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Saturday, November 11th, 2023

Book Review: Collision of Power examines the Bezos/Trump years at The Washington Post

The first ten amend­ments to the Unit­ed States Con­sti­tu­tion were added because of wide­spread con­cern that the coun­try’s plan of gov­ern­ment as rat­i­fied in 1787, lacked safe­guards to pro­tect against abuse of gov­ern­ment power.

The first of these amend­ments, adopt­ed in 1789, added five basic “free­doms” deemed essen­tial to the preser­va­tion of indi­vid­ual rights.

One of these was free­dom of “the press.”

For Mar­tin “Mar­ty” Baron, author of Col­li­sion of Pow­er, for­mer edi­tor of the Wash­ing­ton Post and before that The Boston Globe, it is essen­tial that “the press” act as a major bul­wark against gov­ern­ment-facil­i­tat­ed tyranny.

With­out inde­pen­dent news­pa­pers the gov­ern­ment could quick­ly dis­solve the rights guar­an­teed to all Amer­i­cans by the Bill of Rights.

Baron trusts that a well-informed pub­lic, pre­sent­ed with objec­tive, fair, hon­est, and bal­anced inves­tiga­tive report­ing is essen­tial (and, per­haps, suf­fi­cient) to defend democ­ra­cy against tyranny.

Trust­ing a well-informed pub­lic to make its own deci­sions is the newspaper’s way of pre­serv­ing per­son­al rights. If the pub­lic has the infor­ma­tion it needs, Baron writes, then its deci­sions (what­ev­er they may be) are democratic.

Pro­vid­ing bal­anced and fair infor­ma­tion to the pub­lic is, as Baron explains, no sim­ple task. The Post, for instance, was an inde­pen­dent news­pa­per that was simul­ta­ne­ous­ly a busi­ness enter­prise of con­sid­er­able size, owned by Jeff Bezos of Ama­zon. As such, it must pay its bills and show a prof­it to con­tin­ue to exist.

Per­haps the most imme­di­ate chal­lenge under Baron’s tenure was how to increase a read­er­ship which had been in seri­ous decline (neces­si­tat­ing the sale of the paper to a wealthy buy­er like Bezos).

To do this required hir­ing inves­tiga­tive reporters and edi­tors who could then write sto­ries that would gen­er­ate increased read­er interest.

Collision of Power cover

Col­li­sion of Pow­er: Trump, Bezos, and The Wash­ing­ton Post by Mar­tin Baron (Hard­cov­er, Flat­iron Books)

It also required a tech­no­log­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion in the prod­uct itself: from print­ed phys­i­cal news­pa­pers sold per copy, to online dig­i­tal news­pa­pers sold with sub­scrip­tions and pro­tect­ed by a paywall.

In addi­tion, tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tions dur­ing Baron’s edi­tor­ship raised new prob­lems for reporters want­i­ng to write hon­est and objec­tive accounts.

Inten­tion and time (and there­fore mon­ey) were need­ed to track down unsub­stan­ti­at­ed online leaks; whis­tle blow­er reports, stolen secret doc­u­ments, pos­si­bly false or mis­lead­ing reports from oth­er media sources, and “news” cre­at­ed by for­eign governments.

The Post’s cov­er­age of Russia’s inter­ven­tions to sup­port Don­ald Trump in the 2016 Pres­i­den­tial elec­tion illus­trate the tech­no­log­i­cal and legal dif­fi­cul­ties the Post faced as a news­pa­per wish­ing to offer its read­ers a fair and objec­tive “truth”.

Don­ald Trump him­self became a third cat­e­go­ry of chal­lenges (in addi­tion to tech­no­log­i­cal changes and busi­ness demands) that Baron and the Wash­ing­ton Post staff faced in their efforts to keep the news­pa­per read­ing pub­lic well informed. Baron writes that Pres­i­dent Trump’s use of pres­i­den­tial pow­er turned the gov­ern­ment into “a weapon of intim­i­da­tion against the free press.”

Col­li­sion of Pow­er includes numer­ous exam­ples of this, many of them now quite famil­iar. What was unfa­mil­iar and entire­ly new, accord­ing to Baron, was the “weaponiza­tion” of the gov­ern­ment under Trump to under­mine the val­ue of a “free press.”

There was, as well, anoth­er, fourth obsta­cle Baron and the Post strug­gled with in its defense of First Amend­ment rights. Baron believed firm­ly that for the pub­lic to be well informed, a news­pa­per must offer its read­ers “objec­tive,” “fair,” and “hon­est” report­ing. Sig­nif­i­cant por­tions of the book are devot­ed to this issue.

It is, I believe, a top­ic well worth fur­ther attention.

What did it mean for the Wash­ing­ton Post to be “fair” in its reporting?

Dur­ing his tenure as edi­tor Baron strong­ly opposed (often younger) reporters’ will­ing­ness to allow their own expe­ri­ences and views into their reporting.

Baron’s tra­di­tion­al approach required equal atten­tion to the major voic­es in any con­tro­ver­sy – most often defined as the two dom­i­nant sides.

One result of this tra­di­tion­al “fair” report­ing was that Pres­i­dent Trump’s views, even when deter­mined by Post fact check­ers to be false or mis­lead­ing, were giv­en equal atten­tion to those of his oppo­nents. This put the Post in the posi­tion of report­ing mis­lead­ing and false state­ments as the day’s news. If read­ers were to make their deci­sions based on the avail­able “news” as report­ed in the Post (and, of course, oth­er news­pa­pers which fol­lowed the same “fair” tra­di­tion), then the Post was under­min­ing its own role as a cre­ator of an informed public.

What would it mean for the Wash­ing­ton Post to be “objec­tive” in its reporting?

To be objec­tive assumes that there is one way of view­ing real­i­ty all hon­est and fair folks would agree is “accu­rate.” My read­ing of Col­li­sion of Pow­er sug­gests that, while it’s an implic­it belief for Mar­ty Baron, his own expe­ri­ence indi­cates objec­tiv­i­ty, as he under­stands it, is not possible.

For exam­ple, he decries his reporters demand for across the board pay increas­es – espe­cial­ly, they say, giv­en the enor­mous wealth of the Post’s own­er, Jeff Bezos, of Ama­zon. This is wrong, Baron writes. Just because the own­er is rich doesn’t make the busi­ness a char­i­ty case. Even more impor­tant­ly for Baron, pay rais­es should be based on mer­it, nev­er equal­ly for all. Baron is clear that he is right, and the staff incor­rect. Even more to the point, Edi­tor Baron, and the Post’s staff, both “know” that they are assess­ing the sit­u­a­tion “fair­ly” and “hon­est­ly.”

Sim­i­lar­ly, on anoth­er occa­sion, when the Post’s man­age­ment is con­front­ed by black reporters and oth­ers of col­or over ques­tions of race and equi­ty at the news­pa­per, Baron’s “defense” of the paper’s efforts is pub­licly derid­ed and scoffed at by reporters and oth­er staff. Again, there is no cross over between Baron’s “fair and hon­est” assess­ment, and that of oth­ers at the Wash­ing­ton Post.

These two exam­ples show why “hon­esty” and “fair­ness” are not always suf­fi­cient to enable “objec­tive” report­ing. Baron is “just,” “fair,” and “hon­est” in his appraisal of what is hap­pen­ing. But then, so are those oth­ers who con­clude that the Post is not treat­ing staff fair­ly and equally.

Integri­ty and hon­esty are cru­cial for the Post to ful­fill its role as a First Amend­ment defend­er of democ­ra­cy. Belief in one own’s objec­tiv­i­ty, how­ev­er, can lead to a self-right­eous con­clu­sion that your own vision is clear and fair—but oth­ers are not (unless they agree with the speaker).

Read Col­li­sion of Pow­er if you find your­self fas­ci­nat­ed by an insider’s account of the strug­gles, and achieve­ments, of a lead­ing U.S. news­pa­per dur­ing a time of great tech­no­log­i­cal, busi­ness, and polit­i­cal upheavals.

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