Newspaper editor Marty Baron: “We always have to hold power to account”

You may think you know Marty Baron from “Spotlight,” the Oscar-winning film about the Boston Globe’s investigation of the Catholic Church. But to know the real Marty Baron is to read his new book, “Collision of Power,” which takes readers inside what he did after “Spotlight”: editing the Washington Post with billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos as its owner, and with Donald Trump in the White House.

When asked how the experience of covering the Catholic Church in Boston informed him when it came time to cover Trump, Baron said, “Well, it informed me that we always have to confront power. We always have to hold power to account.”

Costa (who once worked at the Post with Baron) asked him, “Do you miss being editor of the Washington Post?”

“No, actually!” he replied.

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Former Washington Post editor Marty Baron, with former Post reporter Robert Costa.CBS NEWS

Baron shared something he had long kept secret: a private dinner he, Bezos, and Post leaders had with Trump in June 2017, as Trump was growing furious with the paper’s reporting, such as their May 15, 2017 article detailing how Trump revealed highly classified information to Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador during an Oval Office visit.

Costa asked, “What was your first impression of Trump when you sat down with him for dinner?”

“That he was trying to be charming, but I felt that it was a superficial charm,” Baron replied. “I felt that he would use the occasion to lean on Bezos. That was my fear all along.”

Trump also repeatedly elbowed Baron at the table: “I was sitting to his left. And every time he said something that was negative about the Post, about how we were the worst in the way that we treated him, he would just sort of poke me with his elbow. It was clear that he was trying to send me a message.”

Baron came a decade ago to the Post, a paper famed for its coverage of Watergate. But the Post was also struggling, and a year in, one of the crown jewels of journalism was sold to Jeff Bezos.

Was Baron alarmed? “I wouldn’t say alarmed, but I was concerned,” he said. “I didn’t know what kind of influence he would have over our coverage. I didn’t know him at all. On the other hand, I was actually hopeful, because the Post wasn’t really going anywhere at that point, except down.”

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Baron often had to swat away conspiracy theories that Bezos had a hidden hand in news coverage. “Trump insisted to you and to so many others, he told me once, that he truly believed Bezos controlled the Post,” said Costa.

“Yeah. That’s what he thought,” Baron said. “I mean, if Bezos were telling me what to do as a journalist, I would have quit. I’m not gonna do that.”

“Was there ever a moment where you had a bit of skepticism that this guy, this billionaire, really wanted what’s best for the country and what was best for the paper?”

“I really didn’t have a doubt about that; I never saw any evidence that he was using the news organization for his own personal purposes, his commercial purposes, or anything like that.”

Bezos, of course, was not the only figure hovering over Baron’s shoulder.

“When Trump announced in 2015, a lot of people dismissed him,” Baron said. “Immediately after his announcement, he commanded the support of about a third of the Republican Party. How could you ignore that? So, we needed to treat him seriously as a political candidate, as a political force.”

To Baron, covering Trump well meant digging deep, not giving him a platform. “It was terrible, running those entire rallies, no commentary in-between, no contradiction of the falsehoods and lies that he was saying during those rallies. That was a real mistake. It was free advertising for Trump.”

Once Trump won the presidency, Baron’s message to the newsroom was, “We’re not at war; we’re at work.”

Trump didn’t buy it, and began to call Baron to lash out. “He was very critical of our coverage,” Baron said, recalling his last phone conversation with the then-president. “And he said, ‘You’re doing this because of Amazon. You’re doing this because of Bezos.’ So, I told him that it was just completely false. I said, ‘It’s false, and you know it’s false.’ And, well, then he broke out in a bunch of profanity.”

Trump accused Baron by saying, “Everything the Post is doing is a big, fat lie.”

“That’s what he said. And, of course, that, too, is not true!” Baron said. “We were doing our job honestly and honorably. We had an absolute obligation to hold politicians to account, including the president of the United States. It’s our highest obligation.”

That obligation extends to coverage of the upcoming presidential election. When asked if he believes journalists are prepared for what’s to come in 2024,” Baron said, “I’m not sure we are ready.”

The former editor’s advice? To keep working. “We should talk to everybody. We should listen to all people. We should be generous in listening to them, hear everything they have to say. You should look at all of the evidence, and do a rigorous job of reporting, and then tell people what we’ve actually learned. Fairness also means being fair to the public. And that means telling them what we have found to be true.”


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Story produced by Amol Mhatre. Editor: Remington Korper.


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