even the most minor news organization in this country, you should be thinking deeply about what our mission is. That's what I was focused on, and that's all I thought about.

But you're still a human being. It's still — I mean, I imagine — it's still hard to be attacked that way.

Well, thanks for saying I'm a human being. I really appreciate that. Not everybody says that.

But yeah, you don't like that. It's irritating. It's infuriating to hear false accusations made against you, to have you and your colleagues dehumanized, because that's what we see in totalitarian regimes around the world.

"Collision of Power: Trump, Bezos and The Washington Post" by Martin Baron was published in 2023.
Courtesy
"Collision of Power: Trump, Bezos and The Washington Post" by Martin Baron was published in 2023.

That's infuriating to hear from a politician who swore allegiance to the Constitution of the United States. That Constitution includes the First Amendment. The First Amendment includes the provision for freedom of expression and freedom of the press. And so, if you're sworn to uphold the Constitution, then you're sworn to uphold the idea of a free and independent press.

I was wondering if you could go to page 107 [and 108] and have you read something.

“Trump's rhetoric on the stump may have struck us as outrageous and dangerous, but a large segment of the American public felt what he was saying was long overdue. Reporters were assigned to take the measure of his supporters. We needed to understand and communicate what made him so popular."

"We didn't anticipate a Trump-like candidacy because we hadn't spent enough time listening to the people who now saw him as speaking for them. We couldn't keep making that mistake.”

So, now we have our former president who is a convicted felon and he's running for office. Do you have any suggestions for the press now?

Well, my suggestion is do their job, which is — what are the policies that Trump would plan to implement were he to reenter the white House? And what would Joe Biden do, by the way? There's been a lot of good reporting along those lines. I'm glad to see that. I only want to see more of it.

What about understanding people who support Trump? Should we be doing that better now?

Well, we didn't understand it before Trump announced his candidacy. To me, that was one of the greatest mistakes we made, you know, was that we didn't anticipate a candidate like Donald Trump, and we needed to understand Americans better.

The depth of anger and grievance among Americans over their lives — many Americans — and they felt that their values were not respected and they were struggling in their communities, which had lost industries where they themselves couldn't work at jobs and make the same wages that they made before. They were obviously very concerned about the wave of immigrants coming across the border. And so, we needed to understand that.

The Post has been in the news lately. The CEO is facing accusations regarding a cover up of emails when he worked at a British paper. He has denied wrongdoing. According to news reports, he told the editor who replaced you, Sally Buzbee, that stories about him are not newsworthy. He also has restructured the paper and offered her a new position, which, according to reports, she considered a demotion and she resigned recently without a public statement. Are you worried at all about The Washington Post right now?

I don't have any firsthand knowledge of any of that, and I don't think it's really appropriate for me to be commenting on what's going on there right now.

Look, I mean, as has been advertised and publicized, the paper is losing quite a bit of money right now. We did have six straight years of profitability when I was there, so we had found a route — or seemed to find a route — towards sustainability. But right now they're not experiencing sustainability. And any news organization has to find sustainability. And that may require some significant changes.

You know, you always worry about a news organization that's going through a period of turmoil, and it's losing money. I'm hopeful that they'll find their way through. I think it's [an] incredibly important institution for this country at a particularly perilous moment in American history. I think it's really, really critical that we have a successful Washington Post and and I'm very much rooting for them.

When you were editor, you faced some tough criticism and pushback from reporters who wanted to be able to express their opinions publicly, often on social media. How should news organizations navigate the need to build and maintain public trust — something you talk a lot about — and embrace and support journalists who are younger, who feel it's their right to express themselves?

Look, what is the point of working so hard on a story or a major journalistic project, making sure you got all the facts right, you wrote it exactly the way that you wanted it written, that you had the headlines reviewed, you decided how to start the piece, how to conclude the piece, what came in between, what photos you're going to use — and you take all that care with the journalism that you practice and then one person on the staff with no real connection to the coverage decides to go on to social media, typically Twitter, and say whatever he or she wants?

I don't think that's appropriate, nor do I think that it enhances trust in news coverage.

If we had an umpire tweeting out very positive things about the Red Sox, but very negative things about the Yankees, would Yankees fans have confidence that the umpire was being fair? I doubt it.

Every profession or many professions come with constraints, and we need to understand that if we choose to become news reporters as opposed to opinion columnists, or as opposed to advocates or activists, well, there's a distinction. We should be maintaining our independence.

You have retired to the Berkshires. Is there any part of living here that you really like? And is there any part that you don't like?

I like the peace of the place. I spent 45 years in journalism and 20 years as the top editor at three different news organizations in varied, tumultuous periods, dealing with a lot of acrimony and polarization and internal turmoil and all of that. And I like being able to come out in the morning and hear the birds and go for a hike and find just peace and breathe fresh air and all of that.

It's very simple. It's not complex. And that's what I like about it. It's very simple.

I don't have anything that I would say that I don't like, except that sometimes in the winter it gets a little cold.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.