The revitalizing of The Washington Post was planned a decade ago in the Medina home of Jeff Bezos, after the Graham family concluded the Amazon boss had the “brains, technical savvy, and money” to bring a limping newspaper in line with an online age. The Post had, after all, been in the spotlight since breaking the Watergate scandal that precipitated the fall of President Nixon.
“They’d [Grahams] simply run out of ideas of how to grow, how to be sustainable,” Marty Baron, executive editor from 2013 to 2021, told a Seattle breakfast on Monday. Baron was new to the Post, although known for driving the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team in its church-shaking expose of how the Archdiocese of Boston knew about, moved about, and concealed sexual predators in its priesthood.
A taciturn, fearless, relentless and old-fashioned newspaper editor, Baron has written a 548-page memoir, Collision of Power: Trump, Bezos and The Washington Post (McMillan). He came off as humorless as played by Liev Schreiber in the Oscar-winning movie Spotlight but reveals a dry wit in the book and at breakfast.
“Big stories seemed to follow me wherever I went,” said Baron, who oversaw Miami Herald coverage of the disputed 2000 presidential election, spent a decade at the Globe and retired soon after the Post’s Pulitzer Prize -winning coverage of the January 6, 2021, mob assault on the U.S. Capitol.
Baron is the anti-Ben Bradlee. The Watergate-era editor, celebrated in movies (All the President’s Men and The Post) managed with charisma. In his memoir A Good Life, Bradlee entertains readers with episodes of marital infidelity, tales of his tight friendship with John F. Kennedy, plus war stories from the Pacific, the Middle East, and Algeria.
Baron does not dwell on himself or pontificate on his philosophy of journalism. Collision of Power reads like a well-written war memoir with gripping accounts from the front and decisions made under pressure. Its author goes through one crisis of coverage after another, against the backdrop of Amercan political division and social unrest.
He was months at the Post when senior reporter Bart Gellman arrived with Edward Snowden’s leak of classified National Security Agency documents. To publish or not to publish? The consequences? The decision, as with Bradlee on the Pentagon Papers, was to go with the story. Baron’s tenure concluded in a year that saw America endure the COVID-19 pandemic, murder of George Floyd, and Trump’s bid to steal a presidential election.
An old axiom holds that three principles underlie sound management: Hire good people, tell them not to cut corners, and back them to the limit. The Grahams hired Baron just before bailing. As editor, Baron was relentless in telling staff not to cut corners. As owner, Jeff Bezos backed him to the limit.
Bezos is frequently battered in news coverage – notably Amazon’s resistance to union organizing – but Baron is a fan. The Post’s new owner, Baron said over breakfast, believed “We shouldn’t be a local newspaper anymore, or a regional newspaper . . . but a national publication.” Nor, in an online age, would the Post court readers at their doorsteps. “We don’t have to deliver a paper around the country.”
The Post’s new owner “never squelched a story” and “never critiqued our coverage,” Baron said Monday. The book details how Bezos had no quarrel with critical coverage of Amazon, did not flinch when he was targeted by Trump, and even delivered a forthright, proactive response when low-life media outed his extramarital affair.
The book relates how Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner took a run at getting Baron fired. In a conversation with the Post’s publisher, he would “lean on (Fred) Ryan to withdraw support from me and the Russian investigation.” When Ryan argued for no-endorsement in the 2016 presidential race – a former Reagan aide, he didn’t like Hillary Clinton — Bezos put the issue to rest with one sentence: “Why shouldn’t we endorse?”
Donald Trump is the other dominant figure in Collision of Power. Depicted as crazy and cartoonish in a bevy of tell-all books, the former president emerges in Baron’s book as a more sinister figure. Not to start with. When Bezos bought the Post in 2013 (for $253 million), Trump heaped praise on Bezos and the paper. “A great move for him,” Trump tweeted, describing Jeff as “amazing.”
By the 2016 campaign, Trump was demonizing the press as “enemies of the people” He turned a Florida rally into an attack on MSNBC’s Katy Tur. Trump has lately suggested that Comcast (owner of NBC and MSNBC) has committed “treason,” making a similar accusation against just-retired Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley.
“The middle finger he had given the press was about to become a fist,” writes Baron, adding: “Trump and his team would go after the Post and everyone else in the media who didn’t heed his wishes.” A 2017 White House dinner, in which Trump tried to schmooze Bezos, Baron, and Ryan, serves as a creepy opening to the book.
Trump delivered a monologue of complaints and grievance. He went on at length attacking Macy’s for its removal of Trump-branded products. Macy’s stores “would have been picketed by only 20 Mexicans. Who cares?” The President showed no concern that a key ally in Congress, Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, had been shot that day and was fighting for his life.
Were it possible to “get a mulligan,” Baron writes, he would go back and devote added attention to Russian interference in the 2016 election, and any links between the Trump campaign and Russia’s disinformation effort directed at Clinton. “The Russians and Trump campaign were playing footsie with each other,” he told us at breakfast.
Baron saw the Post’s critical coverage of Trump most in us-vs-them terms. Quoting himself in the book, “We’re not at war with the administration. We’re at work.” At breakfast, however, he noted that millions of readers turned to the Post and New York Times looking for forces to “hold Trump accountable,” adding: “We acquired tons of subscribers.” That gain in readers became known as the “Trump bump.”
Baron opens up just a little bit toward the end of the book. He is a Tampa native, the son of immigrants from Israel (and was the first Jewish editor of the Boston Globe). He suffers from HHT, a genetic disorder inherited from his father that triggers uncontrollable bleeding.
He is single, totally devoted working hours to his work, and retired upon finding he no longer had “the emotional desire and physical strength to continue working at a job that demanded so much of me.” He did not stay in D.C. but decamped for the Berkshires of Massachusetts. Collision of Power is the first book for one who has worked as an editor since high school.
A basic lesson, taught to rookie reporters: “Don’t let yourself be part of the story.” In this era of social media, however, Washington Post staffers were not the best of learners. They used Twitter to carry on feuds. As well, with the #metoo movement and George Floyd murder, reporters questioned the paper’s own practices. He had, Baron acknowledged Monday, “significant controversies with people on the staff.”
“Some things I did not handle very well,” Baron added, referring to a lack of diversity in the newspaper’s management. He has, however, been editor at newspapers which have captured 17 Pulitzer Prizes. He has a practice of pushing stories a crucial additional step. He drove Globe reporters, not just to an expose of priest abusers, but a culture of coverup pervasive in the Catholic hierarchy in Boston and far beyond.
“I had never led a staff with the express purpose of being liked,” he writes. “I only cared to be respected for journalistic and commercial achievement in an environment that was humane, fair, professional, collegial, and civil.”
As to work ethic,” We must be more impressed with what we don’t know than what we know, or think we know. We should not start our work by imagining we have the answers, we must seek them out.” That’s something Baron had done to the benefit of thousands of subscribers, and later millions of digital readers.
You do not have to be a journalist to enjoy his book.