Washington Post's Marty Baron: People have taken the press for granted

reliable sources marty baron

Marty Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, says that in the Trump era his newspaper is "not at war with the administration. We're at work."

A veteran in the newspaper industry, Baron has overseen coverage throughout various administrations and led the Boston Globe and the Post to numerous Pulitzer Prizes. Contrary to a "popular misconception," he says, the Post didn't have a cozy relationship with Barack Obama's administration. Still, he notes, in the political current climate, "there seems to be a deliberate effort to subvert the role of particularly the media as an independent arbiter of fact."

Baron sat down with CNN's Brian Stelter at the 2018 Aspen Ideas Festival to discuss coverage of Donald Trump's administration, the challenges facing a free press, and how Jeff Bezos' ownership of the Post has changed the paper. Their conversation and corresponding question-and-answer session have been released as a Reliable Sources podcast. Read excerpts from their chat below.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Listen to the whole podcast here:

Are we facing 'a national emergency?'

STELTER: From your perch running The Washington Post, observing President Trump, and having to cover this story every day, is this a form of a national emergency? Are we living through a national emergency? And if so, how in the heck should journalists be covering it that way?

BARON: I think it's for others to decide whether you classify this as a national emergency or not. That's not really my place. I know what our place is, and that is to cover very aggressively this administration as we would cover any other administration. I mean the fundamental role --

STELTER: -- So don't cover it any differently is what you're saying?

BARON: We cover it aggressively. Look, we're inspired by the principles that I face every day when I walk into our newsroom. The first one is, "Tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained." And that means that that's a process of striving -- the truth can be elusive, but that there is a truth. There are facts. It's not just a matter of somebody's personal opinion. It's not just a matter of who has the biggest megaphone. It's not just a matter of who has the most power. And so that's our job and we understand that very clearly. We're not in the business of sort of characterizing the era. We'll leave that for the opinion columnists to do. But from the news side, which is the area that I'm responsible for, it's just, "Go out every day and find out what the facts are."

Courage, fear, and the state of our democracy

STELTER: Are you glass half-full or glass half-empty about our democracy today?

BARON: I would say glass half-full. I try to be an optimist about these things. I recognize that over many years, over the history of this country, we've gone through very difficult times, far worse than we are experiencing today. I mean after all, we had a civil war, we had slavery in this country, we had the McCarthy era. You know, even the First Amendment has been under siege. It was under siege early on under John Adams with the Sedition Act, and then under Woodrow Wilson with the Espionage Act. It was only during FDR that we celebrated the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment and that the Supreme Court in a full-throated way really embraced the First Amendment.

STELTER: So [when] you look around, you don't see as many of the dark clouds as some others do, perhaps?

BARON: Well, you know, I see plenty of dark clouds. I think I see clearly the dark clouds. But I recognize that, you know, clouds can move on. And look, we're under a lot of pressure. It's something we're going to have to deal with. I think that we need courage in our profession to deal with that. You know, Anthony Lewis, he wrote a book on the First Amendment -- "Freedom For the [Thought That] We Hate" -- he said, you know, that the press has been given tremendous freedom by the Supreme Court. It owes society courage. And I very much believe that. And that's what we need to exhibit these days.

STELTER: Where would you like to see more courage?

BARON: Everywhere, actually. You know, I worry that the press sometimes pulls back out of fear, out of a feeling of fear. It could be fear about the administration these days, but also fear of lawsuits, libel suits, and things like that. Certainly, people these days seem more prone to threatening those kinds of suits because they know that media organizations for the most part, particularly local ones, are in a weakened financial state. They fear repercussions from advertisers. They fear repercussions from readers, just for telling the truth. I think in large segments of the press, there is somewhat of an atmosphere of fear that we might do something that would cause people to get upset, to cancel subscriptions, to cancel advertising, what have you.

I think the public is looking for a press that stands for something, that stands for telling the truth, will do it regardless of the pressures, and that people will support that. And we see that in our own business. That's why our subscriptions have grown so much -- [it's] that people are supporting what we do. They believe in it. They see us as standing for something and they want to support that.

Next steps for the media

STELTER: What do we do, the collective "we," to rebuild trust? I know the obvious answers are about being careful, not screwing up. But do you think there needs to be a more concerted campaign? Does there need to be more cooperation among news outlets? I mean, do we need to think bigger with regards to trying to rebuild what's been torn down?

BARON: Well, I mean, I think that we need to do several things, and none of them is by any means a complete answer to this. And collectively, there's probably not a complete answer. I think we need to be more transparent. I think we need to talk more about who we are, who works on our staff. We need to combat this misconception that everybody who works in the newsrooms of major news organizations is somehow from a coastal elite. That's not true. You know, we have people who have evangelical backgrounds, who have gone to evangelical colleges. We have people who have been in the military, who've been through combat. We have people who've grown up on rural areas and their families on farms. So I think we need to talk more about who we are. And we are trying to do that. We need to talk more about how we do our work. We need to expose more of it. We need to provide more original documents, more video, more audio, everything, anything that we can do that's actually supportive of our work.

I also think that we as an industry need to talk more about who we help. I mean over decades, you know, [there's] this idea of sort of the forgotten people of America. Journalists, perhaps more than any other profession, [have] been paying attention to the forgotten people of America. And I think that we need to remind people of that. You know, health and safety concerns around the country, people who have been treated unjustly by the legal system, all of that. I mean, journalists have been writing about that -- ordinary people who have suffered because of abuses of power -- and we have so many cases and I wish we would find a way to highlight those cases, to highlight the people who have been helped by the work of journalists, because there are so many of them.

STELTER: Including loyal supporters of President Trump --

BARON: Oh, absolutely.

STELTER: --That benefit from journalism. And I think that might be part of the answer to this challenge of reaching and convincing Trump supporters that we are not the enemy. My perception: It's getting harder every day to reach some of the folks that are the most convinced that we're the enemy. Showing them the value, showing them the work we do.

BARON: And I think that's what we need to do. You know, people have taken the press for granted, the work that the press does for granted. They easily forget. They remember all of our worst mistakes. And we are not a perfect profession. We have many flaws. We're flawed because we're human, just like any people in any other profession. But we also do a lot of good. And I think that we need to highlight that good. We can't take it for granted and we need to make sure that the public doesn't take it for granted either.


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