Marty Baron Covers Hollywood, the Washington Post, Trump, Bezos and Other Topics During his May 19 Silurians Talk
by David Margolick
Rather than “that crummy actor [Liev] Schreiber,” Michael Serrill asked Marty Baron during his virtual visit with the Silurians on May 19th, didn’t the much-esteemed, recently-retired editor of the Washington Post think he should have played Marty Baron in “Spotlight”?
“No, I don’t, actually,” replied Baron, whose eleven years atop the Boston Globe included the landmark expose of pedophilia by Catholic priests and a cover-up of the abuse by the Boston archdiocese depicted in the Oscar-winning 2015 film. Schreiber “did a great job,” Baron insisted, though Hollywood’s version of Marty Baron, he conceded, was short on charm and had precious little to say. The Marty Baron speaking via Zoom from the Berkshires was considerably more visible, voluble, and witty.
His talk provided an outline of sorts for his memoir-to-be: a boy raised by Israeli immigrants to whom news mattered; who edited his Florida high school and college papers; who got himself an MBA “just in case the journalism thing didn’t work out.” Work out it did, and then some: in his illustrious career the 66-year-old Baron led three major dailies (the Miami Herald was the third), and held major posts at the Los Angeles Times and New York Times before reaching the Post, where he presided from December 2012 until his retirement last February.
At his insistence, there was no speech: he’s giving enough of those these days. Instead, he took questions, the first several of which, predictably, concerned Donald Trump and his four-year campaign to sully the press. To a considerable extent, said Baron, he succeeded.
“In many ways, that might be his single biggest achievement, if you can call it that,” he said. “Look, we were a convenient enemy. He always needed an enemy. Otherwise you’d judge him on his own merits.” But at the same time, Baron noted, Trump had actually been good for both journalism and journalists: people who’d taken the press for granted came to cherish it, while the reporters covering him became ever more “unflinching.”
And Trump had been good to and for the Post: while denouncing its correspondents and denying them credentials, he’d also cooperated with them, spilling to Bob Woodward among others. At work, he theorized, were both exhibitionism and vanity. “I think he assumed he would persuade Bob that he was doing a great job or something like that,” he said. “God knows.”
It’s thanks largely to Trump, he added, that the paper now has three million digital subscribers — a goal which Jeff Bezos, the Amazon mogul who’d bought the Post nine months into Baron’s tenure, championed. With its storied name, headquarters in a world capital, and reputation for “shining a light into dark corners,” as Bezos himself liked to say, he envisions a paper which one day will have ten, or even a hundred, million digital subscribers.
“He’s the first person I’ve ever heard talk about what we’re going to be in 20 years,” Baron said. “When I first heard him say ‘20 years’ I practically fell to the floor. I’ve never heard the term ‘20 years.’ I was used to hearing ‘next quarter,’ ‘next year.’
“He’s a very unconventional thinker,” he continued. “That’s how he came up with Amazon. If he had thought conventionally he would have been Barnes & Noble.”
Baron said he initially spoke to Bezos every other week, mostly via teleconference, mostly about technology and marketing, though the frequency of their chats eventually trailed off to maybe once a month. “He was fairly preoccupied by some other things at one point, you may recall,” Baron noted. He said the paper’s coverage of those “other things” — i.e. Bezos’s costly divorce — was robust, uninhibited, and uncensored. “We had no special access,” he said. “We gave him no special treatment.”
The same thing, he said, has always gone for coverage of Amazon: “He has never quashed a story or suggested a story or anything like that,” Baron said. During many of his visits to Washington, Bezos didn’t even drop into the Post to say hello. The Post is once again profitable, and Bezos is reinvesting those profits. “Obviously, he doesn’t need the dividends,” Baron said.
When he took the reins, 580 people worked in the Post newsroom; soon there’ll be nearly twice that. Hundreds vie for openings there, but with formerly great papers in other cities stripped bare, Baron observed, certain positions — political reporters, foreign correspondents — are hard to fill.
He called the plight of smaller newspapers “the biggest crisis in American journalism,” one to which he plans to devote some of his retirement time. “I don’t think we can lose hope,” he said, noting that, not too long ago, the Post and New York Times faced equally dire predictions. With the right formula or investor, he said, the troubled New York Daily News might also rebound. “There’s certainly room for a good strong New York news organization, which the New York Times isn’t,” he said.
He declined an invitation to comment on the stormy departures of Times editorial page editor James Bennet and reporter Donald McNeil. “Oh, God. I’m not sure I want to get into the New York Times’s controversies, to tell you the truth,” he demurred. “I’ve had plenty of my own to deal with.”
For all the investigations he’s shepherded, Baron said, the “Spotlight” probe was his most personally meaningful, “simply because it had such a direct impact on ordinary people, people who had no power whatsoever, who were unable to grab the attention of law enforcement authorities, politicians, and the press.
“We all know that journalists are supposed to be investigating government and politics,” he said, “but it’s really important that we also investigate other powerful institutions in our society, and the Catholic Church was then the most powerful institution in Boston and in New England and one of the most powerful institutions in the world.”
Friends of Baron’s told him that “Spotlight” failed to capture his wit, though he confessed he hadn’t felt very funny at the time. “I was a newcomer to the Globe and to Boston, I was called an outsider, I was treated like one, and I felt like one,” he recalled. It has all the makings of a sequel. This time, Baron could play himself. And give himself some better lines.