Martin Baron will retire from his post as executive editor of the Washington Post on February 28th. He has been with the paper for eight years, four of them with Donald Trump in the White House and mounting an insurrection to stay there.
“I have worked in journalism without stop for nearly forty-five years, leading magnificent news staffs in Miami, then Boston and now Washington, D.C. for twenty-one… The experience has been deeply meaningful, enriched by colleagues who made me a better professional and a better person,” wrote Baron on Tuesday. “At age sixty-six, I feel ready to move on,” he added.
The non-journalist will remember Baron, if at all, as the quietly insistent boss played by Liev Schreiber in the 2015 movie “Spotlight,” Oscar Best-Picture winner for its depiction of the Boston Globe investigation into coverup of sex abuse in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, then headed by powerful Cardinal Bernard Law..
“His depiction of me as a stoic, humorless, somewhat dour character that some professional colleagues instantly recognized (“He nailed you”) and that my closest friends find not entirely familiar,” Baron joked in an essay written five year ago.
Marty Baron was the anti-Ben Bradlee. The late Washington Post editor was swashbuckling bluebood, buddy of John F. Kennedy, summer denizen of the Hamptons, a thrice-married social fixture. Theodore H. White celebrated Bradlee’s blood lines in his very bad book on Watergate. Jason Robards won a best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of Bradlee in All the President’s Men.
In turn, Bradlee picked up some of Robards’ flourishes from the movie.
Never did Baron pick up the Bradlee line Run that baby.
Indeed, with the church sex abuse investigation, he held back when reporters had a damning memo from an auxiliary bishop to Cardinal Law.
He insisted that the real story was the system and culture shuttled “problem priests” from one parish to another, where they kept abusing vulnerable kids.
The Globe investigation sent ripples across the nation. It was certainly felt in the Archdiocese of Seattle and the Diocese of Spokane, where a priest-abuser caused two men to commit suicide. The Archdiocese of Portland, whose bishop railed against the press, would declare bankruptcy due to the cost of abuse settlements.
To this day, the covers are still coming off one of America’s great cover-ups. With Baron as editor, the Post has covered a devastating attorney general’s investigation of Pennsylvania dioceses, the fall of a bishop in West Virginia, and the laicizing of former Washington, D.C., Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
The nation has needed its two great East Coast newspapers, the New York Times and Washington Post, during the past four years.
Neither bent before the assaults of Donald Trump, his reference to “fake news” and labeling a free press “the enemy of the people.” Both beefed up coverage, witness such stories as the Post revealing that Trump asked Georgia’s Secretary of State to “find” the exact number of ballots to flip the state’s electoral votes.
He is a villain to many, including progressive activists in Seattle, but Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos stands as a rescuer in the nation’s press drama. For $253 million, he purchased a hurting Washington Post from the Graham family in 2013.
The Amazon boss contributed resources, but let his newsroom report the news. Its staff has risen, under Baron, from 580 to about 1,000.
The country has needed its truth-telling.
The “WashPost” now has about three million digital subscribers, nearly one million acquired in the past year. The New York Times has achieved similar success, although derided by Trump as “the failing New York Times.”
The Post has won ten Pulitzer Prizes with Baron at the helm.
“In 2013, when our outlook was dire, we were given a second change,” Baron wrote staff on Tuesday. “We took it, engineering a turnaround with focus and creativity. Keep at it. Third chances are rare, particularly in a field that savagely punishes complacency and hubris.”
In a succinct reflection on the Trump years, he added: “Stand firm against cynical, never-ending assaults on objective fact.”
Anticipating Baron’s retirement, some pundits have characterized him as “the last” of the old time newsroom journalists.
They must be proven wrong.
“Old time” editors, the best ones, take after formidable targets and confront power with truth. Cardinal Law was a prince of his church, confidante of Pope John Paul II – who later found him a sinecure in Rome – and a powerful figure in what WAS the most Catholic corner of the country.
Intimidation was Donald Trump’s signature tactic, from his tweets to use of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox cable channel to batter his opponents.
The press pen at Trump rallies was not a comfortable place to be.
Nor was the U.S. Capitol on January 6th.
I deeply regret that no Seattle technology zillionaire came forward to buy my former employer, the Seattle Post Intelligencer, during its final months of print production in 2009, when Hearst was trying to sell it.
Newspapers were losing money. Classified ads had practically disappeared. We had shed staff and painfully, e.g. the Washington, D.C. bureau.
The statehouse press corps was shrinking.
Yet, in those early months of 2009, “old time” managing editor David McCumber was at the helm of the P‑I, while executive editor David Boardman ran the Times newsroom. Investigations were in the blood of both men. Both knew to drive and inspire. We had the best sort of media competition.
It was not to be. I watched colleagues clean out their desks, and a vibrant newsroom vanish. We went online, where staff cuts, technical considerations and Seattle-blind San Francisco-based managers frustrated a questing young staff.
The Marty Barons of this world are essential to an informed citizenry. As the Post put it in a motto adopted under Baron, Democracy dies in darkness.
I expect Marty Baron will stay serious and stay active.