Martin Baron, the executive editor of the Washington Post, is retiring. In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, he talks about the Trump years, the mistakes the media have made and the dangers yet to come.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Baron, you’re stepping down at a very precarious time politically in the United States. Are you concerned about your country?
Baron: I have concerns about the state of our democracy. It has come under tremendous challenges. As journalists, we play an important role in that democracy, which is to give people the information they need and deserve to know.
DER SPIEGEL: Millions of Americans believe in conspiracy theories instead of the news. How did it get to this point?
Baron: This is happening in other countries as well. I think it’s the result of the internet. People can get information from sources that affirm their preexisting point of view. That’s the business model of some media outlets: to provide so-called “news,” so-called “information” that tells them that their feelings are right, that their instincts are right, that there are people just like them who think exactly like them. If people have suspicions, those media outlets try to reinforce those suspicions. They have no fidelity to the facts or to truth.
Martin (“Marty”) Baron, 66, ranks among the most influential journalists in the United States. During his decades-long career he worked for the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times and served as executive editor of the Miami Herald and the Boston Globe. The Globe’s revelations of the abuse scandal in the Catholic archdiocese of Boston were later turned into the Oscar-winning movie “Spotlight”.
For the past eight years, Baron has served as the executive editor of the Washington Post. Before Baron’s arrival, the Post – which broke the Watergate scandal and published the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s and in 2013 was bought by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos – had shrunk to the status of a regional paper. Baron managed to elevate it to new, international relevance. He has announced that he will retire by the end of February.
DER SPIEGEL: We assume you’re talking about Fox News, among others.
Baron: I’m not going to get into names.
DER SPIEGEL: How can the media reach people who believe in all these conspiracy theories? Is there any chance of reaching them at all?
Baron: I don’t know the answer to that question. I hope there’s a way. Conspiracy thinking is deeply entrenched. Once people start to think that way, it’s very hard to persuade them that they are disconnected from reality. They see us in mainstream media as the ones who are lying. They see themselves as the ones who possess the truth.
DER SPIEGEL: Would more newsroom transparency help? For instance, by showing how published reports come about?
Baron: We can write our stories differently. We can reveal more about how we go about our stories, how we do our reporting. We can be more transparent. We should and we have. But in the end, it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference because we are not reinforcing people’s preexisting view of the world. And if we don’t do that, then they see us as the enemy, as liars, as paid agents of their opponents. It’s very difficult to shake people of conspiracy thinking. How we got there, I think, is one of the big questions for our time.
DER SPIEGEL: That sounds rather depressing. Meanwhile, several conspiracy theorists were elected to Congress. How do you deal with politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Republican congresswoman who is a QAnon follower and believes in a global cult of liberal pedophile Satanists?
Baron: We never confronted this level of conspiracy thinking in the U.S. previously. Journalism as a profession is not terribly well prepared to cover them. We have to be careful not to give people like Greene too much attention. On the other hand, to the extent that they represent the Republican Party, to the extent that they represent the direction of the Republican Party, to the extent that they represent a significant portion of the base of the Republican Party, to the extent that they are inciting violence in this country, most recently the attack on the Capitol – we have to cover that. We have to show how they’re influencing the party, how they’re pulling the party in their direction rather than in the direction of where the Republican Party traditionally has been.
DER SPIEGEL: You were executive editor of the Washington Post for the entire time Donald Trump was in office. Did his lies get too much media attention?
Baron: He was president of the United States, the most powerful position in the world. He had a tremendous impact on what happened here in the U.S. and what was happening around the world. It was our obligation to cover that.
DER SPIEGEL: But in hindsight, what mistakes did journalists make in dealing with him?
Baron: We make mistakes all the time, regardless of who’s in office. We are a highly imperfect profession, like every profession.
DER SPIEGEL: We can confirm this.
Baron: Exactly. So, we have to be honest about that. We have to recognize that we have certain flaws. We’re making decisions in real time, we’re moving quickly, we don’t have time to sit back and think about a lot of the implications of what we do. We should do more of that. But things move at a very fast pace.SPIEGEL International
DER SPIEGEL: So, again, what were some of those mistakes?
Baron: We had to be much more forthright about Trump’s mendacity, his lies over the course of the administration. We needed to call them that from the very beginning. We were very much operating on good principle; and let’s be fair, he was president, he was duly elected. But he was exploiting that. He was exploiting our principles. That said, I don’t think it would have made any great difference.
DER SPIEGEL: Did you underestimate him?
Baron: People assumed that he had authoritarian instincts, but we needed to see actual hardcore evidence of it. We’re not in the business of just speculating about what he might do. We’re in the business of covering what he has done and what he’s contemplating doing. And for the longest time, we didn’t actually have hard evidence of these authoritarian instincts. Now we do. So, I don’t think that people underestimated him.
DER SPIEGEL: Trump attacked the Post frequently during his presidency. For you personally, what was the most noteworthy moment with him?
Baron: It was the first time he used the phrase “enemy of the people”. It was shocking. It’s a phrase that has obviously been used in other contexts in the worst possible way …
DER SPIEGEL: … during the Third Reich, for example, Hitler’s regime used that term to persecute political enemies.
Baron: You’re making an analogy there to what ultimately transpired in Germany, but I’m not ready to go that far just yet. It was clear that he was going to go to the extreme to demonize us. He endeavored to portray us as garbage, as scoundrels. And he has done, I have to say, a very effective job of turning people against us. That was the objective, to get his followers to ignore whatever we wrote and to view whatever we wrote as a product of the opposition. He wanted to portray us as the opposition party. He has been largely successful in achieving that. He wouldn’t stop even if it posed the risk of violence against journalists, and it has resulted in violence and threats against journalists.
DER SPIEGEL: Did you have to take extra security measures?
Baron: We have certainly taken additional security measures to protect our staff and to protect our facilities. And that continues. It has gotten worse and worse and worse. It’s unfortunate that in this country we are having to do that. Newspapers traditionally wanted to be open to the public, to invite people to come in, we wanted to be as transparent as possible, give tours, all that sort of thing. We don’t do that anymore.
DER SPIEGEL: The Trump era brought a lot of business to media companies. The Washington Post, like others, added a lot of new digital subscribers in this time. How are you going to keep this up?
Baron: I think that we’re in a bit of a different place now in the media than we were a couple of years ago. There’s a recognition among much of the public that if they want quality journalism, they’re going to have to pay for it and that they should pay for it. In the context of all the other things they pay for, it’s not that expensive. There’s a reason that we should not be giving away information for free: It costs us money to actually do this kind of work, to pay our staff, to do ambitious reporting, to conduct investigations, to have editors, to enforce standards. So, if you want journalism of that caliber, then you should pay for it. Also, there’s a desire on the part of a good portion of the population to support journalism outlets that do it right. They worry about what our society will become if we don’t exist.
DER SPIEGEL: You’re an old-school journalist. What is your outlook for the newspaper business?
Baron: I think I can say with some confidence that there’s not much of a future in print. That’s just not how people live their lives. Everybody’s walking around with a mobile device. That’s where most people are getting their information, and many of them are getting it from social networks as well. So, the idea that, you know, that our business model should be cutting down trees, turning it into pulp, turning that into paper, putting it up on giant machines to produce a paper that can be delivered sometime the next morning – that’s just not a model for the future, let’s face it. There will be still pretty print products, of course, but it’s not the future of the industry. It’ll be digital, it’ll be mobile. I do think it’ll become more visual.
DER SPIEGEL: Since 2013, the Post has been owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and one of the richest men in the world. With his decision to step down as Amazon’s CEO, do you expect him to get more involved editorially at the Post?
Baron: I don’t at all expect him to get more involved editorially. Maybe he’ll get more engaged on the business side. But Jeff knows full well that the credibility of the news operation rests on our independence. That’s why he and our publisher, Fred Ryan, are engaged in a thoughtful and thorough process to select a new executive editor. They will want full confidence in the editor they select.
DER SPIEGEL: Will newspapers be able to operate in the future at all without patrons like Bezos?
Baron: You have a bit of a misconception there. We’re not a charity. Bezos has made clear from the very beginning that we would operate like a business. We’ve been profitable for years now. We got another profitable year last year despite everything. So, that’s how we function. And that’s a good thing because it’s really important that we have a sustainable business model – if we were operated like a charity and some day he was tired of operating this charity, we would be in a precarious place. I don’t think that the future of journalism depends on so-called “patrons”.
DER SPIEGEL: Who does it depend on then?
Baron: It does depend on good owners who have a long-term view and will invest strategically. You have to come up with the right strategic model, like Jeff Bezos did for the Post. He changed our strategy from being a regional publication to being a national and even international one. That was a very smart move.
DER SPIEGEL: Many newsrooms – the Post included – are currently embroiled in a debate over the neutrality and objectivity of journalists on social media, especially Twitter. Should journalists have a social media presence, and if so, should they reveal personal opinions?
Baron: Let’s first understand what objectivity means. It’s a term that originated 100 years ago with one of America’s most notable journalists, Walter Lippmann. It doesn’t mean neutrality, and it doesn’t mean both-sidesism. Fundamentally, it recognizes that all of us have our preconceptions and we should try to set those aside as much as possible when we go about our reporting. Good reporting means we tell people what we’ve learned – and we do it directly, honestly, unflinchingly. We don’t beat around the bush. We don’t pretend we can’t say anything definitive. So, I think objectivity is a good principle and one we would be wise to observe. We should not be an activist for anything except fact and truth.
DER SPIEGEL: Should journalists get personal on Twitter?
Baron: I have no objection to journalists having one. Almost all of ours do. But it’s important that people exercise care and restraint. It’s important that our journalists’ social media behavior doesn’t violate the core principles and standards of our institution.
DER SPIEGEL: Meaning?
Baron: We take great care to make sure that what we publish in print and online meets a certain standard, one that reinforces our reputation for high-caliber journalism. We employ multiple layers of editors to ensure that we meet those standards. When journalists post on Twitter or Facebook, however, no editors are involved. That means that journalists need to edit themselves. They need to continue meeting our standards, just as they are expected to if they are on television or radio or making a speech.
DER SPIEGEL: You are going to retire at the end of February. What requirements should the next executive editor of the Post bring to the table?
Baron: Ultimately, you have to be a person of integrity. In order to do this job right, to do journalism right, you have to have both a soul and a spine. The soul means you have a strong sense of purpose, and the spine means that you can stick to that purpose, withstanding the pressures. You also have to be someone who sees his or her job as lifting people up, finding a way that allows people to do their very best work. I became sort of the face and voice of the Post. But there’s a huge team I am very dependent on, from the people in our newsroom to our collaboration with our business and engineering colleagues. It is not a top-down situation.
DER SPIEGEL: What’s next for you? Will you just take a break?
Baron: It would be great to have time to read a book. I’m just going to take a little break and think about what I want to do next. I still want to stay active and involved in the profession. I just want to find a different way that doesn’t require me to work every minute of every day of every week of every year. But you’re not going to see me on the golf course.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Baron, we thank you for this interview.
Editor’s note: This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.