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Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron On Retiring, Objectivity And The State Of Journalism

Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

One of the most consequential journalists of our time is calling it a career.

Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron may be best known to the public through the actor who played him in the Oscar-winning film “Spotlight” about The Boston Globe’s investigation into clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church. The Globe went on to write many more stories and win a Pulitzer Prize, one of 17 Baron has contributed to.

After a journalism career spanning 45 years, Baron says now’s the right time to retire. The Post is in a “good place,” he says, adding retirement will finally give him a much-needed break after almost five decades in the newsroom.

In a note to The Post staff, Baron listed some of the biggest stories of his career. He was top editor at the Miami Herald when the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court ruling was underway in Florida. Under his leadership, The Post revealed the National Security Agency’s sweeping surveillance program through documents leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013.

But a lesser-known story — 5-year-old Elián González’s return to Cuba in 2000 — stuck with him, Baron says. As a young boy, González was picked up at sea after his mother, who drowned attempting to flee Cuba, tried to escape the country and join relatives in Miami.

The boy’s father wanted him back, promoting an international custody battle that pulled at the heartstrings of many Cuban Americans living in Florida. Ultimately, González was returned to his father.

Baron says looking back, covering the story taught him lessons he’d carry through his career. At the time, he and others at the Miami Herald could have listened more closely to the Cuban American community as the story was unfolding.

“They felt as if this boy had somehow gotten over the equivalent of the wall in Berlin and had made it to freedom and that it made no sense and it was unjust to return him to Cuba,” he says. “Agree or disagree, it was our obligation as journalists to listen — and listen closely — to what they were saying and why they were saying that. We did that. I still think that we might have done better.”

In the coming decade, the journalism industry, specifically local newsrooms, will have to wrestle with a glut of challenges, he says. Maintaining strong local journalism is vital “if we intend to have strong communities” at both the state and local level, he says.

The most consequential hurdle journalism faces today is society’s refusal to agree on a common set of facts, he says. He argues Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous 1983 quote — “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts” — no longer exists.

“These days, people believe that they are entitled to their own facts,” Baron says. “Those so-called facts may be disconnected from reality. They may not be supported by evidence, but people continue to hold onto them because they reinforce their preexisting points of view.”

A society that denies facts presents obstacles to both the press — “an imperfect arbiter of fact” — and American democracy itself, he argues.

“How do we have a functioning democracy if we cannot agree on a common set of facts? And how do we have journalism if people will not accept our role as an arbiter of facts?” he says. “… That is a huge challenge for journalism today and a huge challenge for democracy.”

Interview Highlights

On the tense relationship between the press and politicians

“There’s always going to be tension between politicians and the media. I think certainly during the Trump administration, it was at a very low point. I hope we don’t go lower than that. Look, he described us as enemies of the people, as traitors, as garbage scum. The administration, in many instances, treated us that way. And then its followers, whether they were politicians or ordinary citizens, started to treat the press that way. I hope that we’re beyond that. I think that there will always be tensions between the press and government officials, but it needs to be respectful. And I think we’re going to get back to that. There will be tensions with the Biden administration. There’s no question about that.

“There’s an assumption with people who lean to the right ideologically that we had a warm, cozy relationship with the Obama administration at The Washington Post — we did not. We were consistently denied interviews with President Obama in the final two years of his presidency, despite continually asking for one. And they said no repeatedly because they didn’t see us as a place where they would go unchallenged. And that’s OK, because they should be challenged regardless of whether they are in the Democratic Party or the Republican Party, regardless of who they are.”

On enforcing journalistic notions of objectivity on social media platforms

“Well, first of all, I don’t tweet anymore because I’ve grown to dislike Twitter as a forum for a sophisticated discussion of the issues of the day. But we allow people to participate in social media. Of course, that’s fine. They can have a social media presence, but we try to take great care with what we publish. And we have layers of editors who review what we intend to publish to ensure that they meet the standards and principles and core values of The Post. We want to hear the voices of people who come from different life experiences, people of different identities, people who see the world differently. We want them to share those perspectives internally. We want to see it manifested in the journalism that we practice. But we need to make sure that when people are on social media that they are meeting the standards that we try to enforce in our journalism and in other forums as well.”

On defining objectivity in journalism

“We need to understand what objectivity is and what the origin of that term was. The origin really dates back 100 years to Walter Lippmann when he wrote about it. And I think people have routinely mischaracterized what objectivity is. It’s not neutrality. It’s not both sides-ism. It’s not so-called balance. It is that a recognition, in fact, that all of us have preconceptions and that when we go about our reporting that we need to approach stories in an open-minded, fair, honest way and do our reporting and do it really thoroughly and do our research and the most rigorous possible way. And when we’ve done that, the notion of objectivity is that we will then report what we find in a direct, forthright, unflinching way.

“The idea of objectivity was to counter the propaganda of the era during the Woodrow Wilson administration. So I think it’s a good concept, and I don’t think the alternatives are terribly good. And the alternative is that in a newsroom that every individual should be able to say whatever he or she wants, however he or she wants to. And I don’t think that really works terribly well. And it has the effect of undermining the reputation of the institution. And I think it’s important to point out that we are an institution. We are not just a collection of individuals. We as an institution stand for the practice of journalism in a certain way. In fact, our principles were set down in 1935. They are on the wall as you walk into our newsroom. They’ve served us well all these years, and I think they continue to serve us well.”

Jill Ryan produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RaySerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.