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Legendary editor Marty Baron describes his 'Collision of Power' with Trump and Bezos

The front page of <em>The Washington Post</em> newspaper from Aug. 6, 2013, the day after it was announced that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos had agreed to purchase the newspaper from the Graham family.
Saul Loeb
AFP via Getty Images
The front page of The Washington Post newspaper from Aug. 6, 2013, the day after it was announced that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos had agreed to purchase the newspaper from the Graham family.

Former newspaper executive Marty Baron has overseen some of the biggest stories in American journalism. In 2000, he served as an editor at the Miami Herald during the presidential election recount, which hinged on results from Florida. Later, he presided over The Boston Globe during the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, which was dramatized in the Academy Award-winning movie Spotlight.

His new book, Collision of Power, focuses on his time as the executive editor of The Washington Post. One issue that came up early during his tenure at The Post was the decision to publish Edward Snowden's revelations of government surveillance.

"You don't make a snap decision on those sorts of things," he tells Fresh Air of the Snowden story. "I didn't want to be necessarily party to doing anything that would endanger the lives of ordinary people and the security of the country. On the other hand, there was a surveillance regime in this country that had been put in place by the intelligence community."

Baron began at The Post just a few months before Amazon founder Jeff Bezos purchased the newspaper in 2013 from the Grahamfamily, which had owned it since 1933.

"We were in the position of managing decline at The Post," Baron says of the sale. "Bezos obviously knows technology extremely well. And importantly, in my view, he also understands consumer behavior. And he certainly has the resources to invest for the kind of transition in a digital era that we needed to make."

Baron describes himself as someone who's committed to both old-school journalistic values and the future of the industry. In some cases, that means adopting a more informal writing style, even when talking about complicated subjects.

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Instead of writing in the "traditional, formalized style" that had been used in newspapers for a long time, he says the paper has shifted to a tone that is "much more accessible, as if you were speaking to a family member or friend."

Though Baron stepped down from The Post in 2021, he still follows the news closely. Looking ahead to the 2024 presidential election, he predicts that if Trump were to win, he would install a "government of vengeance."

"He will be targeting the Department of Justice. He will be targeting the FBI. He will be going after the courts in some fashion," Baron says. "We need to report on that aggressively, not because there's a commercial advantage in it, but because the future of the country, the future of the democracy depends on who we have in the White House. And that's our obligation. That's core to our mission."

Interview highlights

<em>Collision of Power</em>, by Marty Baron
/ MacMillan
Collision of Power, by Marty Baron

On the motto "democracy dies in darkness" being added to The Post nameplate after Trump

Executive editor Marty Baron smiles as <em>The Washington Post</em> wins two Pulitzer Prizes, April 16, 2018.
Andrew Harnik / AP
Executive editor Marty Baron smiles as The Washington Post wins two Pulitzer Prizes, April 16, 2018.

I was a little skeptical of this, simply because it's not customary to have "death" and "darkness" in a motto. I don't think many marketers would say that's a really good idea. We tried other things. We tried using the word "light" in various ways, but it sounded very self-aggrandizing and it sounded a little cultish, actually. "Shedding light" or ... "bringing light" — it sounded all very weird. And so Bezos ultimately said, let's use this, which had been something that Bob Woodward, the famed investigative reporter for The Washington Post, had been saying for many years. And so we adopted it. ...

It was an immediate phenomenon. I mean, just so many people embraced it. Although Trump criticized it, his allies assailed it as being an attack on Trump and being targeted at Trump, which it never was. And that motto, or mission statement as Bezos liked to call it, is still affixed to every product of The Washington Post. It didn't go away when Trump left the White House.

On Trump's anti-press posture and the murder of Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi

I think in the United States, we've become accustomed to presidents, even if they're critical of the press, basically supporting the idea of a free and independent press, of understanding what our role is in society – the very core mission of holding government to account. I mean, that's the origin of the First Amendment. ... I don't think Trump respected that at all. And his attacks on the press were a sign to rulers elsewhere in the world that they could go after the press in a way that they hadn't before.

It was clear that Trump could not have cared less. He wasn't going to do anything to protect journalists elsewhere in the world, not even American journalists. And that was a terrible signal, I think, to send to autocrats elsewhere in the world who were determined to suppress independent journalism in their own countries. In the case of Jamal Khashoggi, I think it was a sign that Saudi Arabia interpreted as they could do whatever they wanted to, and they were not going to incur the ire of the president of the United States.

On failing to acknowledge the pain and experience of Black journalists at The Post

I think the killing of George Floyd affected Black journalists and Black Americans generally in a way that other incidents of police abuse and killings had not. That came as a surprise to me. I just didn't have my finger on the pulse of that, really, which in a way is sort of emblematic of the problem that people were trying to highlight subsequent to that, which was that if we had had more Black Americans in leadership positions, they probably would have been able to alert me to that feeling of anger and grievance and hurt that it was different this time. And I didn't have a sense of that.

We had done a really good job of covering the [George Floyd] protests, which were intense in the nation's capital, of course. And I sent out a note to the staff to congratulate people on that coverage. But in my note of congratulations and thanks and real gratitude and genuine gratitude, I failed to acknowledge the hurt that was felt by Black Americans and Black journalists on our staff, and I was criticized for that. And that's sort of how I became aware of how this incident, this killing was different from previous ones. As in many other news organizations, there was a demand for action to do more to have more diversity in the leadership of the post. Overall on the staff, we had pretty good diversity numbers. We'd actually improve the overall diversity of the staff during my time there, but not really in leadership and certainly in the most senior ranks. It wasn't very diverse at all and people noted that and they were upset over that and they wanted that to change. They didn't want to hear just a promise of change. They wanted to see the change immediately.

On his issue with newsroom unions

I don't oppose unions. I actually embrace the unions. I think they have an incredibly important role to play in American society in terms of asking for better wages and better benefits. My problem with newsroom unions has been that they seem to want to co-manage the newsroom. ... I also feel that unions in newsrooms have really demonstrated willful ignorance of what it takes to have a sustainable business model in the kind of media environment that exists today. ...

Media in this country is in a state of crisis. I think we all have to work together to figure out how to make sure that we have a strong industry and a strong profession.

Media in this country is in a state of crisis. I think we all have to work together to figure out how to make sure that we have a strong industry and a strong profession. And that requires a level of cooperation and not only conflict, not only confrontation, and I very much believe in that. And I would like to see us work in that direction, and I think that's going to be necessary.

Heidi Saman and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.