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Thursday, January 28th, 2021

WaPo’s Marty Baron retires: An appreciation for one who confronted power with truth

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.

Marty Baron

Retir­ing Wash­ing­ton Post exec­u­tive edi­tor Mar­ty Baron (Pho­to: Álvaro Gar­cía Fuentes)

“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.

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One Comment

  1. I won­der some­times how Helen Thomas would have han­dled the Trump years.

    # by Mike Barer :: January 31st, 2021 at 7:12 PM
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