Marty Baron is the Forest Gump of modern day journalism. He was with the Miami Herald during the 2000 election, with the Boston Globe during 9/11 and spearheaded the Globe‘s investigation of the Catholic Church’s coverup of pedofile priests, a story that inspired coverage of the same story to wherever in the world the Catholic Church had a footprint.
As if that wasn’t enough, Baron went on to become the managing editor of the Washington Post five months before it was bought by Jeff Bezos in 2013, the same year Edward Snowdon leaked a massive document dump proving that the security agencies of the US government were secretly spying on their own citizens, three years before the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, and seven years before Trump lost reelection and fomented the insurrection following that loss.
None of this is helped by the paper’s own institutional inertia.
Newsrooms routinely suffer from a stong gravitational pull back toward what used to be at the expense of what needs to be.
Nor is the fact that the Post is just about dead broke, and their coverage is suffering because they keep having to lay off reporters and editors.
Jeff Bezos comes off very well in Baron’s account. At one of their first meetings the Post‘s leaders are determined the new owner doesn’t come in blind to the situation and tells him exactly how bad things are financially.
We all wondered whether Bezos grasped just how bad things were. As we sat in silence, he studied the memo’s six pages, then rose without a word to leave our table. “are you coming back?” Steve cracked. No response. Bezos picked up a beverage, returned, sat down, paused as if for dramatic effect, and looked directly at Steve. “I don’t scare that easily,” he said. “You’re right, we need to grow. So how are we going to do that?”
According to Baron, Bezos never wavered in his support for the Post, and never interfered or tried to interfere with the Post‘s coverage of the news, including of Amazon and later of Bezos’ affair and divorce. He pushed for the Post to broaden its scope from covering only Washington, D.C. to covering the nation and the world, and he insisted it figure out how to pay for itself. That was it. In the beginning Trump tried to curry favor with Bezos, wanting him to steer the Post‘s coverage away from Trump’s manifest unfitness for the job and his utter inability to tell the truth. This began with a dinner including Baron and Bezos at the White House in June, 2017, the news of which Baron, in true reporter-scooping fashion, breaks for the first time in the prologue of this book. He writes
Trump would pass the evening with us–crowing about his election victory, mocking his rivals and even some of his own orbit, boasting already of imagined accomplishments, calculating how he could win yet again in four years, and describing The Washington Post as the worst of all media outlets…Two things stayed with me from that dinner. First, Trump would govern orimarily to retain the support of his base…Second, his list of grievances appeared limitless.
When he failed to bully Bezos into more flattering coverage, Trump lit up Bezos and Amazon and the Post like a pinball machine, beginning with constant, increasingly vitriolic, purposefully incendiary, and invariably untrue insults on Twitter and at political rallies and in the White House press room, and, when this didn’t work, escalating into government attacks on Amazon itself.
Nor were Post employees immune. Trump and his allies reviled and harrassed and doxxed not just The Post‘s reporters but anyone reporting unfavorably on Trump, and they were physically attacked and their equipment destroyed by the insurrectionists on January 6th.
The GOP effort…was designed with malicious intent. Some reporters’ photos were posted by Trump allies merely to show they were being watched, as happend to the Post‘s Josh Dawsey, when a photograph of him sitting at a bar was posted to Twitter. It was an act of intimidation. “They wanted all the reporters covering him to live in fear,” Josh told me.
The chapter on the assassination of Post correspondent Jamal Khashoggi on the orders of the Saudi crown prince is a horrifying read. Baron writes
…Trump, of course, wasn’t directly responsible for Khashoggi’s killing. But he was responsible for emboldening autocrats who intended to extinguish their press critics one way or another. In this instance, the chosen method was a bone saw. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ample reasons to anticiapte impunity from Trump, and he got exactly that.
Throughout the narrative, Baron reiterates his feelings about what makes a professional journalist and that never changes. In his epilogue he leaves a blueprint for every newsroom anywhere.
This is what [genuine objectivity] really means: As journalists we can never stop obsessing over how to get at the truth–Doing that requires an open mind and rigorous method. We must be more impressed with what we don’t know than with what we know or think we know. We should not start our work by imagining we have the answers; we need to seek them out…If we hope to effectively hold the powerful to account, we will have to show that we are objective in how we go about our work.
I think it’s safe to say that Baron oversaw one of our most important media outlets during the most fraught time in our history absent the four years of the Civil War, and that he did it at least attempting to hold true to that maxim of genuine objectivity. He retired the month after January 6, 2021, and no wonder. That is where the book ends, but when it does you are in no doubt of his conclusion, that a free press is essential to a free society.
He doesn’t say it but I will: It has never been more essential than it is right now.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.