NPR’s top news executive has been hired as the next editor of The Boston Globe

Nancy Barnes (via LinkedIn)

It was a little more than nine years ago that John and Linda Henry completed their purchase of The Boston Globe from the New York Times Co. But it wasn’t until today that they hired their first top news editor.

Late this afternoon the Globe announced that Nancy Barnes, currently the chief news executive at NPR, would replace longtime editor Brian McGrory on Feb. 1. McGrory said in September that he would retire at the end of the year in order to become chair of the journalism department at Boston University.

Barnes, 61, has local ties, having grown up in the Boston area and worked as an intern at the Globe and as a reporter at The Sun of Lowell earlier in her career. Before coming to NPR as senior vice president for news and editorial director in 2018, she had held the top editing jobs at the Houston Chronicle and the Star Tribune of Minneapolis.

Barnes’ tenure at NPR was not entirely a happy one. In September, after a new executive position was created above her, she said she would leave by the end of the year, saying, “Now is the right time for me to pursue some other opportunities.” NPR media reporter David Folkenflik wrote that Barnes could seem “aloof” at times, although he noted that she had come in under stressful circumstances: her predecessor, Michael Oreskes, had departed amid multiple accusations of sexual harassment. Folkenflik described her legacy in glowing terms:

Barnes helped NPR News achieve substantive accomplishments in a period buffeted by external crises that the network had to both endure and cover. She accelerated NPR’s investigative and enterprise reporting efforts; helped map out reporting on the pandemic and the war in Ukraine; and broadened the network’s coverage of issues of race, identity and social justice.

In addition, she oversaw a more aggressive stance in reporting on the growing threat to democracy from supporters of former President Donald Trump. Barnes also established a more muscular presence for the network in covering climate change. The newsroom continued to garner major accolades, winning its first Pulitzer, in collaboration with two member stations, and becoming a Pulitzer finalist several times.

Like Marty Baron, who preceded McGrory as the Globe’s editor, Barnes is an outsider. Throughout the Globe’s history, though, most of the paper’s editors, including McGrory, have been insiders. And here’s a qualification that Linda Henry cited in her memo to the staff, which appears below: Barnes has served as the top news executive at an organization other than a newspaper. As the Globe moves more into podcasts and other forms of media, Barnes will be in a good position to help lead the way.

McGrory — who did as much as anyone to recruit the Henrys as buyers for the Globe, as I described in my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls” — leaves quite a legacy of his own. On McGrory’s watch, the Globe has thrived journalistically and has emerged as among a handful of large regional newspapers that have achieved financial sustainability. He was a popular metro columnist before becoming the editor, and he will write a column for the opinion section once he leaves the paper.

This is the second major hire at the Globe this year. In May, James Dao was recruited from The New York Times to edit the paper’s opinion section. Barnes and Dao will both report directly to Linda Henry, the chief executive of Boston Globe Media, and John Henry, the publisher of the Globe. Linda Henry’s full memo to the troops was fowarded to me a few hours ago by several trusted sources. Here it is in full with the exception of the search committee members, since those names would be meaningful only to Globe insiders:

A few months ago, I shared that we began a search for the next leader of the Globe’s newsroom as Brian McGrory begins his next chapter at BU and resumes a familiar, but new(ish) role as columnist for the Globe on the Opinion side. In the time since, we have met with a field of incredibly talented leaders — both inside and outside our organization — and I am thrilled to share with you today that Nancy Barnes will become the 13th editor of The Boston Globe.

Nancy, as many of you know, is an accomplished journalist and transformational leader who has held the top job at some of the largest newsrooms in the country. She currently serves as NPR’s senior vice president for news and editorial director, leading a team of more than 500 journalists and newsroom executives, with oversight of NPR’s journalism around the world and across platforms. She’s also deeply engaged in the industry, serving on the prestigious Pulitzer Prize Board, the Peabody Awards, and as a past president of the News Leaders Association.

This is somewhat of a homecoming for Nancy, who was born in Cambridge and grew up in Wilmington before moving to Virginia. She holds something in common with many of the country’s top journalists, having started her lifelong career in journalism as an intern at The Boston Globe. After college, she returned to the area to work at the Lowell Sun, and then spent a decade at the News & Observer [of Raleigh, North Carolina]. She earned an MBA before joining the Minneapolis Star Tribune as executive editor, where she modernized their digital journalism and led the newsroom to win multiple national awards, including a Pulitzer Prize in local reporting. When Nancy moved to Texas to take on the role of SVP and Executive Editor for Hearst Texas newspapers, The Houston Chronicle won its first Pulitzer Prize and was named a Pulitzer Finalist three other times during her tenure.

I’ve been delighted and inspired by my conversations with Nancy. She has shared that her priorities in this role are to tap into the tremendous innovation that our company has embraced over the last several years and to ensure that our mentorship and development for journalists at all levels of their careers remains vibrant and transformative. Nancy knows the importance of serving an engaged local audience and has a proven track record of elevating metro news outlets to their highest potential.

On top of her proven track record with metros, I was particularly inspired by all that she has learned in her time away from newspapers over the past few years, immersed in an innovative, digital-forward, and global environment at NPR. She is thrilled to return to Boston with our regional expertise, and I know that her time at NPR has given her best practices, insights, and strategies that will inform her next chapter at the Globe. I am excited for her to guide our continued digital evolution, working with the incredible team of journalists here to better serve our growing reader base.

I once again would like to share my gratitude to Brian McGrory for his bold leadership as editor over the past ten years. Under Brian’s leadership, the Globe has continuously produced ambitious journalism, inspiring the talented journalists here to be searingly relevant and relentlessly interesting. He expanded coverage, led a newsroom reinvention which engaged the entire staff, and has helped the Globe adapt during one of the most challenging times in the newspaper industry. Our work has been recognized locally and nationally with many awards, including multiple Pulitzer Prizes and most recently, the award of General Excellence in Online Journalism by the Online News Association. Today, the Globe is arguably the most successful regional news organization in the country.

Inclusive of Stat News, Boston Globe Media now has the highest number of total subscribers that this institution has had since 2008, and we continue to lead in subscription numbers among our industry peers. We are extremely proud of all the ways that this growth has fueled continuous investment in our journalism, and we look forward to building on that momentum with Nancy’s extensive industry perspective and deep journalistic experience.

Please join us tomorrow, November 15th at 2pm in the newsroom, where Brian and I will be welcoming Nancy in person and she will introduce herself in the news hub. We will send an audio link for those who are not able to join us in person. She will officially join our team on February 1, 2023 and we will plan a time for her to meet many more of you in the new year.

A special thank you to the internal team that helped with this comprehensive and inspiring search process….

Thank you,
Linda Henry

 

At Columbia, clashing views over the value and even the meaning of objectivity

Masha Gessen. Photo (cc) 2017 by the MIT Media Lab.

I was struck by an argument that Masha Gessen made earlier this week at a panel  about objectivity. Back in March, Gessen wrote a harrowing 7,000-word account for The New Yorker about Russian atrocities in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. Her editors, she said, wanted to include a comment from the Russian government — a statement in which officials would deny the horrific reality of what she and photographer Jérôme Sessini had documented.

“The objective style would demand that we give the Russian government a platform to lie,” she said. She told her editors that it would have “contaminated” the entire story to include a few lines of official denial. She prevailed; but she added that if she had been writing about any other topic, “I would have lost that battle.”

At another point in the discussion she said, “If we’re going to have an ideal, then moral clarity would be a much better ideal than objectivity.”

Gessen made her remarks last Tuesday at a discussion sponsored by the Columbia Journalism Review and Columbia’s Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights called “The Objectivity Wars.” For the most part, the discussion was familiar and predictable, but there were a few moments of genuine insight.

The panelists were David Greenberg, a historian at Rutgers University; Lewis Raven Wallace, author of “The View from Somewhere,” best known for losing his job at public radio’s “Marketplace” after writing a blog post that was critical of journalistic objectivity; author and journalist Wesley Lowery, who left his job at The Washington Post after clashing with then-executive editor Marty Baron over his opinionated Twitter feed; and Andie Tucher, the H. Gordon Garbedian Professor of Journalism at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Moderating was Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of the CJR.

The most outspoken defender of traditional objectivity was Greenberg, who said that opinion journalism and objective journalism have long co-existed, and each has an important place. He noted that, at many newspapers, journalists who had paid their dues by working as straight-news reporters were often rewarded with columns in which they could express their opinions. “There’s a certain prestige and freedom attached to that position,” he said.

Tucher added that objectivity arose as an antidote to the sensationalism of the 19th century. “Journalism was terrible,” she said. “It was embarrassing.” Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the lurid New York World, founded the Columbia School of Journalism, she said, out of a sense of “remorse.”

Lowery, whose critique of objectivity was best expressed in a New York Times op-ed piece published in 2020, argued that objectivity can’t be separated from race and gender, saying that the decisions that go into any conversation about what’s newsworthy and how stories should be covered are still overwhelmingly made by white men. “My piece will be different from your piece because we will make different subjective decisions,” he said. He said, too, that most news organizations have stopped providing information on how diverse their reporting staffs are (or aren’t) “because they don’t want to be embarrassed by it.”

Indeed, my Northeastern colleague Dr. Meredith Clark resigned from running the News Leaders Association’s diversity survey, she wrote earlier this year at Nieman Lab, because so few newsrooms were willing to respond. (Clark talked about her findings with Ellen Clegg and me on the “What Works” podcast a few months ago.)

Wallace said his turn against objectivity was grounded in his experience in coming out as transgender when he was a teenager. He wanted his identity to be part of what he did, he told the audience, saying, “Objectivity has been a silencing force — literally, in my case.”

Objectivity will continue to be a fraught subject. Properly understood, it simply means a fair-minded pursuit of the truth, with journalists adopting unbiased methods of reporting in order to get past their biases. Unfortunately, objectivity is too often reduced to the mindless reporting of “both sides” and of engaging in false equivalence.

The Columbia panel shows that those various understandings and misunderstandings of objectivity persist to this day.

Yes, it’s true: Brian McGrory is leaving the Globe and heading to Boston University

Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory has finally made official what half the city has known for months: he’s leaving the Globe at the end of 2022 after nearly 10 years in charge in order to chair the journalism department at Boston University. He sent a memo to the staff a little while ago.

McGrory, who’d been a popular metro columnist before ascending to the top of the masthead, was named editor in the waning days of New York Times Co. ownership after Marty Baron left for The Washington Post. But McGrory helped pave the way for John Henry to buy the Globe in 2013, a process I described in my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls.” On McGrory’s watch, the Globe has thrived journalistically and has emerged as among a handful of large regional newspapers that have achieved financial sustainability.

Obviously there’s much more to be said, and much more will be said. I’ll just point out that he’s now a rival. The director of our School of Journalism at Northeastern is Jonathan Kaufman, a former Globe journalist. Moreover, McGrory and Kaufman both led news organizations that won Pulitzer Prizes — Bloomberg News in Kaufman’s case.

Here’s the Globe’s story on McGrory’s departure.

Congratulations to Brian. BU’s gain will be the Globe’s loss. The complete text of McGrory’s message, obtained from a trusted source, appear below.

Hey all,

I’ve written a lot of overly long memos to the room. I can’t promise this one will be any shorter, but I’ll do my best to be direct. I’m planning to step away from my role as editor by the end of this year.

When I took this job nearly a decade ago, I expected epic challenges and hoped for meaningful rewards. In retrospect, I had no idea on either front. Begin with the stories, so many once-in-a-generation stories, from the Boston Marathon bombings, to the Trump election, to a pandemic that changed everything, to the vital racial and social justice movement, to Trump’s failed reelection and its ugly aftermath, to this angst-ridden, not-quite-post-Covid netherworld that we’re in now. There were thousands of other stories in between, big consequential projects, deeply human narratives, breaking news, vital accountability work. You did it all with tenacity, urgency, and grace, and I’m honored to have been a part of that.

At the same time, the moment required us to confront the profoundly broken business model in American journalism, which calls to mind what a journalism elder said to me a number of years ago: You get to pick your career, but not when you do it. The industry was, as you know, a wreck. Big, proud newspapers were getting hollowed out. Answers were elusive. There were serious questions about our very viability. Facing all of that, what you’ve accomplished is nothing short of miraculous. You’ve embraced digital. You’ve shifted our mindset from being the paper of record to the paper of interest. You’ve found that sweet spot between what readers want and what our community needs. In doing so, you’ve built one of the most successful news sites in the world, http://bostonglobe.com, the foundation upon which this organization will grow for years. I hope you know how rare and important this is. And I’m honored to be part of that, too.

These kinds of notes inevitably turn formulaic and sappy, rarely a good combination, and I’m afraid I’m about to succumb to that form. There is so much that is great about this job, but there is a singularly meaningful reward that I wasn’t fully anticipating: my relationships with so many of you. From this seat, I had the privilege of thousands upon thousands of conversations. I saw your daily determination. I saw your commitment to the craft. I saw how you navigated the relentless demands of work in the most difficult times. I saw the toll it took, the resilience you had, the pride you felt. I saw how you care about your colleagues and the readers we serve.

I saw on a moment-by-moment basis how much the Globe means to you. What I also saw is how much you mean to the Globe. Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re not always easy. You are, though, always worth it. This is the best newsroom in the country, and there’s no proper way to thank you for that.

Naming names is never a good thing, but I need to specifically thank Jen Peter and Jason Tuohey, the two best managing editors in America. You could throw at Jen a global pandemic that decimates every touchstone of everyday life, which we did, and she would hesitate only imperceptibly before continuing to bring order to the daily chaos that is journalism. She’s done it brilliantly. And put Jason among the most important digital thinkers in this industry today, the driving force behind so much of our growth.

Thanks, emphatically, to the Henrys, John and Linda. It’s just about incomprehensible that people with their options and resources would have the desire and commitment to plunge into the gritty and often thankless world of newspapers at a time when so many big thinkers were saying that the industry couldn’t be saved. They did, for all the right reasons, and the results have been profound – a thriving, innovative Globe with more subscribers than we’ve had in nearly 15 years and a role in this community that is as central as it’s ever been. Linda, especially, is at it every day – believe me, I know – often dismantling industry convention in pursuit of the next creative idea. She’s also built what is certainly the strongest leadership team the Globe has ever had, leaving no doubt that the next editor will be someone to celebrate.

In terms of what’s next for me, I’ve got two roles ahead. First, I’m heading to Boston University, where I’ve been offered the chair of the journalism department, an extraordinary opportunity to have an impact on the profession at a gold-standard institution. Hopefully that finally puts an end to the rumors. Second, I’ll write a regular column for the Globe, likely from the opinion section, ideally not too different from what I used to do in prior chapters of my professional life. I’m beyond excited about regaining a voice, and elated to remain a part of this place.

Our plan is for me to remain in this role until the end of the year or until a new editor starts, whichever comes first. Linda will be in touch very soon about the search.

Being the editor of the Globe would be the greatest honor of anyone’s professional life, and it certainly has been mine. For me, though, there’s something more. I was born here, raised here, watched my father read the Globe page-by-page every night, delivered the paper as a kid on a fifty-house route in Weymouth. All I ever wanted to be was a writer for the Globe. Being the editor was a dream I never dared to have.

Thank you for it all.

Correction. I really can subtract. Honestly, I know that 2022 minus 2012 is 10. Now fixed.

 

One way forward for the sputtering Washington Post: Reconnect with local news

Jeff Bezos. Photo (cc) 2019 by Daniel Oberhaus.

Back when I was reporting on The Washington Post in 2015 and ’16 for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” the paper was on a roll. Paid digital subscriptions were skyrocketing, profits were rolling in even as the staff was growing, and it was breaking story after story about the rising menace of Donald Trump. David Fahrenthold broke the two of the most important stories of the 2016 campaign: the corruption at the heart of the Trump Foundation and the audio tape on which Trump was heard bragging about sexually assaulting women.

Now Fahrenthold is at the Post’s ancient rival, The New York Times, and the Post itself is sputtering. The legendary executive editor, Marty Baron, retired in March 2021. His successor, Sally Buzbee, has had the unenviable task of maneuvering the Post through the COVID-19 pandemic while dealing with controversies such as the Dave Weigel-Felicia Sonmez Twitter mess, which led to Sonmez being fired. And now the Times’ Benjamin Mullin (reprising a story he cowrote last December when he was still at The Wall Street Journal) and Katie Robertson are reporting (free link) that paid circulation is down, profits have turned into losses, and owner Jeff Bezos seems less interested in the place than he was in the early years of his ownership.

What went wrong? Bezos’ principal insight was his realization that there was room for a third great national newspaper alongside the Times and The Wall Street Journal — and that, in the digital age, he didn’t need to roll out print beyond the D.C. area. The Post was cheaper than the Times or the Journal and was available everywhere, through Amazon Prime and on Fire tablets.

Eventually, though, the Post ran afoul of some inherent contradictions. The biggest is this: It hasn’t really differentiated itself from the Times, which has left the Post in the unenviable position of being a less comprehensive competitor. The Times simply has more, especially in international coverage such as the war in Ukraine as well as arts and culture. The Post’s advantages are that it’s cheaper and its digital products offer a better user interface. Contrast that with the Journal, which really is different from the Times in its focus on business news and its hard-right opinion pages.

Judging from the Times story, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Post publisher Fred Ryan get his gold watch sometime in the near future. Buzbee hasn’t had a fair chance to make her mark, and I doubt that Baron would have navigated the past year any more surely than she has. In retrospect, it looks like Baron timed his exit perfectly.

In the long run — and the short run — the Post needs to establish itself as the go-to place for a certain kind of coverage you can’t get anywhere else. Its political reporting is broad and deep, but so is the Times’. With a much smaller staff than the Times has, what opportunities are there? In the final years of Graham family control, the Post emphasized regional coverage. Without abandoning its commitment to national and international news, maybe the way forward for the Post is to reconnect with its local audience.

Why the Jan. 6 panel should tread carefully in seeking Sean Hannity’s testimony

Photo (cc) 2015 by Gage Skidmore

The Jan. 6 select committee’s decision to ask Sean Hannity to testify carries with it a few nettlesome details.

The Fox News star’s lawyer, Jay Sekulow, has already invoked the First Amendment. But there is, in fact, no constitutional protection for journalists who are called to testify in court or, in this case, before a congressional committee. The problem, as the Supreme Court explained in its 1972 Branzburg v. Hayes decision, is that granting such a privilege requires defining who’s a journalist and who isn’t. And the First Amendment belongs to everyone.

That said, the government is generally loath to force journalists to testify because of the chilling effect it would have on the ability of news organizations to operate as independent monitors of power. It would be well within bounds for the committee to decide that Hannity is not a journalist. He was a close confidant of Donald Trump when Trump was president, was a featured speaker at a Trump rally and, in his communications with the White House, made it clear that he was a member of Team Trump.

But this brings us back to one of the central dilemmas of the Trump years. Hannity’s behavior was so over the top that it’s easy to say he’s not a journalist. Still, you can be sure that Trump’s defenders will point to far more ambiguous situations and say, “What about?” Ben Bradlee’s friendship with President John F. Kennedy comes to mind, as does Walter Lippmann, the ultimate insider.

The problem facing members of the select committee is that if they subpoena Hannity and other Fox News personalities, they would do so in the certain knowledge that Republicans will claim a precedent has been set and abuse it as soon as they’re in a position to do so. I have little doubt, for instance, that New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet and former Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron would be forced to testify about their papers’ coverage of the Russia scandal.

Which is why the select committee is hoping that Hannity will accept its invitation to testify voluntarily. If he refuses (as he almost certainly will), then it will have to decide whether to issue a subpoena — a move that could have far-reaching consequences.

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Can The Washington Post differentiate itself from The New York Times?

Sally Buzbee. Photo (cc) 2017 by TEDxColumbiaUniversity.

The Washington Post, on an upward trajectory for most of the time since Jeff Bezos bought the paper in 2013, has stalled out. At least that’s the gist of a story in The Wall Street Journal by Benjamin Mullin and Alexandra Bruell, who report that the Post is struggling to find its footing now that Donald Trump has left the White House (if not the scene) and interest in political news is on the decline. They write:

The Post, like most major publications, experienced an audience surge during the Trump years, when readers flocked to stories about the controversial Republican administration. Now, the Post is facing a slump that has triggered some soul-searching at the paper, including over the need to invest more in coverage areas outside of politics, according to people familiar with the news outlet’s operations and internal documents viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The fate of the Post is of particular interest to me since much of my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls,” is devoted to the Post under Bezos. When I was reporting for the book, the Post was going great guns, beating the Times on significant stories — especially Trump’s 2016 campaign — and growing so quickly that it seemed possible that it might even shoot past its New York rival.

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Since around the middle of the Trump presidency, though, I’ve had a sense — not confirmed by data, so don’t take this too seriously — that the Post had plateaued. To put it in simple terms, the Post and the Times competed fiercely for several years after Bezos’ arrival, and the Times won.

You can see it in their paid digital subscriptions. The Times now has about 7.6 million, including about 5.6 million subscribers to its core digital news product (the rest subscribe only to a special service like the Times’ cooking app, the crossword puzzle or whatever). And the Times’ numbers keep growing. The Post, by contrast, is at 2.7 million digital-only subscribers, according to the Journal, down from about 3 million at the beginning of the year.

Now, it would be easy to make too much of this difference. Just about every publisher in the country would love to have The Washington Post’s problems. It’s still one of the largest news operations in the U.S., with a deep, talented newsroom. But the numbers do raise some questions about what the Post’s leaders see as their mission.

We have three great national newspapers — the Times, the Post and the Journal. The Times is our biggest and most capable general-interest newspaper. The Journal has a business focus and a right-wing opinion page, which offers an alternative (to be polite) to what you see in most newspaper opinion sections. The Journal, like the Post, has about 2.7 million paid digital subscribers. Unlike the Post, though, the Journal’s total is rising; in 2020, it was less than 2.3 million.

It seems to me that the Post finds itself in a difficult position — competing directly with the Times for exactly the same national audience and falling behind, and not able to differentiate itself from the Times the way the Journal has. The Post’s executive editor, Sally Buzbee, who succeeded Marty Baron earlier this year after serving as The Associated Press’ top editor, hasn’t really said how she’s going to address that. Indeed, in a recent appearance on Kara Swisher’s New York Times podcast, she showed a remarkable ability not to be pinned down on much of anything.

The Times is far from perfect, of course. Its political coverage, in particular, drives me crazy with its frequent embrace of false equivalence at a time when one of our two major political parties has devolved into an authoritarian, antidemocratic force. The Post is better at avoiding that trap. Its technology is superior to the Times’, too. Overall, though, the Times offers a better, more comprehensive report, especially in areas like international news, business and culture.

It’s good for democracy to have two large, general-interest national papers battling it out. The Post isn’t going away. But you have to wonder what the future of the Times-Post rivalry is going to look like. Back in the 1970s, when the rivalry was especially pitched, the Times’ and Post’s readership bases were pretty much restricted to their geographic areas. Now they are both available nationally and internationally, making it easy to choose one over the other.

In effect, the Times and the Post are now competing in a winner-take-all economy. I hope there continues to be room for both.

Fred Hiatt’s death ends a remarkable period of stability at The Washington Post

Fred Hiatt. Photo (cc) 2014 by CSIS.

The death of Fred Hiatt ends a period of remarkable stability at the top of The Washington Post’s masthead. Hiatt, the editorial-page editor, had served in that position since 1999. Marty Baron, who was hired as executive editor in 2012, retired earlier this year. Hiatt and Baron predated Jeff Bezos’ acquisition of the Post in 2013, and their continuation in those roles was a signal that Amazon’s founder was determined not to interfere with either the newsroom or the opinion operation.

Baron was replaced by Sally Buzbee, previously the top editor at The Associated Press. It will be interesting to see who replaces Hiatt — though I suspect it could be a while given that his sudden death at 66 was unanticipated. When Buzbee was interviewed recently by Kara Swisher on her New York Times podcast, she gave the impression that publisher Fred Ryan was more involved in her hiring than Bezos was. We’ll see if Bezos follows the same pattern in hiring a new opinion editor. Not that he has to — the ethical standard good news organizations follow is that the owner should stay out of the newsroom but is free to meddle with the editorial pages.

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I didn’t realize that Hiatt had Boston-area roots until I read the tributes this morning. He grew up in Brookline and graduated from Harvard, where his father was dean of the School of Public Health.

In my book “The Return of the Moguls,” I wrote this about Hiatt’s editorial pages:

Hiatt’s retention was noteworthy, as new owners often want to exert their influence on the opinion pages. But even though Bezos’ politics were thought to be generally libertarian, the Post’s editorial stance — which could be described as moderately liberal with a taste for foreign intervention — did not change under Bezos’ ownership.

Looking back over the course of Hiatt’s career, I’d say that observation has held up. The Post is, indeed, moderately liberal. But his unsigned editorials called for war following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and — more controversially — against Iraq, which then-President George W. Bush wrongly claimed had weapons of mass destruction. The Post, of course, was hardly the only newspaper to endorse what proved to be a horrendous foreign-policy blunder. But it’s the job of a great newspaper to take unpopular stands when warranted. In fact, the Times came out against going to war in Iraq, if rather grudgingly.

The Post’s opinion section diverged from the Times’ during the Donald Trump era as well. Though Hiatt was staunchly anti-Trump and published many anti-Trump columnists — including conservatives like Max Boot, Michael Gerson and George Will — he also employed pro-Trump pundits like Marc Thiessen (“Three cheers for ‘Let’s Go Brandon'”) and Gary Abernathy (“A Trump candidacy in 2024 would threaten his own legacy”).

I’m not sure what Hiatt thought such drivel added to his section. Maybe he just wanted his readers to see what the pro-Trump argument was without having to seek it out on Fox News. In any case, the Times took a different approach, restricting its in-house conservatives to Never Trumpers like Ross Douthat and Bret Stephens. (I’d mention David Brooks, too, except that he really isn’t much a conservative these days.)

Hiatt was a strong supporter of human rights around the world and spoke out forthrightly against the Saudi regime following the murder of one of his columnists, Jamal Khashoggi. By all accounts, he was also a very nice guy, which counts for a lot. A Post editorial put it this way: “Mr. Hiatt made it possible for The Post’s opinion writers and the content they produce to encompass a wide range of views on virtually every subject of public debate, without the rancor, personal enmity and bad faith that have become so prevalent elsewhere in Washington and the nation. Our respect for and loyalty to Mr. Hiatt, and his for us, held this staff together.”

Hiatt served long enough in his position to watch the Post shrink under Graham family ownership from a viable competitor with the Times to a regional paper forced to cut its staff year after year; and then to preside over its rebirth and growth under Bezos. He was an honorable servant of the Washington establishment, which I mean in both a positive and a negative sense. Given the fractures that are now tearing the country apart, we may not see the likes of him again.

How The Denver Post stood up to McCarthy and exposed the limits of mindless balance

The Denver Post’s former downtown headquarters looms over the Colorado Statehouse. The Post itself now operates out of its printing plant in the suburbs. Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.

The McCarthy era is often cited as a time when the limits of journalistic objectivity were exposed for all to see. For years, the press reported Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s false claims that he had a list of communists in a straight-up, deadpan manner, reasoning that it was their job to inform the country of what a United States senator was saying, not to offer any judgments.

But that’s not what Walter Lippmann had in mind when he first defined objective reporting a century ago. As he conceived it, objectivity was not acting as a conveyor belt for the lies of the powerful; nor was it mindless balance. Rather, it was an objective, fair-minded pursuit of the truth. Once you had determined the truth to the best of your ability, your job was to report it.

“We tell people in a forthright and unflinching way what we have learned because we’ve done the reporting,” retired Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron said at a virtual appearance at Northeastern earlier this year. Baron defined objectivity as  “independence and open-mindedness and a posture of listening and learning.”

Recently I read a book as part of my research into local news that is about as obscure as you can imagine: “Thunder in the Rockies: The Incredible Denver Post,” written by Post staffer Bill Hosokawa and published in 1976. And I was struck by how courageously the Post stood up to McCarthy — especially since, in previous decades, the Post had been mired in corruption and racism.

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By the time McCarthy came along, the Post’s editor was a stand-up guy named Palmer Hoyt, who was unflinching in his insistence on holding the Wisconsin senator to account. In a memo to his staff, he defined true objectivity in such a compelling way that it ought to be taught to every reporter. I’m not going to quote the entire memo, but here’s a key excerpt:

It is obvious that many charges made by reckless impulsive officials cannot and should not be ignored, but it seems to me that news stories and headlines can be presented in such a manner that the reading public will be able to measure the real worth or value and the true meaning of the stories.

For example, when it is possible and practical, we should remind the public in case of a wild accusation by Senator McCarthy that this particular senator’s name is synonymous with poor documentation and irresponsible conduct and that he has made many charges that have been insupportable under due process.

In 1954, Hoyt received the John Peter Zenger Freedom of the Press Award. In his acceptance speech, Hoyt continued to speak boldly, turning media critic: “It is true that the number of newspapers critical of McCarthy has grown during the last year or two. But there are still many of them who are his supporters, his apologists, even his devotees.” And he singled out the Chicago Tribune and the Hearst papers as particularly egregious offenders.

It hardly needs to be said that we are facing a crisis of democracy today — perhaps the most serious since the Civil War, as Robert Kagan recently wrote in The Washington Post (free link). The brainless objectivity of the 1950s has morphed into something else. As Thomas Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School has written, Donald Trump received an enormous assist from the press in 2016 by portraying his grotesque behavior and corruption as being equal to Hillary Clinton’s shortcomings — you know, her emails.

Today, Trump and his supporters, who seek to destroy the integrity of our elections in order to pave the way for an illegitimate second Trump term, are getting plenty of harsh coverage, as they should. But to absorb this through the media is to see it balanced against the Democrats’ struggles over its infrastructure bills and chaos at the border. It’s all both sides and false equivalence.

As New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has said over and over again, the press is not equipped to cover a reality in which one of our two major political parties remains its normal self and the other has lurched into authoritarianism. You can see it in the headlines this week describing the debt-limit crisis as something the Democrats are struggling to solve — as if it’s a given that the Republicans have descended into madness and therefore can’t be blamed.

We are living through an incredibly ugly time. At the very least, we should remember what Palmer Hoyt said about the media’s obligation to tell the truth.

A lawsuit against The Washington Post reignites the debate over objectivity

Walter Lippmann in 1905

The meaning of objectivity is at the heart of a lawsuit brought by a Washington Post reporter against the paper, five of its top editors and former executive editor Marty Baron.

Felicia Sonmez argues that she was subjected to unlawful discrimination after she said she had been sexually assaulted by a Los Angeles Times reporter and was then banned from covering stories involving sexual misconduct, according to CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy.

Darcy and New York Times reporter Katie Robertson report that Baron has declined to comment on the case.

I’m not going to get into whether Sonmez is right or wrong; that will be for the legal process to sort out. But what’s interesting about this is that her claim involves the appearance of objectivity — that is, she could have been accused of not being impartial, whether fairly or not. This is a largely bogus argument, in my view, as it places news organizations in the position of preemptively giving in to bad-faith critics.

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What’s odd is that Baron understands the true meaning of objectivity, and pursued it during his years as the top editor at the Post and The Boston Globe. In particular, the Post’s fierce coverage of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and subsequent presidency was grounded in exposing the truth, not in “both sides” false equivalencies.

Several months ago Baron spoke to Northeastern journalism students and faculty via Zoom and defined objectivity in terms that would do Walter Lippmann proud. “I don’t think the answer for us is to be partisan,” he said. “I think the answer for us is to be independent.”

Citing Lippmann’s landmark 1920 book “Liberty and the News,” Baron said that objectivity is about “independence and open-mindedness and fairness,” not giving each side equal weight. After thoroughly reporting a story, he added, “then we tell people in a forthright and unflinching way what we have learned.”

What Sonmez is alleging is that the Post fell into some of the worst excesses and caricatures of objectivity, such as the bad old days when LGBTQ people were somehow thought to be disqualified from covering same-sex marriage, or when Black reporters were regarded as suspect if they covered issues involving racial justice. Surely some of that was at work in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s prohibiting its then-reporter Alexis Johnson from covering Black Lives Matter protests after she posted an innocuous tweet.

There may have been other factors involved in the Sonmez case. You may recall that she was suspended for tweeting details of Kobe Bryant’s sexual-assault case not long after he died in a helicopter crash. I thought the suspension was unwarranted, as did Post media columnist Erik Wemple. But you could certainly argue that she should have waited a day or two.

In any case, her lawsuit raises some fascinating issues and is well worth paying attention to.

Correction: This post originally misstated the affiliation of the reporter whom Sonmez accused of assaulting her.

The Washington Post chooses its first female executive editor

Sally Buzbee. Photo (cc) 2015 by the Knight Foundation.

The Washington Post has a new executive editor — Sally Buzbee, currently the executive editor and senior vice president at The Associated Press. Of note: Post owner Jeff Bezos got involved in making the choice, and Paul Farhi writes that Buzbee was chosen at least in part because of her international experience.

Bezos and the Post’s top executives see world coverage as the next step in their competition with The New York Times, recently setting up news hubs in London and Seoul, South Korea, in order to give the paper 24-hour coverage.

Buzbee is the Post’s first female executive editor. Here’s the first question that springs to my mind: The AP is well-known as our most buttoned-down straight-news organization. The Post’s recently retired editor, Marty Baron, succeeded in straddling those old-school values with newer forms of journalism characterized by voice, attitude and “swagger,” to use a word that Bezos himself likes. Will Buzbee be able to adapt?

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