The template for the Bezos-Baron revival of the Post was set early on

Marty Baron, center. Photo (cc) 2017 by the Knight Foundation.

I was struck by how little new information there was in this New York Times overview of Marty Baron’s years as executive editor of The Washington Post. As described by Times reporter Marc Tracy, the Post succeeded under Baron and owner Jeff Bezos by switching its focus from regional to national, and from print to digital.

There’s more to it than just that, of course, and Tracy’s piece is worthwhile if you’re not familiar with the subject. The ground that Tracy covers is laid out in my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls.” The Bezos-Baron template was set early on. In recent years, the Post has continued to grow (its digital subscriber base now exceeds 3 million, and more than 1,000 journalists work in the newsroom), but that’s simply a continuation of earlier trends.

Likewise, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has been touting a comment Baron made to CNN’s Brian Stelter about what he learned from Bezos: “One thing that Jeff emphasized at the beginning is that we really should be paying attention to our customer more than our competitors.” As Rosen says, “Sounds simple, like banal business advice. It’s not.”

In 2016 I asked Baron about the Post’s competition with the Times, and he answered the question in a manner similar to what he told Stelter. I compressed Baron’s answer in my book, but here’s a fuller quote:

Well, we don’t obsess about The New York Times in that sense. We don’t see that as our only competition. We see other people as our competition and, frankly, we see all calls on people’s time and in terms of getting news and information as being a competition for us, not to mention all the other competition for people’s time.

One aspect of the Bezos-Baron era that Tracy leaves out is the role of technology in the Post’s revival. Under chief technologist Shailesh Prakash (like Baron, a holdover from the Graham era), the Post developed state-of-the-art digital products that are fast and a pleasure to use — better than the Times’ very good products, quite frankly.

Overall, the Bezos-Baron partnership has been good for the Post, good for journalism and good for the public. I hope the next editor can build on Baron’s legacy.

Become a member of Media Nation.

Marty Baron, Walter Lippmann and the true meaning of objectivity

Walter Lippmann in 1905. Photo in the public domain.

Isaac Chotiner of The New Yorker has a terrific interview with Marty Baron, who’s retiring as executive editor of The Washington Post. I’m amused at the way Baron treats The New Yorker with the same brusqueness as he does other media outlets. For instance:

Chotiner: Why do you think [Jeff] Bezos decided to buy the Post?

Baron: You can look at what he’s said about that. I assume that you have. He’s talked about it many times.

Baron also expresses the view that local newspapers are going to have to save themselves the same way that national papers did: by persuading their readers to pay for it.

I was struck by how similar much of what Baron said was to my 2016 interview with him for “The Return of the Moguls.” Baron has his lodestar, and he follows it. But how journalists should and shouldn’t use social media is a bigger issue today than it was in 2016, so he and Chotiner talk about that quite a bit. And Baron also defines objectivity in exactly the way that I try to get it across to my students:

I do think that people have been routinely mischaracterizing what objectivity means. It really dates back a hundred years. Walter Lippmann essentially was the originator of the idea. What was the idea? It was a recognition that all of us as journalists, all of us as human beings, have preconceptions. Those preconceptions arrived from our own backgrounds, our life experiences, the people we associate with, you name it. And it’s important as we go about our reporting that we try to set those preconceptions aside — and almost approach our work in as scientific a way as possible — and to be open-minded, to be honest, to be fair, to listen generously to people, to hear what they have to say, to take it seriously into account, to do a thorough job of reporting, to do a rigorous job of reporting.

The idea of objectivity — I should make clear — it’s not neutrality, it’s not both-sides-ism, it’s not so-called balance. It’s never been that. That’s not the idea of objectivity. But once we do our reporting, once we do a rigorous job and we’re satisfied that we’ve done the job in an appropriate way, we’re supposed to tell people what we’ve actually found. Not pretend that we didn’t learn anything definitive. Not meet all sides equally if we know that they’re not equal. It’s none of that. It’s to tell people in an unflinching way what we have learned, what we have discovered.

The entire interview is well worth your time.

The Washington Post’s top editor, Marty Baron, will retire next month

Marty Baron, right, in conversation with Alberto Ibarguen, president of the Knight Foundation. Photo (cc) 2017 by the Knight Foundation.

Republished at GBH News.

Not unexpected, but stunning nevertheless: Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron is retiring after eight years at the helm, according to Brian Stelter of CNN. Baron was widely regarded as the best newspaper editor of his generation, and his leadership — not just at the Post but as a voice for journalism and the First Amendment — will be hugely missed.

Under Baron, the Post was fearless, negotiating the bizarre media landscape dominated by Donald Trump with a sure-footedness that its larger competitor, The New York Times, never quite seemed to master. Before coming to the Post, Baron was the editor of The Boston Globe, where he led the paper’s reporting that showed Cardinal Bernard Law was deeply involved in the pedophile-priest crisis.

I interviewed Baron several times over the years, including in early 2016 for my book “The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century.” Here is an excerpt about Baron’s reaction when he learned in August 2013 that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was buying the Post:

“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.”

Bezos, to his credit, realized what he had inherited, kept Baron in place and by all accounts left him alone to do his job. The Post has built its paid digital subscription base from around 100,000 to 200,000 in early 2016 to 3 million today, and the newsroom has grown from 580 to more than 1,000 since Bezos bought the paper. It’s also been profitable for five years.

And the Post’s main selling point has been the excellence of its journalism. Baron is going to be incredibly difficult to replace.

Slavery, the Constitution and Frederick Douglass: What was The New York Times thinking?

Frederick Douglass

There is a bizarre omission in The New York Times’ review of James Oakes’ new book, “The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution.”

The question at the center of the book is whether the Constitution should be viewed as a pro-slavery or anti-slavery document. And the reviewer, the historian Gordon S. Wood, never mentions Frederick Douglass. Good Lord. If there was one central takeaway from David Blight’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” (2018), it’s that Douglass embraced the Constitution as a weapon with which to fight slavery, breaking with William Lloyd Garrison, who thought the Constitution was irredeemable.

Curious, I decided to dig a little deeper. And I found a review in The Washington Post by Elizabeth R. Varon of the University of Virginia. It turns out that Oakes not only mentions Douglass, but is a scholar of his views about the Constitution. Varon writes:

This book represents a shift in Oakes’s own thinking. While his 2007 study of Frederick Douglass and Lincoln, “The Radical and the Republican,” juxtaposed Douglass the crusading reformer with Lincoln the cautious politician, this volume foregrounds the commonalities between the two men. Lincoln shared with Douglass, Oakes emphasizes, an abiding belief in the abolition movement’s core principle of fundamental human equality.

Much insight is to be gained by contrasting the antislavery constitutionalism of Douglass and Lincoln with the proslavery constitutionalism of Southern enslavers.

By leaving out Douglass, Wood manages the task of writing a nearly 1,300-word essay about slavery without mentioning a single Black person by name. What was he thinking? And does anyone at the Times edit these things?

Please consider becoming a paid member of Media Nation for just $5 a month. You’ll receive a weekly newsletter with exclusive content. Click here for details.

The Washington Post deletes an embarrassing anecdote about Kamala Harris

This should have been caught. The Washington Post recently updated a 2019 story about now-Vice President Kamala Harris and her sister that included an anecdote about Harris laughingly comparing life on the campaign trail to being a prison inmate begging for water. In order to recycle it as part of an inauguration package, that embarrassing detail was eliminated and new information was added.

But the Post didn’t change the URL. As a result, a moment that Harris probably wished would be forgotten was, well, forgotten, as it disappeared down the black hole of the internet.

Eric Boehm of Reason magazine, a libertarian publication, found it, though, and the Post had to backtrack, restoring the original version and republishing the new version with a different URL. New York Times media columnist Ben Smith took note, tweeting, “This is pretty weird.”

Although I don’t think it was a good editorial decision to delete Harris’ tasteless remark in the updated version, that was the Post’s prerogative. But it shouldn’t have required an inquiry from Reason to restore the original. I can understand why it happened — someone wasn’t paying attention to the technical details. But for all the Post’s vaunted technology, you’d think it wouldn’t be that easy to publish a new story using the old URL.

Boehm writes that the “disappearance suggests something about the Post, and about the way traditional political media are preparing to cover Harris now that she’s one heartbeat away from the presidency.” Well, maybe. I hope not. As I said, this sounds like a screw-up rooted more in technology than editing.

There’s also some cosmic connection between the Post’s error of judgment and The Boston Globe’s unveiling its right-to-be-forgotten initiative. Although I think the Globe is doing the right thing, what happened at the Post is a reminder that you have to be careful about rewriting the past.

First thoughts on Trump’s mind-bending Georgia call

I’m heartsick over the phone call revealing that President Trump tried to muscle Georgia officials into overturning the election in Georgia. Not because I thought he was incapable of such sociopathy and criminality, but because we all know that his enablers will defend him no matter what.

As a few people have observed on Twitter, the Trump presidency has now been bookended by the notorious “Access Hollywood” call tape on which he was heard bragging about sexual assault and now a call so deeply corrupt that he ought to be impeached and removed from office by early afternoon tomorrow. Of course, it’s not going to happen.

The recordings of both calls, by the way, were broken by The Washington Post.

I think a response that New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg gave to one of her commenters recently is depressingly appropriate to the moment:

I think I used to believe … that, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I don’t think I do anymore. I certainly don’t think the United States will ever again be the envy of the world; I’m not even sure how it survives as a functioning democracy. And part of what’s so gutting is the element of random chance in our downfall. Yes, our current predicament is the culmination of long-term structural forces. But had 80,000 votes in three states gone the other way in 2016, the Supreme Court would be a force for justice rather than reaction for the foreseeable future. Had Ginsburg lived a little longer, we could have saved Roe v. Wade and many other laws protecting civil rights, workers’ rights and the environment. But she died, and so, I suspect, did the America I once expected my children to inherit.

Pretty bleak stuff. But I’m not sure I see a way out of this.

Please consider becoming a paid member of Media Nation for just $5 a month. You’ll receive a weekly newsletter with exclusive content. Click here for details.

3 reasons why it matters that Linda Pizzuti Henry was named CEO of the Globe

Previously published at GBH News.

Surprising though the news may have been, there was a certain inevitability to Linda Pizzuti Henry’s being named chief executive officer of The Boston Globe’s parent company.

She had long held the title of managing director, and it has become increasingly clear over the past few years that she and her husband, publisher John Henry, were determined to impose their will on the media properties they own. Indeed, the Henrys have been calling pretty much all the shots on the business side since the summer, when Vinay Mehra exited as president and was not replaced.

These are the best and worst of times for media organizations. The COVID-19 epidemic and the presidential campaign have resulted in renewed interest in the news as well as growing audiences. But advertising, already in long-term decline, has fallen off a cliff.

The Globe is no exception to those trends. Earlier this year, the Globe passed the 200,000 mark for digital-only subscriptions, a long-sought-after goal. Another Globe Media property, Stat News, has established itself as one of a handful of go-to sites for news about COVID.

Yet the paper, reportedly profitable before the pandemic, has been forced to trim its budget to adjust to the pandemic economy, cutting back on its use of freelancers and paid interns, for example, as well as implementing some business-side reductions.

Time will tell what the Linda Henry era will bring. But here are three thoughts that I think are worth keeping in mind:

There is no longer any middleman. With co-owners John and Linda Henry holding the top two positions, all the heat will now be directed their way, for better or worse. When Mehra was in charge — and, before him, Doug Franklin and Mike Sheehan — both credit and blame could be deflected.

Now the Globe is the Henrys’ paper in every respect. That extends into the editorial operations as well given that editor Brian McGrory was actually involved in recruiting John Henry to buy the paper and that editorial-page editor Bina Venkataraman was hired by the Henrys.

For a useful contrast, consider The Washington Post. Although owner Jeff Bezos does involve himself in business strategy to a degree, he hired a publisher, Fred Ryan, to run the paper on a day-to-day basis, and left the executive editor (Marty Baron), the editorial-page editor (Fred Hiatt) and the top technology executive (Shailesh Prakash) in place after he acquired the paper.

The Henrys must now settle an ugly labor dispute on their own. Earlier today the Boston Newspaper Guild, involved for quite some time in acrimonious contract talks with management, issued a statement ripping the Henrys for using the law firm of Jones Day, which critics say has a reputation for union-busting.

That’s not new. What is new is that Jones Day has been involved in representing Republicans in their attempt to overturn the results of the presidential election. “How can the Globe’s political journalists be asked to continue to endure such workplace attacks from the very law firm whose actions they are now reporting on and investigating?,” the union’s letter asks.

The Globe is not for sale. From time to time, rumors have circulated within the newsroom and in the larger community that the Henrys are looking to get out. This happened most recently last fall, when Linda Henry presided over a town hall-style meeting on Zoom at which she was asked about a replacement for Mehra.

When I asked her about it, she replied via email, “The Globe is not for sale, I’m pretty sure you would have picked up on if it was.” After that, the rumors appeared to fade away. Now, by occupying the top two operational roles at the Globe, the Henrys, seven years into their ownership, clearly seem to be sending a signal that they’re in it for the long term.

Comments are open. Please include your full name, first and last, and speak with a civil tongue.

Baron was right to stop Woodward from exposing Kavanaugh’s duplicity

Bob Woodward. Photo (cc) 2010 by Miguel Ariel Contreras Drake-McLaughlin.

There is a lot to chew over in Ben Smith’s deep dive into The Washington Post, which — like news (and non-news) organizations everywhere — is struggling with issues of diversity. But let me keep the focus narrow here, because Smith leads with a blockbuster anecdote about something that unfolded during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 2018. Smith writes in The New York Times:

Bob Woodward, the Post legend who protected the identity of his Watergate source, Deep Throat, for 30 years, was going to unmask one of his own confidential sources. He was, in particular, going to disclose that Judge Kavanaugh had been an anonymous source in his 1999 book “Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate.”

Mr. Woodward was planning to expose Mr. Kavanaugh because the judge had publicly denied — in a huffy letter in 1999 to The Post — an account about Kenneth Starr’s investigation of President Bill Clinton that he had himself, confidentially, provided to Mr. Woodward for his book. (Mr. Kavanaugh served as a lawyer on Mr. Starr’s team.)

What Kavanaugh allegedly did pretty much defines one of the circumstances under which a reporter might consider exposing an anonymous source: he told the truth (apparently) to Woodward and then lied about it in public. And the stakes were high, as Woodward’s story, if published, could have presented yet another obstacle to Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

But executive editor Marty Baron intervened, according to Smith: “Mr. Baron and other editors persuaded Mr. Woodward that it would be bad for The Post and ‘bad for Bob’ to disclose a source, one of the journalists told me. The piece never ran.”

Among those siding with Baron is Matt Storin, his predecessor as editor of The Boston Globe, where Baron served for nearly more than a decade before moving to the Post. “I’m not in a position to render judgment on a lot of this piece, but @PostBaron absolutely did the right thing on the Woodward issue, supporting any reporter in the future who needs an anonymous source,” Storin tweeted.

I agree with Storin — and, thus, with Baron. Unless Woodward promised Kavanaugh he’d keep his identity confidential only if he subsequently told the truth in public about their exchange, then Woodward had no business breaking their agreement. It’s a tough call, and the fact that someone of Woodward’s stature wanted to go the other way shows that good people can differ on this. But Woodward, pressured by Baron, ultimately did the right thing.

It’s not like Kavanaugh is the first source to tell a reporter one thing in confidence and then say something else publicly. It’s happened to me, and I’m sure most reporters would tell you the same thing. But that’s one of the risks you take when grant anonymity to someone.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Bennet’s out as newsrooms come to terms (or not) with Black Lives Matter

Photo (cc) 2010 by samchills.

At least at the moment, I have little to add to the story of James Bennet’s departure as editorial-page editor of The New York Times beyond what Ben Smith of the Times, Tom Jones of the Poynter Institute and Jon Allsop of the Columbia Journalism Review have written, and what I wrote last week.

As Smith, Jones and Allsop point out, Bennet’s misguided decision to run Sen. Tom Cotton’s ugly commentary advocating violence against protesters should be seen as part of a larger story that encompasses Wesley Lowery’s unfortunate experience at The Washington Post, the resignation of Philadelphia Inquirer executive editor Stan Wischnowski over his paper’s horrendous “Buildings Matter, Too” headline, and the right-wing Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s meltdown over Alexis Johnson, a Black reporter whom they claimed couldn’t be trusted to cover Black Lives Matter protests because of an innocuous tweet she had posted.

Because of the Times’ central place in our media culture, Bennet’s departure is the big story. As the coverage makes clear, Bennet lurched from one misstep to another during his time as editorial-page editor, so it would be a mistake to attribute his departure solely to the Cotton op-ed. I don’t think he ever fully recovered from his mishandling of a Bret Stephens column in which Stephens came very close to endorsing a genetic basis for intelligence.

Bennet will be replaced through the election on an interim basis by deputy editorial-page editor Katie Kingsbury, who won a Pulitzer when she was at The Boston Globe. Kingsbury is terrific, and I hope she’s given a chance to earn the job.

Finally, a semi-related incident involving the Globe. You may have seen this on the front of Sunday’s print edition:

There’s no question that the cover, which you can see here, would have been considered entirely inoffensive before a police officer killed George Floyd. Even now I’m not sure how many readers would have been outraged. Still, I think the Globe made the right call. An abundance of caution and sensitivity is what’s needed at the moment.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Fact-checking in the Age of Trump: Why false equivalence is harming democracy

Image (cc) by PolitiFact

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Have the media engaged in false equivalence when it comes to political lying? Do fact-checkers nitpick statements by Democrats in order to seem fair and balanced when they go after President Trump’s numerous and blatant falsehoods?

That proposition might seem ludicrous. After all, The Washington Post last month announced that Trump had made more than 12,000 false or misleading statements since his inauguration in 2017. Daniel Dale of CNN tracks every Trumpian falsehood — writing, for example, that the president “made at least 26 false claims” at a rally in New Mexico on Monday. PolitiFact has rated fully 69 percent of Trump’s public utterances as false to some degree, and 14 percent as being so at odds with reality that they have earned the coveted “Pants on Fire” rating.

And that’s just the tip of the journalistic iceberg. Indeed, if the media have told us anything about Trump over these past few years, it’s that he spews lies so freely that his every word and every tweet is suspect. So what do Democrats have to complain about?

This: Despite the media’s admirably tough-minded stance on Trump’s falsehoods, they are nevertheless holding Democrats to a much higher standard. Most politicians exaggerate, butcher the facts or shade the truth, and journalists should take note when they do. But the press should also be careful to point out the difference between standard-issue rhetorical excesses and the sort of gaslighting that Trump engages in on a daily basis.

Last week Michael Calderone of Politico wrote an important story about Democratic complaints regarding the fact-checkers’ embrace of false equivalence. He began with the example of Bernie Sanders’ claim that “500,000 Americans will go bankrupt this year from medical bills.” The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column awarded three Pinocchios (out of a possible four) to Sanders — not because he was completely wrong, but because medical bills were only one factor in those 500,000 bankruptcies. Meanwhile, Calderone noted, the Post also gave Trump three Pinocchios for claiming that large swaths of his border wall have been already built when, in fact, none of it has.

The Sanders example is a matter of factual interpretation. The Trump example is somewhere between a hallucination and a lie. Yet they each got the same rating. How can this be?

One explanation is that journalism, steeped as it is in notions of fairness and balance, is unequipped for the extraordinary challenge of the Trump era. Calderone offered several other instances of Democrats’ words being parsed for shades of nuance so that they could be labeled as lies. He also wrote that “several prominent fact checkers said they don’t believe their job has changed when it comes to holding politicians accountable for their words on the stump and in TV studios, despite Trump’s persistence falsehoods.” And he quoted PolitiFact editor Angie Drobnic Holan as saying, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” OK. But everything is not the same.

Consider an example that Calderone didn’t cite: Joe Biden’s recent mixing up of three separate stories about honoring a heroic soldier who had tried to save a comrade in Afghanistan. Yes, Biden botched it pretty badly, but the essential truth of what he was trying to say came through. Yet The Washington Post headlined it, “As he campaigns for president, Joe Biden tells a moving but false war story.” False? Not really. More like Biden being Biden, lacking the discipline to master the details and not understanding why it matters.

Or how about two years of obsessing over Hillary Clinton’s private email server while the news that Trump uses an unsecured cell phone, reported last October in The New York Times, got about two minutes’ worth of attention — even though Chinese and Russian spies were reportedly listening in on Trump’s calls.

Those last examples aren’t about lies and fact-checking. But all of this is grounded in a larger, more enduring issue — accusations of liberal bias on the part of conservatives, and the duck-and-cover response from too many journalists whose politics may indeed be liberal but who bend over backwards to torment liberal politicians. Eric Alterman, in his 2003 book, “What Liberal Media?,” called it “working the refs,” and it goes back at least to Spiro Agnew’s famous nattering nabobs of negativism speech of 1970.

In 2012 — a more innocent time — I wrote in The Huffington Post that one of the big problems with fact-checking was that politicians’ false or partly false statements were rarely full-blown lies, but that ratings like Pinocchios or “Pants on Fire” suggested that every falsehood was a lie. “The fact-checkers are shifting from judging facts to indulging in opinion, but they’re not necessarily doing it because they want to,” I wrote. “They’re doing it because politicians don’t flat-out lie as frequently as we might suppose.” Now we have a president who lies so promiscuously that the fact-checkers seek out minor factual discrepancies among Democrats so it won’t seem like they’re picking on Trump.

In a report for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Thomas Patterson found that press coverage of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign was actually more negative than that of Trump. In other words, her emails were treated the same as or worse than her opponent’s racist outbursts, the “Access Hollywood” tapecorruption at the Trump Foundation and so much more.

“Indiscriminate criticism has the effect of blurring important distinctions,” Patterson wrote. “Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump? It’s a question that journalists made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign. They reported all the ugly stuff they could find, and left it to the voters to decide what to make of it.”

Now we are moving into yet another presidential election season. The problem for 2020, as it was for 2016, isn’t that the media won’t report negative information about Trump. It’s that they will report negative information about his opponents in such a way that it all looks the same. In that respect, Democratic complaints about fact-checking that may seem trivial are actually emblematic of a much deeper problem with journalism: the primal urge to treat both sides equally, to be seen as fair, to avoid accusations of liberal bias.

It’s going to be an ugly, brutal campaign, and Trump’s going to drive the agenda once again. Are the media up to the challenge? The evidence suggests that the answer to that question is no.

Talk about this post on Facebook.