Martin Baron Recounts Leading the Washington Post During the Trump Era

From a Washington Post Book World column by Kyle Pope headlined “Martin Baron recounts leading The Washington Post during the Trump era”:

Five months into Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House, in June 2017, the president met secretly with the brain trust of The Washington Post — Jeff Bezos, the paper’s owner; Fred Ryan, its publisher; Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor; and Martin Baron, the executive editor. Bezos was driven to the White House in a black SUV with tinted windows, to keep from being spotted by the press. Baron kept his own reporting staff in the dark about the dinner meeting and what was discussed.

“This was not a dinner I was looking forward to,” writes Baron, disclosing the meeting in his new memoir, “Collision of Power: Trump, Bezos, and The Washington Post.” “What good could come from spending time with him that evening?”

Baron was right to wonder. Over cheese souffle and Dover sole, Trump filibustered, ticking through a list of grievances that would run on a loop for the next four years, about alleged business ties with Russia, illegal immigration and Barack Obama. But no subject animated Trump more — then and, indeed, now — than his perceived slights at the hands of the nation’s press, The Washington Post in particular.

Baron recounts the tirade: “We were awful, he said repeatedly. We treated him unfairly. And with every such utterance, he would poke me in the shoulder with his left elbow.” With those jabs, the tone was set, not just for Trump and his presidency but also for Baron, Bezos, The Post, and the press.

At the time they met with Trump, the Post team was still settling in together. Baron joined The Post at the start of 2013 after a storied tenure at the Boston Globe. Bezos bought the paper that summer, ending control of the newspaper by the Graham family, who had owned it for 80 years. Ryan, who co-founded Politico, came on in 2014.

The Post, having entered the Trump presidency diminished and financially insecure, would be transformed by Baron’s editorship and Bezos’s checkbook, earning the editor a place of journalistic reverence alongside his chief rival, Dean Baquet of the New York Times, and one of his predecessors, Ben Bradlee, until then the D.C. standard-bearer of editor as idol. (Both Bradlee and Baron would earn portrayals in Hollywood versions of their stints, Bradlee in “All the President’s Men” and “The Post,” and Baron in “Spotlight.”)

“Collision of Power” chronicles Baron’s relationship to the two men whom he saw as defining his legacy: the president whose attacks on The Post ironically helped revive it, and its novice billionaire owner, whom the staff viewed with suspicion but who would become the paper’s greatest protector.

Baron dishes his media stories, most of which involve Trump, largely chronologically. Those of us so inclined will be re-enraged, but not in any new way, about Trump’s threat and how journalism responded. It doesn’t help Baron that much of the ground he covers has already been thoroughly dissected by a shelf of other Trump-and-the-media books, including some by Baron’s own former reporters. We relive Baron’s decision to publish intelligence documents provided by Edward Snowden, the coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails, the ongoing threats against the press and the tawdry details of Trump’s alleged ties to Russia. Baron is, rightly, still outraged by the murder of Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, in 2018, by agents of Saudi Arabia, and he ties the killing to Trump’s anti-press posturing.

“Trump, of course, wasn’t directly responsible for Khashoggi’s killing,” Baron writes. “But he was responsible for emboldening autocrats who intended to extinguish their press critics one way or another. In this instance, the chosen method was a bone saw.” Many of the journalists behind these stories, Baron included, performed heroically, under constant attack from the president and his quislings, including reporters from the right-wing press. Yet there were still moments in “Collision of Power” when I had to fight off the impulse that living through all of this had been bad enough; without any additional revelations, I didn’t relish reexperiencing it in these pages.

The sections that Baron devotes to Bezos are fresher, given how studious both Baron and Bezos have been about not talking much about their relationship or Bezos’s ownership of the paper. In this, Baron is almost uniformly praising of his former boss, and dismissive of criticism of Bezos and Amazon or of The Post’s coverage of one of the world’s richest men. (The publication I have edited for the last seven years, the Columbia Journalism Review, is among those that have critiqued The Post’s coverage of Bezos. Baron dings CJR a couple of times in the book, at one point dismissing it as “once-influential.”)

Bezos and Baron are drawn here as an unexpected buddy act, one of them impressively fit, beaming out “radiant intensity” (Bezos), the other in suits and a gray beard, “dour and taciturn” (Baron). Baron writes that he was inclined to be skeptical of Bezos, that a man as rich as he is “deserves to be doubted.” And yet, he writes, “everything I’ve heard and seen tells me that Bezos honestly believes in an essential role for journalism in a democracy, even if for good reason he has become the searing target of it.” It was Bezos, according to this account, who greenlit the tagline “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” after the internal favorite, “A Free People Demand to Know,” was rejected by Bezos’s then-wife, MacKenzie Scott.

Katharine Weymouth, a Graham family member who served as The Post’s publisher when Bezos bought the paper, apparently had no such relationship. According to Baron, Weymouth had no one-on-one meetings with Bezos during his first year as owner, had no direct phone number to reach him and used the same email address that was available to any Amazon customer who wanted to write to Bezos. In August 2014, Bezos dismissed her, in a meeting that Baron says “lasted no more than five minutes.”

About two-thirds of the way through, “Collision of Power” becomes a memoir of aggrievement, an unexpected turn for a titan of journalism who stood up to some of the darkest forces in American history. What is most newsworthy about this book — and I can’t believe that Baron, a man with ink in his veins, didn’t predict that this is how it would play — is the boss’s collision with his own staff, as he finds himself at pains to engage with a newsroom that was dramatically changing around him.

Baron’s retelling of internal feuds — over social media policy, the diversity of the paper’s staff and a reporter sidelined in coverage of sexual harassment — garner personal, passionate attention here. Baron recounts in some detail his exchanges with Wesley Lowery, a reporter he had recruited to The Post. After first covering Congress, Lowery was sent to Ferguson, Mo., following the fatal shooting of an unarmed Black teenager, Michael Brown, by a White police officer. While in Ferguson, Lowery, who is Black, was arrested without cause at a McDonald’s while charging his phone, and adeptly used social media, especially Twitter, to chronicle the injuries and the grief of people who had gathered to protest the killing.

Baron thought Lowery’s social media use had overstepped a boundary. “Post journalists are expected to take a lot,” Baron writes, “mostly suppressing their emotions and continuing with their work. That was not Wes’s approach.” He continues: “To his nastiest critics, he responded in kind, provoking more attacks. He didn’t handle it according to our standards.”

Though Lowery would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize, along with other Post colleagues, for coverage of national police shootings, his use of social media, including calling out the press for its weak coverage of Trump’s racism, angered Baron and other Post editors to the point that Lowery felt he had no choice but to leave.

Lowery’s departure helped spark a broader debate in journalism about the need to reconsider definitions of objectivity that can have the effect of stripping journalists of their own voices. “Day after day, Twitter seemed to bring out reporters’ worst, most unthinking impulses,” Baron writes. “It was hard to fathom why smart people couldn’t exercise more self-control.” He spends a dozen pages writing about how he navigated reporter Felicia Sonmez’s use of social media in the immediate wake of Kobe Bryant’s death and with regards to her allegations of sexual assault against a journalist from another publication.

These are the sorts of collisions worthy of more thoughtful examination than is given in this book. From then, Baron was in crisis mode, often about how the staff uses social media, culminating in a series of internal meetings that left him demoralized. After one of those meetings, on Valentine’s Day 2020, he jotted down his takeaway: “Never have I felt more distant from my fellow journalists. … The staff’s feelings about social media, to me, valued individual expression over the interests of the institution. … The whole thing was depressing, and I was more convinced than ever that this was a good time to leave daily journalism. I love the profession, but it now seemed to be going astray.”

A few pages later, following complaints by staffers about a lack of diversity at The Post: “I also had grown weary of well-meaning but moralistic young journalists — and their forever enabling union — lecturing me on best management practices when precious few had ever managed anyone.”

But too often, he portrays himself in his own book as uncharitable and finger-pointy. His successor, Sally Buzbee, gets one mention by name, and that is in passing. I counted a number of times in the book, involving important moments, when Baron seems to want to pass the buck, or claims that he wasn’t kept in the loop. “Typically, I interviewed every finalist for an open news position at The Post,” he writes. “For some reason I was not available when Felicia [Sonmez] came through our newsroom for interviews in May 2018.”

He’s miffed that he wasn’t involved in the debate about how to handle allegations that Trump was compromised by Russia, including details in a dossier compiled by Christopher Steele. Questions about how or whether to report on Steele’s allegations would become heated within the Post newsroom, a split that took Baron by surprise. “Astonishingly, no one had yet clued me in,” Baron writes, adding, “Telling me nothing was a lousy call. The more I think about it, the more pissed I get.”

He’s pissed a lot: at unions, at former New York Times media reporter Ben Smith, at what was then called Twitter. To soothe himself, Baron relates, he covered the glass wall of his office with thank-you notes, facing outward for all to see. Baron concedes little, and at the end throws up his hands in a “Who needs it?” moment of frustration. He retired in February 2021. It is surprising to me that time has not cooled the ire that apparently led to Baron’s decision to leave The Post. He is a great editor who led his newsroom to do some of the best newspaper work of our time. No doubt, those qualities also come with an impulse not to leave anything out, no matter how unflattering.

Kyle Pope is the editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.

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