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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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?
Patrick Soon-Shiong may be the most important newspaper owner in the country after Jeff Bezos of The Washington Post. So Monday’s announcement that the next executive editor of the Los Angeles Times will be Kevin Merida of ESPN was significant as much for what it says about Soon-Shiong’s commitment to the paper as it does about Merida’s own considerable abilities. Given the Times’ size, influence and unrealized potential, its fate is crucial to the journalistic ecosystem.
It was just a few months ago that Lukas I. Alpert of The Wall Street Journal dropped a bombshell: Soon-Shiong, a billionaire surgeon who bought the Times in 2018, was looking to get out. Soon-Shiong denied it, but actions speak louder than words — and now he has acted. The fact that he could recruit someone who is regarded as the best free-agent editor out there suggests he was able to reassure Merida about stability in the owner’s suite. The Times itself, in a story by Meg James, puts it this way:
His hiring reaffirms the Soon-Shiong family’s commitment to the paper they purchased, along with the San Diego Union-Tribune, for $500 million from Chicago-based Tribune Publishing in June 2018. The Soon-Shiong family has since invested hundreds of millions of dollars more to replenish the newsroom’s withered ranks, built a campus in El Segundo, upgraded the paper’s technology and covered financial losses that deepened last year when coronavirus shutdowns prompted a steep drop in advertising revenue.
Key to all this may be Soon-Shiong’s daughter, Nika Soon-Shiong, who, according to Katie Robertson’s report in The New York Times, “has become an active part of the newspaper’s management team.” In that regard, she may play a similar role to that of Linda Pizzuti Henry, who co-owns The Boston Globe along with her husband, John Henry. Linda Henry, named CEO of Boston Globe Media last year, is heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of the Globe, thus serving as a guarantor of sorts that Henry won’t sell.
Merida will be the LA Times’ second Black editor, which is also significant because of the paper’s diversity issues under former executive editor Norman Pearlstine. It also raises the question of why The Washington Post didn’t push harder to hire Merida as a replacement for Marty Baron, who retired recently. Merida was a highly regarded top editor at the Post before leaving for ESPN.
One possible explanation is that Merida is just two years younger than Baron. As Tom Jones of Poynter writes, “Maybe the Post is looking for a long-term editor — someone who could take over for 15 or so years, and, perhaps, Merida’s age (64) didn’t align with that plan.”
The Soon-Shiong ownership of the LA Times has been a mixed bag thus far. The newsroom has been bulked up in the hopes that the paper could emerge as a national force. But that hasn’t happened, and its digital subscription numbers have proved disappointing as well. It could be that there’s just no room for a fourth national newspaper along with The New York Times, the Post and the Journal. But the LA Times could dominate the West, serving as a much-needed counterbalance to the East Coast media.
All in all, the appointment of Merida was very good news, not just because he’s a first-rate choice but because it signals that Soon-Shiong is committed to the LA Times’ long-range future.
Correction. The original post described Merida as the LA Times first Black editor. In fact, he is the second; New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet served in that role from 2005 to ’06.
It’s going to take a miracle to save the Chicago Tribune, the Hartford Courant, New York’s Daily News and six other large-market dailies from the greedy clutches of Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that’s widely regarded as the worst newspaper owner in the country.
On May 21, Tribune Publishing’s board is scheduled to vote on selling its papers. At this point, it looks like the only viable bid is from Alden, which has offered $635 million to boost its share of the company from 32% to 100%. A competing bid from the Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum was dealt a huge setback recently when his partner, the Swiss philanthropist Hansjörg Wyss, pulled out. Bainum, who wants to acquire Tribune’s Baltimore Sun and turn it over to a nonprofit, said he hasn’t given up. Right now, though, money and momentum are on Alden’s side.
Alden’s holdings include The Denver Post, The Mercury News of San Jose and, locally, the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg. All have been decimated, a fate that you can be sure is in store for Tribune’s papers if the hedge fund’s bid is accepted.
But it’s not too late if someone with vast riches and a demonstrated interest in journalism is willing to step up. Someone, for instance, like Jeff Bezos. The mega-billionaire owner of The Washington Post would be the perfect savior for the Tribune papers. Would he do it? I have no idea. If he were willing, though, he could breathe new life into some of our most important journalistic institutions.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Bezos’ ruthlessness in running Amazon has caught up with him; his public image has taken some well-deserved hits since 2013, when he found $250 million in a spare pants pocket and bought the Post. Do we really want someone whose drivers have to pee into bottles in order to make their appointed rounds having even more power than he does already? Yes, Alden already owns about 100 papers via its MediaNews Group subsidiary. But whoever wins Tribune will control some of the most influential daily newspapers in the country. How can we be sure that Bezos wouldn’t use that power for ill?
To answer that question, we have to look at the record. And however brutal his treatment of Amazon employees may be, he has been an exceptionally good steward of The Washington Post. There is no evidence that he has interfered in the Post’s news coverage, or even in its editorial pages.
Then-executive editor Marty Baron stressed that Bezos had been hands-off when I interviewed him for my 2018 book “The Return Of The Moguls.” And Baron repeated that at a recent event sponsored by Northeastern’s School of Journalism. “His involvement on the news side was nothing beyond approving our budget,” Baron said. (Note: I’m on the faculty.)
What evidence exists to the contrary is, frankly, pretty thin gruel. In his new book, “Fulfillment: Winning And Losing In One-Click America,” ProPublica reporter Alec MacGillis observed that, after buying the Post, Bezos bought a mansion in Washington, D.C., and greatly increased Amazon’s lobbying presence in the capital.
MacGillis also noted that the Post ran a cheerleading editorial in favor of Amazon’s second headquarters, known as HQ2, coming to the D.C. subrub of Arlington, Virginia. “It would be left to a local business journal, not the Post, to uncover the emails showing the lengths to which Arlington officials had gone to ease Amazon’s path,” MacGillis writes. OK, fine. But the Post was hardly the only newspaper that expressed enthusiasm for HQ2 and the thousands of jobs it would bring. As a reminder, take a look at some of The Boston Globe’s coverage.
Indeed, Bezos has built such a sterling reputation for his leadership of the Post that Hamilton Nolan, who keeps tabs on the paper for the Columbia Journalism Review, recently devoted an entire piece to speculating about what would happen if Bezos woke up one morning and decided to weaponize the paper on behalf of his business and personal interests. Nolan wrote that “the editorial independence of the Post should never be taken for granted.” No, it shouldn’t. But after more than seven years of ownership, Bezos has done very little to raise concerns about his vision for the proper role of a newspaper owner.
Needless to say, Bezos could afford to buy Tribune. Even so, it’s worth reminding ourselves just how rich he is. In January 2020, his net worth was $118 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaire Index. By early 2021, it had risen to $196 billion as the pandemic super-charged Amazon’s business even while millions of Americans were being thrown out of work.
In other words, it would cost Bezos less than 1% of the money he’s made just over the last year to buy Tribune in its entirety. The latest news about Alden, meanwhile, is that the hedge fund “probably violated federal pension protections by putting $294 million of its newspaper employees’ pension savings into its own funds, according to a Labor Department investigation.” The story, reported by Bezos’ Washington Post, noted that Alden has admitted no wrongdoing and paid the money back. But still.
Bezos is 57, an age when many successful people start thinking about their legacy. He’s stepping down as Amazon’s CEO later this year. By investing resources in The Washington Post, he transformed it into a profitable, growing, digitally focused news organization in just a few years. Attempting to work the same magic with Tribune’s papers would be a worthy challenge.
Is this any way to ensure the future of journalism? No, it is not. As I wrote recently, the fate of great news organizations shouldn’t be left solely to the whims of unregulated, predatory capitalism. Unfortunately, that’s the system we have, and it’s not going to change between now and May 21.
So please, Mr. Bezos. Is it OK if I call you Jeff? Give these papers a chance to thrive. You did it with the Post. You can do it again.
Ben Smith of The New York Times weighs in on The Emancipator, the antiracist digital publication that will be launched later this year by The Boston Globe’s opinion section and Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research.
Of note: Former Globe reporter Wesley Lowery, who later clashed with now-retired Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron over his use of social media, may be coming back.
As Smith describes it, The Emancipator will have a seven-figure budget and will blend “reportage, opinion and academic research, some of which will appear in The Globe.” Founders Bina Venkataraman, the Globe’s opinion editor, and Ibram X. Kendi, who runs the Antiracist Center, say they also want to “revive the tradition of a generation of media that predates the formal division of news and opinion in 20th-century American journalism.”
Well, that’s fine. I’m sure they know that any number of quality magazines already do that. It was a hallmark of the alternative press as well. Not to say it isn’t a good idea, but there are contemporary models they can look to.
We also talked about The Emancipator on “Beat the Press” last Friday. The video is above.
When I interviewed Marty Baron in March 2016, his office at The Washington Post’s new headquarters was smaller than I had expected. We sat at a conference table next to a human-sized cardboard cutout of an Oscar statuette, which he said was waiting for him after he returned from the Academy Awards gala in Hollywood.
The Oscar was for “Spotlight,” based on The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer-winning investigation into the pedophile-priest crisis within the Catholic Church — the story that defined Baron’s years as editor of the Globe. He also showed me a small chocolate Oscar he’d brought home. Soft-spoken and businesslike, with graying reddish hair and a closely trimmed beard, Baron talked for an hour about life at the Post under Jeff Bezos.
“I was completely shocked, obviously,” Baron said when I asked him about his reaction to the news that Bezos would buy the Post. “I told people when I came here that while the Times would probably like to sell the Globe, it was highly unlikely that Don Graham would be selling The Washington Post. So I was kind of stunned when I heard about it. But I thought that it could have some real advantages for us” — a reference to Bezos’s preference for growth over cutting and his deep understanding of technology and consumer behavior.
“I did not know if it would be a good thing for me personally,” Baron added, “because obviously when a new owner comes in he has the absolute right to pick who he wants to run the organization that he has acquired. He said positive things at the beginning, but my sense was that it would be a year of figuring out the place and deciding what he wanted to do.”
Even though Bezos bought a $23 million mansion in Washington, D.C., in late 2016, he spends most of his time on the West Coast. For the most part he manages his newspaper from afar, presiding over an hour-long conference call with the Post’s top executives every other week.
“It starts on time, ends on time; it’s very disciplined,” Baron said. “He gets all of the material in advance. We don’t use it to go through presentations. We use it to review any questions that he might have or to embark on any broader discussions. But typically all of the material is sent to him in advance in a narrative style, not PowerPoints. He doesn’t like PowerPoints, thankfully. He typically has some questions, and those questions become a springboard to discussion of whatever we need to talk about.” The Post’s leadership also travels to Seattle twice a year for a day of meetings. Baron said those meetings run from around noon to 6 p.m., followed by dinner.
I also asked Baron how the Post had been able to amass as large a digital audience as The New York Times — between 80 and 100 million monthly unique visitors at that time — despite a staff that was about half the size. His answer was two-fold. First, he said that the Post was not competing with the Times so much as it was competing for people’s attention, whether it be against The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Politico or Vox. Second, he said the Post is “doing things that are much more attuned to the digital environment” by “treating the web as a distinct medium.”
Among the examples Baron cited: hiring young digital-native journalists who write with a distinctive voice and who are unconcerned as to whether their stories appear in print or are only posted online; embracing multimedia tools such as video, the publication of original documents and annotation — debate transcripts, for instance, have been marked up with highlighted comments by Post journalists, adding context and occasional snark; and writing engaging headlines that are not constrained by the artificial confines of column width, as are print headlines.
“I mean, look, radio is different from newspapers, television is different from radio,” Baron said. “Here comes the web. We should be different, and mobile might be different, too.”
Now, I would argue that the Times’ approach to digital, although different from the Post’s, is every bit as engaging and innovative. But in discussing the Post’s rapidly growing digital audience, there’s an additional topic that can’t be avoided: its reliance on a presentation for some types of material that are aimed at maximizing shares and eyeballs.
Baron doesn’t like the term “clickbait,” and I agree with him that that’s not quite the right word. After all, “clickbait” suggests that the underlying story does not live up to the promise of the headline, and that’s rarely the case with Post journalism. But the Washington Post experience can vary quite a bit depending on how you access that journalism. The print paper mixes heavy and light fare, the serious and the entertaining, in a way that isn’t much different from what news consumers are used to. The website and the apps, though, often take a more viral approach.
That’s especially true with the national digital edition — the magazine-like app for mobile and tablet that debuted on Amazon’s Kindle Fire and later migrated to other platforms. For one thing, it omits local news so that its low cost won’t lure Washington-area readers into switching from their more expensive print or digital subscription. For another, the story mix and the presentation often have a viral feel to them. For instance, as I perused the national app on my iPhone on a Wednesday afternoon in April 2016, I saw stories like “O Cannabis! Canada Moves To Legalize Marijuana in 2017,” illustrated with a pot-festooned Canadian flag; “What Your First Name Says About Your Politics”; and “Diet Coke Is Getting A New Look.”
To be fair, these stories were well-reported and were interspersed amid more serious news. If I were riding on the subway and looking for something to read, I would have clicked on any of them. And there is nothing wrong with lightening things up as long as the core mission remains in place.
Longtime media critic and Post-watcher Jack Shafer, now with Politico, told me that he’s an admirer of Baron’s Post.
“It’s as good as it’s ever been,” he said. “In terms of accuracy, accountability, imagination, Marty Baron is a genius and an inspirational editor.” As for what Shafer forthrightly called “click-baitery,” he said it was no different from the days when newspaper editors would drop in a “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” brief to fill a hole on a page. The idea, he said, is to make the Post a “habit.”
“You’re sitting there, you’re bored, or you’re angry at your editor, and you just want a media moment,” Shafer said. “It turns out that there’s a much larger market for that than we ever imagined.”
Baron put it this way: “Being viral doesn’t mean clickbait, and writing a headline and using a photo that would cause somebody to share something on a serious subject doesn’t make it clickbait. We do write headlines that we think will lead to sharing, and in many ways they get to the point a lot better. They actually explain the story better than traditional newspaper headlines. I mean newspaper headlines are terrible, right? They all have to be constrained within column sizes, so if you have a one-column head it’s all headline-ese. People don’t speak in headline-ese. The web and our apps allow us to write in a way that people speak.”
Post media blogger Erik Wemple, a veteran print journalist — among other career stops, he was the editor and media columnist at the alt-weekly Washington City Paper — told me that he was untroubled to be a newspaper columnist whose work rarely appeared in the newspaper. “All of the messaging and the emphasis seems to be on digital,” he said, adding that when he looked at the print paper, he often found it stale, as he saw stories that had appeared online a day or two earlier. “There’s a clear focus on digital work here,” he said. “That’s what the feedback loop bears, and that’s what drives conversation.”
One subject that often arises when asking about Jeff Bezos and The Washington Post is whether it can cover Amazon independently and impartially. Of course, it’s not unusual for a news organization to have an owner with outside interests that deserve coverage, with John Henry’s ownership of the Globe and the Red Sox being a prime example. But Amazon represents a particular challenge given its size, influence and cultural impact. Amazon, after all, is largely responsible for disrupting the book industry. Amazon Web Services does business with the CIA.
When Bezos met with Post staff members a month after he announced he would buy the paper, he told them that they should “feel free to cover Amazon anyway you want, feel free to cover Jeff Bezos any way you want.” By the spring of 2017, there were no reports that Bezos had tried to interfere with the Post’s news coverage.
Indeed, within days of the announcement that he would buy the paper, the Post published an in-depth examination of Bezos and Amazon that could fairly be described as warts and all — he was described as “ruthless” and a “bully” in his dealings with competitors and a boss who was known for launching “tirades” that “humiliated colleagues.”
As is his custom, Bezos refused to cooperate with the team of reporters who worked on that story. But national investigative editor Kimberly Kindy, who was among those journalists, told me there were no repercussions from Bezos after publication. “I don’t think that we have shied away from covering him. And he certainly has invited us to,” she said. Kindy’s Post career thrived under Bezos’s ownership. Among other things, she was deeply involved in a massive effort to document fatal shootings of civilians by police officers — a project that won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting.
Yet it was The New York Times, and not The Washington Post, that produced a lengthy, highly critical investigative story about Amazon’s workplace culture — a story that created a sensation when it was published in the summer of 2015. For anyone who had read Brad Stone’s 2013 book about Amazon, “The Everything Store,” there was little new information. Indeed, it struck me that the Times, unlike Stone, missed some crucial context in its implication that Amazon was uniquely awful rather than merely awful in the manner that’s typical of hard-charging technology companies. As the technology writer Mathew Ingram put it in criticizing the Times’ reporting, “To take just one example, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’ treatment of his staff makes anything that Amazon has done (or likely ever will do) seem like a day at the beach.”
Regardless of the merits of the Times’ story, though, it may be too much to expect that the Post, of all media outlets, would take the lead on in-depth enterprise reporting about the dark side of Amazon. “To expect a newspaper to be a fifth column against itself and its owners is naive and probably without precedent,” Jack Shafer said.
Erik Wemple, on the other hand, said he hoped the Post could engage in such reporting if it was warranted. “It would be incredibly awkward to commission a big investigative story. And I hope we do endure that awkwardness,” Wemple said. “Bezos’s dream of a paper of record necessitates tough coverage of Amazon.” He added: “The difficulty is always one of self-censorship. That’s a serious concern of any news organization that has a mogul running it.”
Baron, for his part, said he had no intention of letting Bezos’s ownership of the Post interfere with the way his journalists covered Amazon. “Jeff said at his first town hall here, ‘You should cover me and cover Amazon the way you would cover any other company and any other chief executive, and I’m fine with that,’” Baron said. “On multiple occasions since then he has repeated that. He said the same thing to me personally. And I said, ‘Good, because that’s what I’m planning to do.’ And I have never heard from him about a single story about Amazon.”
In his early days at The Boston Globe, Baron kept an exceedingly low profile. As the news business shrank, Baron slowly began to emerge as a voice for embracing change while at the same time maintaining high journalistic standards. In 2012, when he was still at the Globe, he gave a speech in which he urged journalists to fight against the “fear” that had overcome them — fear of being accused of bias, of losing customers or offending advertisers: “Fear, in short, that our weakened financial condition will be made weaker because we did something strong and right, because we simply told the truth and told it straight.”
Baron’s public persona has only become more prominent since the release of the movie “Spotlight.” After the stunning victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign, marked by unprecedented attacks by Trump on the media, and especially on Jeff Bezos and the Post, Baron made use of his public platform to call for tough, independent coverage of the incoming president.
“If we fail to pursue the truth and to tell it unflinchingly — because we’re fearful that we’ll be unpopular, or because powerful interests (including the White House and the Congress) will assail us, or because we worry about financial repercussions to advertising or subscriptions — the public will not forgive us,” Baron said in accepting an award named for the late iconoclastic journalist Christopher Hitchens. “Nor, in my view, should they.”
Some months earlier, sitting in his office on a Wednesday afternoon, I had asked Baron about his emerging role as a voice of conscience in the news business. It was a moment that I found surprisingly poignant. Nearly 15 years earlier, I had interviewed him at the Globe for the first time. In those days he was virtually unknown outside the newspaper business. Now he was the most famous editor in the country by virtue of “Spotlight” as well as a respected advocate for excellence at a time when many newspapers were just a shadow of what they had once been.
“We could use more leadership in the industry,” he replied. A few moments later he added: “I think that people are searching for how to survive and succeed in the current environment while not abandoning our core principles. To the extent that I have helped shape the thinking in our profession about how one might do that, I feel pleased by that.”
Adapted from “The Return Of The Moguls: How Jeff Bezos And John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers For The Twenty-First Century,” by Dan Kennedy. Published in 2018 by ForeEdge, an imprint of University Press of New England: www.upne.com/1611685947.html.