Note: This story was published in Quill in 2020, prior to Marty Baron’s retirement announcement.
It’s been a bumpy year so far, but Marty Baron makes sure to wear a helmet for the ride. Baron, a regular cyclist, is executive editor of The Washington Post and plans to edit the publication at least through the 2020 election.
His career includes work for The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. At the Miami Herald, he led the staff to a Pulitzer Prize. For The Boston Globe, an investigation of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church led to the Oscarwinning film “Spotlight,” in which actor Liev Schreiber played him.
In 2020, like just about everyone else, Baron’s collective timeline includes a pandemic, protests and election year conversation. But in any journey, destinations must lead to the truth. “Facts and truth are matters of life and death,” Baron said during his online Harvard commencement speech this year. “Misinformation, disinformation, delusions and deceit can kill. Here is what can move us forward: science and medicine, study and knowledge, expertise and reason. In other words, fact and truth.”
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When you started out, you shot photos as a reporter. It sounded like you were a oneman band.
I went to Stuart, Florida, in 1976 for my first fulltime job with the Miami Herald. At that time, basically, we didn’t really get any training in taking photographs. We were handed a camera. We were shown how to shoot. They didn’t staff a photographer in that town, in that county. They didn’t teach us much. They taught us how to take the film out of the camera and then we had to take it to a bus station to be shipped out to Miami where it would be developed.
A learning opportunity?
I was not a very good photographer. And ultimately, even when I changed bureaus and went to Boca Raton, where the photo staff did have a photographer, they insisted that the camera be taken out of my hands, because they were not satisfied with the quality of my photographs.
Regarding photojournalists, if there’s an explosion, instead of running from it, they tend to run to it, because they want to document events. What do you say to journalists who want to capture everything but maybe shouldn’t?
Well, obviously we value the health and welfare of our staff, and we tell people that of course we want them to cover the events, but we don’t want them to take any risks that would put themselves in danger. We try to provide our staff everything we can to ensure their safety … certainly the equipment that they needed during the pandemic, which is ongoing and also equipment to cover protests, so protective gear of every type. And also training which is really important. We just had a training session for a large group of our staff on covering protests and the right practices and things to avoid. And then we provide them with resources that they might need if somehow they were to be injured or were to get into some other trouble … And we want our journalists to communicate with us about what their needs are and we certainly try to be attentive to what those needs are. But we are journalists. We do have to cover what’s happening out there.
Describe how it felt to have The Boston Globe’s work showcased in the movie “Spotlight.”
I never expected it to be made. I mean, it’s an incredibly serious subject. It’s not exactly a romantic comedy. … [It’s] an incredible case of sexual abuse within the Catholic church and its cover up. And that story had a tremendous impact at the time, and it has had a long-lasting impact that endures today … a very serious subject and uncomfortable for many people, but fortunately it was made. And I think the most satisfying part of it is that it drew attention to the importance of investigative journalism and how investigative journalism can be practiced in the right way. And what kind of impact it has and what kind of good it can do. So that was the most satisfying part of it. And that, I think, is the enduring benefit of the movie.
It’s far from your only standout story. What are some others that stand out for you?
Well look, the biggest stories of my career were first of all, two stories when I was in Miami as the editor of the Miami Herald. One was the 2000 presidential election, which obviously was for a long time undetermined whether George Bush or Al Gore had won that race, and Florida was the key state where the election results were in dispute and the issue went all the way up to the Supreme Court as to whether there should be a recount or not, and the court decided there would be no recount. And then there was the case of the young Cuban boy by the name of Elian González whose mother had brought him to Florida. She was on a boat that sank at sea … but the boy was rescued and brought to his relatives in Miami. And it was a big custody dispute, because his father was still in Cuba. And so ultimately the federal government seized him from those distant relatives and returned him to his father and he’s now in Cuba. That was a big one.
Then, when I got to The Washington Post, the leaks by Edward Snowden, some of those classified documents in the U.S. government regarding surveillance and we published those stories and that, too, had a big impact because it touched off a debate that had yet to occur about how to balance national security against individual privacy.
And then, of course, we had the election of Donald Trump, which has been obviously a huge story in and of itself. So those are just some. They’re not all. They’re just some.
A lot of journalists are really exhausted right now. How has it been for you as an editor dealing with COVID-19 and its fallout?
Well, it’s been an exhausting time, and then we have had one major news event and one crisis after the next. And then we started the year with the whole impeachment process, and then we had the pandemic. We have an economic collapse. We’ve had these protests and now the pandemic is certainly not going away, and there appears to be a resurgence of the virus, and so that is having economic consequences once again. And it just goes on and on. And of course, we’re in the middle of a presidential election. So we have the conventions coming up, and we have the election in November, and we may not even know on Election Day who won because there will be so many mail-in ballots.
Have you been working at home?
Everybody on our staff is working at home. We left on March 10. We have not gone back … While I live in D.C., I have a little place up in the Berkshires. So I’m working from there now. Of course, there are employees of the Post who have to be there, the people who work the presses, the people who deliver the physical paper, all of those who work at the distribution centers. Many of our reporters and our photographers, our videographers have been out and about around the country covering a whole set of events related to the pandemic, related to the economic collapse and to the protests. But we’ve been working outside of the office.
In D.C., obviously, you are in the middle of so many stories. What are your thoughts about being there during the protests?
Well, if you’re going to live in Washington, you’re going to live in the center of news events. It is a center for protests of every type. Of course, these were of a magnitude we hadn’t seen in a very long time, perhaps since 1968. So people who want to send a message to the White House, they come to Washington and they go to Lafayette Square just in front of the White House. The people who were protesting had a message that they wanted to convey. And so, we covered that. Of course, we covered every aspect of it. And certainly from my home, I live in the neighborhood, the first residential neighborhood just north of the White House. You could hear helicopters throughout the day and at night. Ultimately, stores boarded up their windows for fear that they might be broken. But things are getting back to relative normalcy. And that’s a good thing. But look, the people who were protesting had an important message to convey, deep concerns about historic injustices and inequities and you know, that’s what this country is all about, is people being able to freely express themselves.
How do you think others in the world views us as they repeatedly see red fiery images of burning buildings with deep silhouettes of people in front of the blazes?
Well, I think it’s important to keep in mind that most of the protests in the United States were peaceful. There were instances of people engaging in violence. There were some instances of people looting, but the vast majority of the protests were peaceful. I think that overseas, people recognize that we have unresolved issues of racial and ethnic inequities and injustices in this country dating back to, obviously, slavery, and that this is an expression of profound concern about the fact that inequities persist in American society. And this was touched off by the deadly arrest of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and it hit a chord. Hit a nerve. And there were pressures that have built up, emotions that have been built up over a long time, and people are demonstrating that they are sick and tired of those inequities. And protests are part of the fabric of the United States. We are a country that allows free expression. We allow free assembly in the First Amendment of the Constitution, and people are taking proper advantage of their right to express themselves.
Ad revenues are down. Health insurance premiums are costly. Many freelance budgets have been halted due to COVID-19. With layoffs and more, what will the future of journalism look like?
Look, there’s no question this is a really tough time for journalism. It already was a tough time even before we went into this economic collapse. The entire model for journalism has changed; the economic model for journalism has changed. It’s a digital world. We’ve seen the growth obviously of Facebook and Google. They sucked up the vast majority of the advertising out there. That has left very little for traditional media institutions. The crisis is greatest for local journalism. And everything from small towns to major metropolitan areas. And the ones who are doing pretty well tend to be the large national media institutions like ours, like The New York Times, like CNN, outfits like that. But even some of the major digital organizations are hurting as well because of how advertising has dried up during the COVID crisis. I think there’s always a need for journalism. I think that in a democracy like ours we have to have journalism. People have to know about their communities, they have to know about their country, they have to know what’s happening throughout the world. Information is the lubricant of democracy. And so I think we will ultimately find the model, but getting from here to there is going to be very painful. There is no easy solution. And the biggest challenge is finding a sustainable economic model for local journalism. It’s a very difficult challenge, and I don’t think that anybody has the answer yet. You know, at one time we thought that smaller media outlets were insulated from the economic pressures that were being felt by the larger media institutions. But right now, actually, the greatest pressure is on local media outlets. And we’ve seen a sharp decline in the number of journalists. We have too many areas of this country that have actually no coverage whatsoever, no newspaper. They’re not covered by a radio station … or a major television market. So there’s nobody covering their police, nobody covering their school boards, nobody covering the county commissions, the city councils, nobody covering a lot of different things. And politicians know that, that they’re not being covered. And it allows them to get away with things that deserve scrutiny. And so, it is a real crisis. It’s not just a crisis for journalism. I think it’s a crisis for the democracy itself.
Where are we headed as a country? Give us the snapshot you envision.
Well, we’re in a very difficult period, I think. I think that the fact is that we have a very polarized society, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. It seems to get more polarized by the day. And I think it will remain that way. And I think that is, in the world of information and communication, people are living in different universes right now. So, you have people of one political persuasion who utilize certain media outlets, and they get their information there; then the other 50% of the population is getting their information from other media outlets. They’re hearing and seeing and reading different things, and they’re seeing two different worlds. So they’re living in two different information bubbles.
How about your future? What’s it look like?
Well, I’m 65. And what I’ve said to our staff, and publicly, is that I am committed to staying through the elections, and I will see about how long I stay after that. That’s a subject of a conversation between the publisher and myself.
As a Fellow, what would you say as parting thoughts?
I think the main point that I would make is what I talked about in the speech for Harvard’s graduation and that is, it’s a really important time to commit ourselves to facts and the truth. As a profession, we do believe there is such a thing as a fact, and there is such a thing as truth. And that it’s not just a matter of personal opinion. It’s not just a matter of who holds the most power or who has the largest audience or what’s popular or what suits my political ideology. Our job as journalists is to determine what the facts are and putting those things into context, trying to determine what the truth is. That is a core principle for The Washington Post. In fact, it’s our first principle, to ascertain the truth and to tell the truth as nearly as it may be ascertained. And so, I think that’s the mission of our profession. I think that we have to dedicate ourselves to that and that each citizen has to dedicate himself or herself to that mission as well.
Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post