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Influencers with Andy Serwer: Marty Baron

In this article:
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In this episode of Influencers, Andy is joined by legendary journalist & former Washington Post Executive Editor, Marty Baron, for a discussion on the state of the media industry, his experience covering the Trump administration, and why he decided to walk away from the news business.

Video Transcript

ANDY SERWER: Facts and truth are matters of life and death. Those are the words of Marty Baron, a newsroom legend who retired in early 2021 after spending more than 40 years in journalism. He's held executive positions at "The Boston Globe," "The Miami Herald," and "The Washington Post," leading them toward multiple Pulitzer Prizes and recognition worldwide. In this episode of "Influencers," I speak with Marty Baron about big changes in media--

MARTY BARON: There's a huge segment of the public that simply doesn't trust mainstream media or they trust only one element of mainstream media.

ANDY SERWER: --his experience covering President Trump--

MARTY BARON: To have to have a former president constantly challenging the legitimacy of our democracy is hugely dangerous.

ANDY SERWER: --and his decision to walk away from the news business.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Hello, everyone, and welcome to "Influencers." I'm Andy Serwer. And welcome to our guest Marty Baron, former editor of "The Washington Post" and "The Boston Globe." Marty, nice to see you.

MARTY BARON: It's good to see you, Andy.

ANDY SERWER: I want to start off by asking you a little bit about your time at "The Washington Post" and the media business in general, of course. "The Post" now has roughly 3 million digital subscribers, a number that tripled, that's my understanding, between 2017 and 2020. What drove that growth in recent years, and how much of that was attributable to the presidency of Donald Trump?

MARTY BARON: Well, I think there was a tremendous amount of interest in what Trump was up to. There was a large segment of the population that was keenly interested in energetic reporting about the president, holding him accountable. I also think there was a lot of concern about the spread of misinformation and disinformation in this country and an appreciation for the role-- and sort of a fresh appreciation for the role of the press in a democracy, a lot of concern about just false information that was circulating out there, conspiracy theories and things like that, and that people felt a bit-- the time had come that they-- I mean, they could no longer take the press for granted and that they needed to support the institution of the free press.

ANDY SERWER: You credited Jeff Bezos for shifting the strategy of the paper when he bought it in 2013, saying, quote, "he saw an opportunity that I think others did not see," end quote. What did you mean specifically by that, Marty?

MARTY BARON: Well, prior to that, "The Post" post had been focused on, as I put it at the time, by being for and about Washington. So yes, it would cover the government. It would cover politics. But fundamentally, it was a regional publication.

Jeff came in and said that the model for "The Post" was really no longer working. All of the pillars of our business had really collapsed. We had suffered all the pain that the internet had to offer but that we had failed to take advantage of the gift that the internet had to offer. And that gift was, essentially, worldwide distribution at little incremental cost. And so we should take advantage of that-- [INAUDIBLE] unique assets.

We were based in the nation's capital, which is a good base for becoming a national and even international publication. We were-- we had the name, "The Washington Post," which is a name that can be leveraged to a national and international level. And we also had a history and identity, really, that was forged at the time of Watergate, of shining a light in dark corners. And so a lot of people who had never actually read "The Post" before had an impression of what "The Post" was and what its mission was. And so we were in a position to capitalize on that, but we had not yet done so.

ANDY SERWER: What was your relationship with Jeff Bezos like, Marty? I mean, how often did you speak with him? What did you talk about? What is he like?

MARTY BARON: Well, my relationship was really in a group-- largely in a group setting. There was also a senior management group which met with him occasionally. It was a small group of people, just a handful. But most of the time, it was a larger group of people, depending on the subject that we talked about. And I would participate in those meetings. Those meetings were typically held once every two weeks. At times, we would go even longer without a meeting. But at the beginning, we had pretty regular meetings.

And you know, my own relationship with him was good. It was professional. I mean, keep in mind that as a journalist, I was also responsible for our coverage of him. And so we had a very good, strong, professional relationship, and he was supportive of what we were doing as journalists. But it was not what I would consider to be, you know, a close, personal friendship or anything like that. But we had a very good relationship.

ANDY SERWER: You know, kind of following up on that, some people have speculated that he bought the paper to wield influence. And you've said over the years that he never meddled with editorial. So what was your sense of why he owned the paper, and what is he getting out of it then?

MARTY BARON: Well, you know, I mean, this might sound a bit naive, but I don't think it is. And that is, first of all, I think he actually did believe in the mission of the press. I think he does, even though he's the target of it. I still think he believes that the press serves a very important role in American democracy, and he actually believes in American democracy. And secondly, as I indicated before, he thought that, you know, there was a real opportunity-- a business opportunity here.

I think that he is not a person who, you know, necessarily wants to buy a sports team-- run a sports team-- but his sport is really business and-- as best I can tell, and space. And so here was an opportunity. It was a unique property, one that you couldn't find elsewhere in the country.

I mean, if you wanted-- you know, the only other national or international publications were essentially "The New York Times" and "The Wall Street Journal." "The Wall Street Journal" was a particular kind of publication targeted toward business. "The New York Times" already was a national and somewhat international publication. And so here was an opportunity with "The Post" to turn it around, and I think that he was intrigued by the challenge of doing so.

ANDY SERWER: "Washington Post" reporter Felicia Sonmez sued "The Post" and you last month for discrimination over a decision to keep her off of sexual assault stories after she came out publicly as a survivor of sexual assault, as well as other coverage bans. What is your response to that, Marty?

MARTY BARON: My response is that it's in litigation and I can't comment on it.

ANDY SERWER: OK. During your tenure, you disciplined several reporters over comments they made on social media. And one top reporter, Wesley Lowery, left after a run-in on the issue. I guess maybe just generally, how should journalists conduct themselves on social media, and have your views on that changed over time?

MARTY BARON: My views haven't really changed. In fact, I think it's ever more important that we abide by clear and strict standards of behavior. We do have a set of-- we did have a set of standards at "The Post." They were established well before I got there. They were consistent with the standards that most media outlets and some-- in fact, some have stricter standards than "The Post" does.

Basically, you know, the objective is to be honest, honorable, fair, and to not enter into conflicts of interest. Those could be financial conflicts of interest, but they could be conflicts of interest based on one's advocacy for particular controversial issues. And so those standards apply to appearances on television. They apply to appearances on radio. And they also applied to a participation in social media. No carve-out was established for social media, nor do I believe that it should be.

And so look, we're under scrutiny by the public. I think that's right. We should be held accountable for our own behavior. And I think it's important to realize that any one reporter's comments on social media are going to be interpreted as the comments or position of the news organization as a whole. And so the public is not going to make a distinction between that one individual's opinion and the position of the news organization. I think it's very important for every one of us who works within news organizations to protect the reputation of the institution.

ANDY SERWER: Fair enough. The issue of diversity at top legacy publications like "The Post" has drawn more and more attention over the years. What progress did "The Washington Post" make in that area during your tenure and in what ways does it still have more work to do, do you think?

MARTY BARON: Well, I think we made progress, but we didn't make enough progress. I wish we had made more. That's something that I feel we could have done, should have done. We actually had one of the most diverse newsrooms-- major newsrooms-- in the country. I think if you actually look at the data, it will show that. But where we fell short was really in leadership positions, and we have more work to do in that regard.

By the time I left, of our five most senior editors, three were women. One was a person of color. And so I think that news organizations should reflect the country as best they can, and that's something that we clearly had more to do when I left "The Post." And I think that "The Post" is very much committed to continuing to make progress.

ANDY SERWER: Your successor, Sally Buzbee, started in June. What's your impression of her and how she's been doing so far?

MARTY BARON: Well, the one thing I made clear when I left "The Post" is that I'm not going to interfere in anything that's going on or even comment on-- really, on "The Post." I know Sally a bit from before she became editor, before I left "The Post." All of our interactions were really good.

She's a person of integrity. She's a person of deep experience. I think she's very much committed to the mission of "The Post," on the mission of journalism. And so you know, I'll be as interested as everybody else in seeing how things progress at "The Post," but I'm not-- I don't think it's really appropriate for me to weigh in on my successor.

ANDY SERWER: "The Washington Post" and other top national papers are thriving while many regional and local papers are suffering. Why is there such a stark divide here, and what can be done about it?

MARTY BARON: Well, I think that national publications, national media outlets are in a very different position. They can get readers from around the country and around the world. They can get advertising that's targeted to a national and even international audience, and those sources of revenue are simply unavailable to regional publications.

Also, the intensity of interest among the public is greater in national affairs and international affairs than it is in local affairs. So as you mentioned early on, this intense interest in-- there was intense interest in Donald Trump. That kind of-- that intensity of interest cannot be replicated-- or generally is not replicated-- at the local level. So national publications have greater prospects of garnering digital subscriptions than local publications do.

So that's really, fundamentally, what the problem is. And what can be done about it? Well, if I had the answer, I'd be out there consulting and making a lot of money offering people answers to questions that they have not been able to resolve just yet.

So-- but that said, I mean, I think that local publications need to-- first of all, they need to charge. They need to provide something of value worth paying for, but ultimately, they need to charge people as well. So there's a trade-off-- a trade that needs to take place there, and that is that-- as they-- these publications need to charge their readers, charge them a fair price. But at the same time, they need to provide them journalism of real value. And they need to decide what that is and make some hard choices about the kind-- what, really, they need to offer their readers.

One thing that I definitely believe that they need to offer their readers is investigative reporting, and they need to hold powerful people and powerful institutions to account, particularly government. And I think the public actually appreciates that. They will pay for that. And when I was editor of "The Boston Globe," it was clear that that was a big reason that people subscribed to "The Boston Globe," and that continues to be the case today, from what I understand.

ANDY SERWER: And when you're talking about paying, of course, you mean paywalls. And so just follow up quickly on that, Marty, is there any reason why those haven't worked as well for the smaller publications?

MARTY BARON: Well, you know, yes. I mean, like, first of all, I would say the term paywalls, it's called subscriptions. It's exactly what newspapers used to charge. You know, we didn't give the physical newspaper away for free. We actually charged people for it. And we had advertising, as well. So it's not-- it shouldn't be a shocking revelation that newspapers need to charge for their product in the same way that any other business needs to charge for its product. We're not different in that regard.

But at the local level, I mean, it's what I was saying before is that I think that the level of interest is far greater in what's happening at the national level than is occurring at the local level. And that's just a fact of life that local news organizations and regional news organizations have to live with. It's unfortunate, but that's the case.

ANDY SERWER: Is there a possibility in your mind that public funding would be necessary, particularly for local press?

MARTY BARON: I doubt it. I'm not sure the public supports that. I mean, look how hard it is to get an infrastructure bill through Congress. I do think people support money to fix their bridges, their highways, to improve transit, what have you. But getting the public to support subsidies for local media organizations or media organizations generally, I think it's highly unlikely, nor do I think that it's a good idea. If media is getting its revenue from the government, then it's going to be beholden to the government, and it shouldn't be beholden to the government. It should be independent of government and be able to cover government with real vigor and hold government accountable and not with-- and not fearful that government will react by withholding funds in the future.

ANDY SERWER: Was the media business, Marty, in a bull market during the Trump administration, and is that bull market over?

MARTY BARON: Well, I mean, media industry is a big term, as you alluded to already. I mean, that incorporates all media. It clearly was not a bull market for local and regional press. So it was a bull market, seemingly, for national publications and television networks. Ratings were very high. Digital subscriptions were soaring. So in that sense, it was a bull market.

I don't think it was a bull market for the public's view of the media. We have a very polarized public. There's a huge segment of the public that simply doesn't trust mainstream media or they trust only one element of mainstream media. So people on the right, they'll trust Fox News. People on the left will trust the other networks, what have you-- but a very divided country.

I don't think that's a good place to be. I don't see that as a positive. I think that as a-- in any democracy, we have to have a shared set of facts. We can disagree on all sorts of things. We should disagree about what our problems are, how we resolve those problems. That's-- we should be debating that vigorously. That's the nature of democracy, absolutely.

But fundamentally, we have to agree on a set of facts, and we also have to agree on what constitutes a fact and what are the elements that constitute a fact. We can't agree on a shared-- we don't have a shared set of facts in this country at the moment, and we can't even agree on what constitutes a fact. That's a dangerous place to be. So yes, while certain media outlets did enjoy rising subscriptions or rising ratings, it's not necessarily-- that doesn't necessarily mean we're in a very good place with regard to media in this country.

ANDY SERWER: That might be a good segue to get into the social media companies-- Facebook, Google, Twitter, et cetera. Well, first of all, let me ask you about that law in Australia that requires Facebook and Google to negotiate with media companies and pay for the content that appears on their platforms. What do think about that? Should we have that here?

MARTY BARON: Well, look, and I do think that social media companies have been able to take advantage of the fact that we are providing all this so-called content-- I call it journalism-- that-- and they're making money off it. They're vacuuming up, essentially, all the advertising that's out there. They've also been able to-- so in the process, they've been able to gain the revenue without taking on any responsibility. I do think that there has to be a recalculation of what these platforms owe the entities whose content they're using on their site.

And now, how much that should be I think is a very difficult thing to calculate because we also derive value from our presence on social media platforms. If we were-- if "The Washington Post" were not on Google or-- and Google News, that would be a real problem for us for "The Washington Post." They would lose revenue as a result of that. If we're not on Facebook, same thing. So calculating, you know, what the transfer of value should be I think is a really difficult calculation, and I would like to see further study of what is a fair sum of money.

ANDY SERWER: So are YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter media companies to your mind, Marty, and should they continue to be protected under Section 230 or not?

MARTY BARON: You know, I don't know the answer to that question, and it's something that I've thought about a fair amount. But I think it's a really difficult question. I mean, I think that essentially, if they were not subject to 230, if it were rescinded in its entirety, we wouldn't have social media companies. Now, people can decide whether they think that's a good thing or a bad thing, but clearly, they can't be responsible-- held liable for every single thing everybody says that's on their platforms. That would be impossible for them to do.

So-- and you know, the public does derive value from these social platforms. They come with a lot of disadvantages too and done a lot of harm, but there are also advantages. I mean, if anybody thinks through how they manage their life and how often they use Google, they will appreciate how much value is provided. So I don't know the answer. I mean, it obviously needs to be reconsidered and needs to be reevaluated. I think it should be done in a dispassionate, considered way, as opposed to with political motivations.

ANDY SERWER: You know, President Biden recently said social media companies are, quote, "killing people," end quote, with vaccine disinformation. He later walked that back. But does he have a point about this spread of misinformation, and how responsible is a platform like Facebook?

MARTY BARON: Well, I think they should take more responsibility. As I indicated before, they've gained a lot of revenue, and they should take responsibility, particularly for something as consequential as a pandemic. So I do think that there is undoubtedly more that the platforms can do to ensure that information is not spreading on their platforms.

That's difficult, I recognize. They operate in every country in the world under-- and every language in the world, and there are hundreds of millions of people posting things on these sites at all hours of the day and night, so at every second of the day. So it is a huge challenge, but certainly, I think that there's probably more that they can do.

ANDY SERWER: President Biden's Justice Department said a couple of months ago it will no longer seize reporters' records for leak investigations. What's your reaction to that?

MARTY BARON: Well, I think that's good. That's a very positive step. I welcome it entirely. I think that, obviously, governments in the past have used leak investigations to intimidate people who had important information to impart about what their government was doing and to intimidate-- and frankly, to intimidate journalists. The previous administration-- quite openly, the previous president had expressed his own desire to imprison journalists because of leaks, and I think that's a very dangerous-- that is absolutely a very dangerous route to travel. It's the kind of route that has led to authoritarian regimes. And so I'm encouraged by what this administration is doing in that regard.

ANDY SERWER: Speaking of beliefs, Marty, you've defended Julian Assange of Wikileaks previously, but can leakers like him or Snowden go too far, like for instance, disclosing secret codes for atomic weapons?

MARTY BARON: Well, sure. I mean, my comment about Assange were relatively limited. So yes, I mean, I think that there are clear dangers. I mean, look, I think it's important-- as a news organization, "The Washington Post" and other news organizations, we take responsibility for what we publish. We do not publish everything that we know. We do not just put out raw information for the public to absorb.

And we also have no alliances to-- notwithstanding what our critics say, we have no alliances to any party or to any ideology. And so we operate with complete independence. So there's an editing process. We do consider the actual impact of what we publish. And so I think it's important that anybody who's in media to do the-- that they should do the same.

ANDY SERWER: How much does the lie about election fraud turning the 2020 election concern you? And has the media done all that it can to debunk that lie?

MARTY BARON: Well, it concerns me a lot. I mean, I think that that is a-- it's a fiasco for our democracy. I-- to have a political figure like Donald Trump questioning of the legitimacy of an election that is documented to be entirely legitimate and every challenge to that election has been dismissed or disproved or what have you-- and to have a former president constantly challenging the legitimacy of our democracy is hugely dangerous. And so it concerns me a lot.

As for the press, I think we've-- news organizations seem to have done a tremendous amount. I know that "The Post," we-- you know, we site-- we would look at every single allegation. We showed with the court-- how the courts ruled on that. We pointed to the court rulings. People could read them for themselves. We have addressed-- we had addressed every single allegation being made. And they were disproved and dismissed and what have you. And so I don't know more what "The Washington Post" or any other media outlet could have done. I mean, we're in a situation right now where people can see and hear things for themselves, and they can listen to the former president claim that that never happened.

Take January 6. We can see actual video of what transpired on January 6-- mobs of people assaulting Capitol Police, Capitol Hill police officers-- and you have a president saying that they were hugging and kissing the police. That's just ridiculous. That's nonsense. How he can get away with that is pretty remarkable and incredibly disturbing.

ANDY SERWER: Do you remember your thinking evolving, perhaps, or maybe-- just asking about this today, when you-- when reporters want to call out and use the word lying-- the president of the United States is lying, this Senator is lying-- rather than, you know, maybe softer words like misspoke or mistruth or not telling the truth, do you remember having those conversations, Marty?

MARTY BARON: We had conversations along those lines, yeah.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah. And is it-- was that a hard thing to sort of-- a hump to get over-- was just-- to actually call them out?

MARTY BARON: Well, we don't normally use those kinds of-- we hadn't normally used those kinds of terms, but Trump really changed things because of the frequency of his lies and his falsehoods and his misleading statements and what have you, which we documented to the n-th degree with our fact-checkers. So you know, in order to say lied, our feeling was that we needed to be able to document that he knew that what he was saying was not true.

And very often, it wasn't entirely clear and not something that we could document because he was living in his own reality. And he was, in some ways, it seemed, deluded. And so does that constitute a lie or does that constitute a falsehood? It's not a misstatement, by any means, as you indicated. It's not a-- it's absolutely a falsehood.

The other problem is, as the editor of "The New York Times," Dean Baquet, has pointed out on many occasions is that when you start using those words, people focus more on your language than they do on the fact that the information itself is false. And you really want people to focus on the fact that the so-called information that's being provided is simply not true, as opposed to they shouldn't have used the word lie. And whether-- by using the word lie, you're engaging in partisan behavior.

ANDY SERWER: I want to ask you in our limited amount of time left a little bit about you personally, Marty. You grew up in Tampa, son of immigrants. You said that your folks read newspapers a lot and you were editor-in-chief of your student paper at Lehigh. Did you always want to be a journalist?

MARTY BARON: As far back as I can really remember. Certainly from I would say junior high school forward, I wanted to be a journalist, yeah.

ANDY SERWER: I have to ask you about "Spotlight," When you were at "The Boston Globe." When you look back on that story, what's the most important part of that? And what did you think of Liev Schreiber, his depiction of you?

MARTY BARON: Well, yeah, Schreiber did a really good job of portraying me. And you know, he had a difficult person to portray because I don't emote all that much. And so how do you capture somebody who's not emoting? So I thought he did a really great job.

You know, I think the important part of that movie is that it showed the need for investigative reporting and why it serves the public. I think it showed how investigative reporting can be done and done correctly. I think it showed the need for news organizations to really invest in that kind of work. And above all, I think it showed the importance of listening to people who lack power, who lack a-- seem to lack a voice. We must-- we have to listen to them. People who don't have power often have very powerful things to say. And we, as journalists, always need to be in a listening mode, and that's what happened in that instance.

ANDY SERWER: This may be a very typical question and unfair because it's like asking you about your favorite kid. What was the most important or most difficult story that "The Washington Post" did during your tenure?

MARTY BARON: "The Washington Post" did?

ANDY SERWER: Yeah.

MARTY BARON: Were asking about the favorite story or the most difficult story?

ANDY SERWER: Well, I'll ask you both.

MARTY BARON: Well, I mean, look, I think the story about the NSA surveillance, the leaks from Edward Snowden was an incredibly delicate and difficult story. Because as I indicated before, we felt that information was important to impart to the public, and yet it involves the most-- it involved the most classified information in the US government. And so we don't want to put the-- we don't want to put people at risk. And so how do you weigh those two things? How do you weigh national security against the need for the public to have information about surveillance that they should really know about? And personal privacy. And so that's a difficult story.

In terms of the work that we did, very proud of the work that we did during the Trump administration. I think there were huge challenges to the press, huge challenges to our democracy. I think we stood firm in our-- on our principles, and I believe the work was really-- at "The Post" was really excellent.

ANDY SERWER: And finally, Marty, what ultimately made you decide to step down from "The Post" when you did, number one? And number two, what are you going to do next?

MARTY BARON: Well, I've been in journalism for 45 years, so it's a long time. I've been the top editor for 20 years at three different news organizations, at each one coming in from the outside. All of those have been hugely challenging jobs-- difficult, exhausting, and ever more exhausting with the internet, which now requires us to be on top of things essentially every second of every day, all throughout 24 hours a day. And so that's just very hugely demanding and draining. And I felt that it was time-- at age 66, which is beyond the normal retirement-- typical retirement age-- that it was time for me to have more personal freedom and personal flexibility, and that's what I was looking for at the time.

So-- and right now, you know, I'm focused on writing a book about my-- [INAUDIBLE] "The Washington Post." It also will bring in some things that we've talked about-- the investigation of the Catholic Church, the Elian Gonzalez case, which I covered, which I was responsible for that coverage at "The Miami Herald," the 2000 presidential election, which also occurred when I was editor of "The Miami Herald" and it has resonance and relevance for today. And so I'm working on that and then also seeing friends and having a little bit more freedom and free time than I had before.

ANDY SERWER: That sounds great and well deserved, and we certainly look forward to seeing your book when that comes out. Marty Baron, former editor of "The Washington Post," "Boston Globe," and "The Miami Herald," thank you so much for your time.

MARTY BARON: Thank you, Andy. Appreciate it.

ANDY SERWER: You've been watching "Influencers." I'm Andy Serwer. We'll see you next time.