Inside Story

We’re not at war. We’re at work

Former Washington Post editor Martin Baron reflects on Trump, Bezos and the challenges of journalism

Matthew Ricketson Books 14 February 2024 3733 words

“For all the speculation that Bezos would use the Post to exercise influence, I never saw any evidence he had or would,” writes Martin Baron, seen here interviewing Jeff Bezos in Washington in 2016. April Greer/Washington Post via Getty Images

Martin Baron’s name may not ring a bell, though you probably remember Liev Schreiber’s gravel-voiced portrayal in the film Spotlight. Baron edited the Boston Globe when the newspaper’s investigative team, Spotlight, disclosed the extent of clerical sexual abuse of children in the city. Even when they found evidence of one priest having molested fifty children, that was not enough for Baron. He told them:

We need to focus on the institution, not the individual priest. Practice and policy. Show me the church manipulated the systems so that these guys wouldn’t have to face charges. Show me they put those same priests back into parishes time and time again. Show me that it was systemic, that it came from the top down. We’re going after the system. I think that’s the bigger story.

The team, led by Walter Robinson, kept digging and eventually revealed not only the shocking extent of the abuse but the lengths to which the church hierarchy went to protect the abusers. The team’s 600-plus stories during 2002 eventually led to the resignation of Boston’s archbishop, Bernard Law.

The dramatisation of these events, Spotlight, was released in 2015 and won the Academy Award for best picture. Perhaps even more than All the President’s Men, it is a film that makes journalists feel proud of what their work can achieve.

Less than a decade later, though, Spotlight feels like a relic from a bygone era. Since 2015 the size and influence of the legacy news media have diminished markedly within a media ecosystem in which the majority of people in the United States and Australia get their news from social media.

As Brian Stelter documents in his books Hoax (2020) and Network of Lies (2023), news from established outlets like the New York Times sloshes around the internet alongside the toxic swill from Fox News and elsewhere. This tsunami of news and opinion is further polluted by torrents of misinformation and disinformation on social media, whether it’s about vaccines, the 2020 US presidential election or the Voice referendum.

Into this changed, and changing, environment comes Collision of Power, Baron’s memoir of a forty-five-year career in journalism that took him from the Miami Herald via the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times to eleven years editing the Boston Globe and eight years as executive editor of the Washington Post. He stepped down from that last posting, aged sixty-seven, in February 2021.

Baron has spent his entire career in newspapers and is resolutely old school in his belief in the continuing value of public interest journalism and orthodox notions of journalistic objectivity. Collision of Power reads as something of a collision between the world he grew up in, inspired by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s 1970s reporting on Watergate for the newspaper he eventually edited, and a world in which countless journalistic disclosures about Donald Trump’s manifest unfitness for office made not a jot of difference to his supporter base.

Does this mean Baron’s memoir should be consigned to the dustbin of history along with the dinosaurs of print? Well, unlike many journalists’ memoirs, this one is not marinated in tales of derring-do and all-night drinking marathons. Baron spent most of his career as an editor rather than on-the-road journalist and his book is all about the work.

I only know that Baron rarely drinks because he said so after winning the 2016 Christopher Hitchens prize, and then only to compare himself with the famously lubricated Hitchens and make a larger point — that they might have approached life differently but they shared the same journalistic values. But he does wryly acknowledge the accuracy of Schreiber’s portrayal of him in Spotlight as “humourless, laconic, and yet resolute.”

The three main threads running throughout Collision of Power are flagged in its subtitle: “Trump, Bezos, and the Washington Post.” Baron was appointed executive editor of that newspaper in 2013, a time when Donald Trump’s name was still good for a laugh, courtesy of Barack Obama, at the annual White House correspondents’ dinner. He stepped down the month after Trump left office still proclaiming he had won the previous November’s election.

Baron reflects that the Post, like the rest of the mainstream news media, had underestimated Trump’s appeal to many Americans. After the 2016 election he resolved to devote more resources to getting reporters out across the country to tap into ordinary people’s experiences and concerns. He also concedes that the Post put too much weight on Hillary Clinton’s slipshod secrecy about her emails during her presidential campaign.

Before the election, Baron and his journalists had learnt how Trump dealt with the media — how he alternated between feeding them stories and gossip, as he had done for years as a New York property developer, and threatening to cut off access or, worse, if he became president, change the libel laws to make it easier for public figures to sue journalists. As Trump railed about “the fake news media” and levelled personal insults at individual journalists, Baron stressed that “We’re not at war with the administration. We’re at work.”

The “work” was published continuously, including in a multi-authored book, Trump Revealed, that covered many aspects of the candidate’s life, from real estate to allegations of sexual harassment, and from his business ventures to his television career. The newspaper’s fact-checking unit tracked Trump’s runaway capacity for exaggeration and deceit, finding that during his presidency he told 30,573 lies.

When the Post’s David Fahrenthold decided to test Trump’s self-seeded reputation as a philanthropist, for instance, he found fallow ground. The Trump Foundation had received US$5.5 million but claimed to have pledged US$8.5 million to various causes. Notoriously, one donation made by Trump was for a portrait of himself that Fahrenthold’s citizen sleuths on social media found in his Florida golf resort. Fahrenthold also broke the story of the notorious Access Hollywood tapes.

Throughout the Trump presidency, the Washington Post and the New York Times competed hard to break stories that would hold Trump and his staff to account. The sheer number of important disclosures they made is easy to forget, partly because there seemed no end of chaos in the Trump administration and partly because no matter what Trump did he was exonerated because the Republicans had the numbers in the Senate. Almost without exception, they refused to examine issues on their merits and voted out of blind, fearful loyalty to Trump.

Baron’s careful recounting of the many scandals of the Trump administration is both a salutary and a dispiriting experience for the reader. Salutary because we may have forgotten how damaging Trump’s presidency was to so many (remember the one million–plus US deaths from Covid-19?) and dispiriting because he continues to evade responsibility for his actions.

As Trump heads towards the Republican nomination for the 2024 election, the various court cases brought against him are mired in process, delays and appeals. Baron’s memoir reminds us that it was the Post’s reporter Amy Gardner who broke the story that led to one of the most serious post–2020 election cases: how Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, received a phone call from Trump urging him to “find” enough votes to reverse Joe Biden’s narrow victory in the southern state.

According to the recording Gardner obtained, Trump said to Raffensperger: “All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have.” Trump faces thirteen criminal charges for trying to undo the Georgia result.

Baron’s acute awareness of the threat posed by a second Trump presidency explains why he feels compelled to go over events in such detail. What he doesn’t reflect on is how and why Trump has been able to recover from the ignominy surrounding his 2020 loss. It is a commonplace of commentary to say that Trump’s rise is a symptom of disease in the Republican Party. But has there ever been a symptom so potent and deep-seated, given that the Republican Party is now the Trump Party in all but name?

The media’s role in aiding and abetting Trump’s rise from the ashes of 2020 is something Baron could also have reflected on. Trump is an attention magnet, and the news media has been unable to resist the pull of a figure who sees politics in the hyperventilating, hypermasculine style of pro wrestling. Unable but also, perhaps, unwilling: Les Moonves, the chairman of the CBS television company, infamously said in 2016 that Trump’s rise “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

The evidence is in on the “may not be good for America” part, so it is truly galling to see the news media rushing to cover Trump’s every recent move in classic horserace style. Left behind at the starter’s gate is context, history or a strong enough sense of the grave risk to democracy.

As New York journalism professor Jay Rosen says, the organising principle for the news media as it covers the 2024 presidential election should be “not the odds, but the stakes.” That is, “not who has what chances of winning, but the consequences for our democracy, given what’s possible in this election.” He points to a 2023 piece by Brynn Tannehill in the New Republic as an example of “stakes commentary” whose analysis is both plausible and terrifying. It’s well worth reading.

Collision of Power’s second thread is Jeff Bezos’s surprise purchase in 2013 of the Washington Post from the Graham family, which had owned it since 1933. Like many other media outlets, the Post was struggling to adapt its business model to survive commercially in the digital media age.

One of the world’s richest men (he was worth US$25 billion at the time), Bezos bought the paper out of his own pocket for US$250 million rather than through the company he founded, Amazon. According to Baron, he did so out of a commitment to sustaining public interest journalism.

Bezos’s motivation and plans for the paper attracted a lot of scepticism at the time. Why would a leader of one of the global tech behemoths that had laid waste to the print media’s business model want to buy one of these financially ailing newspapers? Would he allow the Washington Post to report without fear or favour on Amazon, especially given the company’s long history of stonewalling journalists probing its hostility to labour unions, to take one example among many? Would he be an interventionist proprietor?

Soon after buying the paper, Bezos met staff in the “windowless, cavernous and thoroughly charmless ‘community room’” next to the newspaper’s auditorium and fielded questions, including one from famed veteran investigative reporter, Bob Woodward: “How and why did you decide to buy the Post?” (“Hardball,” cracked another journalist.) Bezos answered that he had asked himself three questions before making the decision. Was the newspaper an important institution? Yes, of course. Did it have a future? Yes, in the right circumstances. Did he have anything to contribute, especially as he lived on the opposite coast, in Seattle? Yes, he could provide “runway”; that is, long-term investment that would allow time for experiments to succeed or fail.

And on the question of the newspaper’s coverage of him and his company? “Feel free to cover Amazon any way you want. Feel free to cover Jeff Bezos any way you want.” According to Baron, the newspaper did just that. Its resolve was tested in 2019 when the National Enquirer revealed Bezos had been conducting an affair with a media personality, Lauren Sánchez, including sending her “dick pics.” Baron says the Post covered the issue professionally but acknowledges it could not quite nail down whether the National Enquirer’s story was a political hit job.

The Enquirer, known to be close to Donald Trump, is a supermarket tabloid that engages in “catch and kill”: using a legally enforceable non-disclosure agreement, it buys exclusive rights to “catch” the damaging story from an individual before “killing” it for the benefit of a third party. Trump had been pursuing a vendetta against Bezos and what he called “the Amazon Post.”

On the question of proprietorial interference, though, Baron is adamant: “Bezos never interfered in the Post’s journalism during my seven years plus under his ownership, even if coverage of Amazon put the company in an unfavourable light. For all the speculation that Bezos would use the Post to exercise influence, I never saw any evidence he had or would. I got the sense Bezos relished the challenge of turning around the Post.”

Not that Bezos initially understood exactly how journalism is produced. Like Fred Hilmer, the management consultant who was Fairfax Media’s CEO between 1998 and 2005, Bezos was, and is, obsessed by metrics. He wanted the newspaper’s online website to devote more of its resources to “aggregating” other outlets’ stories into shorter pieces with clickbait headlines, and he wanted each story done in fifteen minutes.

Baron could see the idea’s commercial savvy — it was a “bargain-basement way to profit off the work of others” — but found it intensely annoying that the readers he wanted to consume the newspaper’s original reporting would be drawn in by these “digital gillnets.”

Bezos separated journalists into two categories: those whose work had a “direct impact on the product” (reporters) and those who had an indirect impact (editors). Hire more of the former and fewer of the latter, Baron was told, but he resisted. He believed good editors were essential to “directing and coordinating coverage and ensuring that it meets our quality standards.”

Baron tussled with Bezos on these issues throughout his tenure. He came to appreciate Bezos’s genuine insights into improving the company’s efficiency, and he welcomed Bezos’s commitment to deepening and broadening coverage by hiring more journalists. The number of political journalists at the paper doubled during Baron’s time there, and before the 2016 election an eight-person “rapid-response investigative team” was established. In time, improvements in how the paper’s stories were packaged and delivered to readers reaped rewards in both reach and subscription numbers.

Bezos also came to appreciate the particular role newspapers play in society and the particular culture a newsroom needs if its staff are going to publish stories that anger and upset powerful people, including presidents. When Ben Bradlee, a legendary predecessor of Baron who oversaw the paper’s coverage of the Watergate scandal, died in 2014, Bezos was not planning to attend the funeral until he received an email from Bob Woodward reminding him not only of Bradlee’s importance in the paper’s history but also that he was “the soul of the institution that’s now yours.” Bezos attended, and afterwards described it as an “awakening” for him.

The new owner imbibed the example of Katharine Graham, publisher between 1963 and 1991, whose steadfast support of the paper during Watergate earned her the ire of the Nixon administration, which planned payback by encouraging its allies to challenge the licences of the Graham family’s television stations.

Trump initially tried charming Bezos before asking him to use his position to secure favourable coverage. When Bezos rebuffed his demands, Trump launched a ferocious campaign against Amazon. He claimed the company should pay higher postal rates for its goods and more tax — a bit rich coming from someone who had boasted about not paying much tax.

Partly because of Amazon’s public unpopularity, many underplayed what Trump was doing. Baron, however, cites a 2019 article by Jonathan Chait in New York magazine: “The story here is almost certainly a massive scandal, probably more significant than the Ukraine scandal that spurred impeachment proceedings. Trump improperly used government policy to punish the owner of an independent newspaper as retribution for critical coverage.”

Running alongside commercially oriented discussions are sharpening challenges to Baron’s sense of journalistic ethics. In the third thread in Collision of Power he discusses his stewardship of an important newspaper during what has been, and continues to be, a difficult period for the news media. He illustrates the challenges with detailed accounts of the cases of Wes Lowery and Felicia Sonmez.

Lowery won a Pulitzer for his reporting on police shootings in 2015; Sonmez was a breaking news reporter. Both fell foul of the newspaper’s social media policy by tweeting their views on various controversies, including Trump’s racist comments about four progressive congresswomen of colour (Lowery) and sexual assault allegations against high-profile sports stars and other journalists (Sonmez).

Lowery left the newspaper and began speaking out about what he saw as the bankrupt nature of objectivity in journalism. Last year he wrote a thought-provoking essay, “A Test of the News,” for the Columbia Journalism Review in which he highlighted how journalists from diverse backgrounds are feeling increasingly frustrated and disenchanted by how news stories are chosen and framed from what Lowery sees as a predominantly upper-class, white, male perspective.

The lack of diversity in American (and for that matter Australian) newsrooms has been a problem for many years. In 1971, according to the American Journalist Project, just 3.9 per cent of those working in newsrooms were Black. By 2013 the percentage figure had still only nudged up to 4.1.

Journalistic objectivity has also been the subject of controversy for many years. Historically, journalists and editors liked to think their decisions about news selection were arrived at dispassionately. At best they were discounting, and at worst they were oblivious to, the values — personal, cultural and ideological — underpinning their decisions. Even the language of the newsroom, with its talk of “a nose for news” or, more formally, “news values,” gives the game away. Whose nose, what values?

Behind the cloak of objectivity are hidden all sorts of journalistic shibboleths. The horserace coverage of electoral contests, for instance, has been analysed in the academic literature since at least 1980, but the news media seems unable or unwilling to recognise the problems of reporting politics as if it were a sporting event.

Another example: people in positions of power and authority, especially presidents and prime ministers, are accorded at least 50 per cent of space in news items simply because of their status. When an allegation is made against them, they must be asked for a response. When president George W. Bush built the case — spurious as it turned out — to invade Iraq in 2003, he was able to game the journalistic requirement for balance. Donald Trump, of course, has pushed that game several moves down the board.

Objectivity in a scientific sense is unattainable. Journalists are human beings. The news media industry’s relentless pushing of the idea that news reporting can be objective has simply sent an open invitation to everyone to play spot the bias.

What journalists can and should pursue is an objective method of verification, as is cogently outlined in Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s essential guide, The Elements of Journalism. At its simplest, this means seeking out all perspectives on an issue, especially a contentious issue, and reporting viewpoints dispassionately. Drawing on a range of views blunts a journalist’s tendency to serve up their biases or simply opine.

That doesn’t mean accepting any and every view. As the quote variously attributed to Jonathan Foster and Hubert Mewhinney has it: “If someone says it’s raining and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out the fucking window and find out which is true.”

First published in 2001, Kovach and Rosenstiel’s book has been revised three times to keep up to date with trends and debates, including on newsroom diversity. They cite a Black business executive, Peter Bell, who says arguments for greater diversity in newsrooms presuppose that all Black people or all women think alike. “What is the Black position on any given issue? The answer, of course, is that there isn’t one.”

Conversely, a Black journalist, Nikole Hannah-Jones, says the rage she feels about racial injustice drives her reporting. Rather than the word objectivity, she talks about meticulous research, evidence and transparency as guiding principles that strengthen her storytelling.

For Kovach and Rosenstiel, “Independence from faction suggests there is a way to produce journalism without either denying the influence of personal experience or being hostage to it.” As much as greater diversity along racial, gender or gender-identity lines is needed, they argue that newsrooms also need intellectual and ideological diversity.

In 1971, 26 per cent of American journalists identified themselves as Republicans, 36 per cent as Democrats and 33 per cent as independents. By 2013, the number of Republicans had dropped to 7 per cent while the number of Democrats had fallen slightly to 28 per cent and the number of independents had risen to 50 per cent.

In practice, according to Kovach and Rosenstiel, this means “on the crush of deadline, journalists often expect everyone in the newsroom to think the same way rather than embracing debate inspired by personal background… It has been safer to default to a vision of journalistic consciousness that pretends politics doesn’t enter into it.”

Baron, for his part, supports the need for greater newsroom diversity and has seen the benefit of journalists using social media for their work. But he is also a socially conservative person for whom the story is what matters, not him or his opinions. As much as anything, that was what he disapproved of when Lowery (whose work he greatly admired) took to Twitter.

This is a valuable book by a self-effacing but outstanding editor. It is no small irony that, having been inspired by the newspaper’s Watergate reporting, Baron seems blind to the fact that Woodward and Bernstein were the first newspaper journalists to become celebrities. It was their book, All the President’s Men, and the film adaptation starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman (with Jason Robards as Bradlee) that created the Watergate legend.

The horse known as the unheralded journalist has long since bolted. The doors of the stable containing the social media horse were also flung open several years ago. The question now is whether media outlets and their journalists can find the balance between opinion and reporting and between free speech and company loyalty. •

Collision of Power: Trump, Bezos, and the Washington Post
By Martin Baron | Flatiron Books | $74.99 | 548 pages