By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Book review: Marty Baron has written a plea for journalism that isn’t afraid to tell the truth

Photo (cc) 2017 by Álvaro García Fuentes

For more than eight years, The Washington Post experienced a second golden age. From late 2013, when Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the storied paper for $250 million, through the early months of 2021, when Donald Trump left the White House and a new administration began to settle in, the Post was firing on all cylinders. Thanks to Bezos’ strategic investments in technology and an expanded news report, the Post emerged as a real competitor to The New York Times for the first time since the 1970s.

That second golden age also overlapped with Martin Baron’s time as executive editor of the Post. In his new book, “Collision of Power: Trump, Bezos, and The Washington Post,” Baron tells the story of those years, offering a behind-the-scenes look at the end of the legendary Graham era; how Bezos quickly transformed a shrinking, mostly regional newspaper into a national digital media outlet; and the challenge of covering Trump, whom Baron frankly, and repeatedly, calls an “authoritarian.”

I’ve covered Marty Baron off and on for years, back when he was editor of The Boston Globe and I was the media columnist for The Boston Phoenix, and later when I was reporting on the Post for my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century.” Baron is both accessible and accountable, but he can also be intimidating and a bit defensive. He deserves his reputation as the best editor of his era, not just at the Times but at the Globe and, before that, the Miami Herald.

By his own telling, though, he chose the right moment to retire, as he found himself out of sync with younger journalists’ demands for racial and gender equity, the right to express themselves on social media, and a rethinking of traditional notions of objectivity. Baron says that he was fully on board with calls for greater diversity in the Post newsroom but admits that change happened more slowly than it should have. He also offers an impassioned defense of objectivity, which he rightly sees as the fair-minded pursuit of the truth rather than timid both-sides-ism.

Everyone will be interested in the Trump stuff, of course, but I was mainly curious to see if Baron’s portrayal of Bezos would match up with what I wrote in “Moguls.” To my relief, it does. Bezos, in Baron’s telling, brought enthusiasm and vision to the Post, mainly on the business and technology sides, but never tried to interfere in newsroom decisions, even at some cost to Amazon’s and his own personal reputation. Baron writes:

At the start of Bezos’s ownership, I had reason to fear that he might interfere in our news coverage, if only because there was a long history of wealthy media owners doing so. By the time Trump took office, however, years had passed without Bezos’s intervention. I could judge him by his record. As Trump sought to tighten the screws, Bezos made plain that we had no need to fear that he might capitulate due to pressure.

Baron adds: “In all my interactions with him, Bezos showed himself to have integrity and spine.”

“Collision of Power” begins with what Baron regards as an ill-advised White House dinner with Trump, Post publisher Fred Ryan, editorial page editor Fred Hiatt and himself. It was Ryan’s idea, we learn, and we discover later on that Baron had mixed feelings about Ryan, who served Ronald Reagan and was a believer in access to power. Trump, predictably, used the meeting as a chance to charm, bluster and threaten. Within a few pages, Baron is comparing the then-president to Stalin, Mao and Goebbels.

As for Ryan, Baron acidly observes that Hiatt, who’s now deceased, threatened to quit if Ryan followed through on his desire not to make an endorsement in 2016 rather than back Hillary Clinton. Baron does, though, praise Ryan’s public advocacy on behalf of Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who had been unjustly imprisoned by Iran, and for shining a spotlight on another Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered by the Saudi regime.

Much of “Collision of Power” deals with Baron’s view that Trump represents an existential threat to democracy. During Trump’s 2016 campaign and throughout his chaotic presidency, the Post emerged as tougher and more willing to depart from the bland language of journalistic neutrality than the Times in its day-to-day political coverage, although both papers produced truly great investigative reporting. But it was the Post, not the Times, that broke the two most important Trump-related stories of the 2016 campaign: the fraudulent nature of Trump’s charitable foundation and the existence of an audio tape on which Trump is heard bragging about sexually assaulting women.

The Times, meanwhile, rode the Hillary Clinton email story so hard that “her emails” has become an eye-rolling catchphrase among those who blame that paper for Trump’s election. In fact, in one of the few mea culpas in “Collision of Power,” Baron says the Post, like the Times and much of the rest of the media, devoted too much attention to the email story, and he asserts that then-FBI Director James Comey’s decision to reopen the investigation into her emails during the waning days of the campaign (only to find nothing) was what put Trump over the top on Election Day. Baron says of the email story:

As always, we made coverage decisions in real time, not knowing what ultimately would be revealed. In that context, in my view, our own reporting was not overdone. With the benefit of hindsight, however, it’s easy to argue that coverage by the press overall was disproportionate to the transgression, given the overriding stakes in the election.

In the last sections of the book, Baron deals at some length with his response to two younger reporters who fell afoul of his and the Post’s standards — Wesley Lowery and Felicia Sonmez. The cause in both cases was their use of Twitter. I understand why Baron devoted some space to his clashes with Lowery, a talented Black reporter who led the paper’s coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement that arose after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Lowery, who won a Pulitzer with the Post, has remained a high-profile and respected observer of journalism as well as an outspoken critic of Baron’s. It strikes me as sensible for Baron to have his say on his relationship with Lowery, who resigned after the two clashed several times over what Baron believed was Lowery’s inappropriate use of Twitter to express opinions. “We wanted Wes to keep working at the Post,” Baron writes, adding that “the decision to leave was his, not ours.”

Sonmez, though, is another matter. I suppose her clashes with Post management were public enough that Baron couldn’t ignore them entirely. The detail with which he describes those clashes, though, seems excessive. By the time Baron’s successor as executive editor, Sally Buzbee, fired Sonmez for refusing to stop criticizing her colleagues on Twitter despite repeated warnings, there really wasn’t much doubt that Sonmez needed a chance to rebuild her career somewhere else. (Sonmez and the Washington Post Guild filed an unfair labor practice claim last year with the National Labor Relations Board arguing that Sonmez was unlawfully terminated for speaking out about working conditions at the Post. Proceedings over that claim are ongoing.)

Another quibble is that Baron pays scant attention to Shailesh Prakash, the Post’s chief technologist during most of Baron’s editorship. Under Prakash’s leadership, the Post provided an unparalleled user experience, and to this day it still hasn’t relinquished its lead. Without great technology, the great journalism that Baron’s troops were producing would have reached far fewer people.

Baron ends “Collision of Power” with a plea for press freedom, journalistic standards and a business model that will produce the revenues needed to pay for the news we need in a democratic society. He observes that the Post itself has retreated in the two and a half years since he retired, losing circulation and money after years of Bezos-era profits. Baron doesn’t blame Buzbee, but he does say that the Post must find new areas it can excel in. (As I’ve written several times, the Post needs a strategy that goes beyond being just like The New York Times, only not as comprehensive.)

“For the press to hold power to account today, we will have to commit to what constitutes our moral core,” Baron writes. But the public, too, needs to understand the purpose of the press in a democratic society. Trust in the media has hit a new low, according to a survey released this week, and though people do tend to trust the news outlets that they use, it’s a depressing fact that about a third of the public is in thrall to the lies and conspiracy theories promoted by Fox News.

The story that Baron tells in “Collision of Power” is a story about the fight to save our democracy. It’s a fight that continues, and its outcome is uncertain. “We’re not at war with the administration. We’re at work,” Baron once famously said. That work continues.

Correction: This post has been updated with regard to the circumstances of Wesley Lowery’s resignation from the Post.

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1 Comment

  1. Peggi Mederos

    I just finished the book ad thin it is wonderful. One example of Baron’s decency. emailed him about Trump and never expected to hear back. He did get back to me
    – not someone famous- just a Post reader. I’d have loved to work for him.

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