Washington Post’s Marty Baron On Tough, Ethical Journalism In Today’s Political Climate
recognized this week by the Denver Press Club for his long history as an ethical journalist who holds the powerful accountable. He speaks with Colorado Matters about working in an era of “fake news” and tough economics in publishing, and whether reporting these important stories become more difficult and more complicated in today's political landscape.
"Journalists need a soul and a spine," Baron said last week, congratulating his newsroom after winning two Pulitzer prizes, one for an investigation into Alabama U.S. Senate Candidate Roy Moore, the other for reporting on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. He also won a Pulitzer for leading the Boston Globe in its reporting on the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal.
Edited highlights are below, followed by a full transcript.
On How The Washington Post Covers The White House:
"We try not to be distracted or deterred by what the Administration does, what the president does or says about us. I think that that is one of his objectives, is to try to intimidate us. He certainly is trying to undermine confidence in our reporting. But we know what our mission is. And our mission is to try to find the truth, to get at the truth. And that's what we try to do every day."
On Recent Layoffs At The Denver Post:
"Quite honestly, having 60 people in a newsroom is just insufficient to cover a metropolitan area of that size. It's just impossible. That's a very difficult situation, and I think that were that to occur, and it appears that it is going to occur, civic life in the Denver area is going to suffer as it would in any other major metropolitan area. "
One Whether Readers Should Pay For The News:
"The reality is that if news organizations like ours or like the Denver Post or other newspapers around the country are going to survive, people are going to have to pay for that coverage. Otherwise, there just won't be any coverage."
Read The Full Transcript:
Ryan Warner: This is Colorado Matters, from CPR News, I'm Ryan Warner. Journalists need a soul, and a spine. The executive editor of the Washington Post said that last week, after his newsroom won two Pulitzer Prizes. Marty Baron will be recognized this week by the Denver Press Club for a long legacy as an ethical journalist who holds the powerful to account. We're talking to him now at a particularly difficult time for trust and the economics of this field. Marty, welcome to the program.
Marty Baron: Thank you for having me.
RW: And first off, congratulations on the two Washington Post Pulitzer Prize wins for the investigation into Alabama U.S. Senate candidate, Roy Moore. And for your paper's reporting on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. I'll say this isn't your first rodeo. You won a Pulitzer for leading the Boston Globe in its reporting on the Catholic sex abuse scandal. People who have seen the movie, "Spotlight," might remember that.
MB: Right. Well, thank you. They're all appreciated.
RW: I want to know. Has reporting these kinds of important stories become more difficult, more complicated, in the political landscape, in the economic landscape, for newspapers?
MB: Well, I think there's no question that we live in a more polarized society than we have in the past. Obviously, we've had disagreements, that's the nature of a democracy. But now we see greater polarization, not only in public debate but also in the consumption of information, the consumption of news. So, that certainly is having an effect on us in terms of the kind of pressure we come under, perhaps the criticism that we receive, the sort of obstacles that people throw in our way when we're trying to do our reporting.
RW: Obstacles? Give me an example.
MB: Oh, well. Legal threats would be one, from the Administration. Obviously, the threat of leak investigations with potential serious penalties. There are sort of coordinated activities with media allies, for example, of the Administration to try to discredit the reporting. Things of that sort. There are a whole range of efforts out there.
RW: I have in my mind the footage that you had on the Washington Post website of a reporter who was essentially interviewing someone who was claiming to have dirt on Roy Moore, there in Alabama, but who was, it turned out, a plant that was there to try to discredit the Washington Post. Do you have your antennae up for that now, more than ever?
MB: I think we do, for sure. In that instance, there was an effort by an organization called Project Veritas, which essentially has as its mission to try to discredit mainstream media. And they put forward a woman who approached us and claimed to have borne the child of the Republican senate candidate, Roy Moore, and evidently wanted us to buy into that story. But we did a very thorough vetting and concluded quite quickly, actually, that the story didn't hold up and then we did our own investigation into what this particular woman was up to. But these days, we're always aware that people are trying to engage in activities to discredit our reporting, when our reporting actually is truthful.
RW: All right. I want to hearken back to your time at the Boston Globe, and play a scene from "Spotlight," where Liev Schreiber, as you, is pressing your staff at the Globe to dig further into abuse allegations.
Voice of Liev Schreiber: Well, but apparently this priest molested kids in six different parishes over the last 30 years, and the attorney for the victims, Mr.-
Voice of Liev Schreiber: Thanks. I mean, Mr. Garabedian, says Cardinal Law found out about it 15 years ago, and did nothing.
Male: Yeah, I think that attorney is a bit of a crank. And the Church dismissed the claim.
Female: He said, she said.
Voice of Liev Schreiber: Whether Mr. Garabedian is a crank or not, he says he has documents that prove the Cardinal knew.
Male: As I understand it, those documents are under seal.
Voice of Liev Schreiber: Okay, but the fact remains, a Boston priest abused 80 kids. We have a lawyer who says he can prove Law knew about it, and we've written all of two stories in the last six months. This strikes me as an essential story to a local paper. I think, at the very least, we have to go through those documents.
Male: How would you like to do that?
RW: It's funny, hearing him and then hearing you. He does a good you, doesn't he, Marty Baron?
MB: It sounds like we have the same voice.
RW: You know, that movie really celebrates the grueling work of journalism, and yet it is a tough time for trust in the news. You have the president, who has singled out the Washington Post, where you are now, on numerous occasions for being "fake." And he disparages you along with Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, who owns the Post. How has that changed the work of an editor?
MB: We try not to be distracted or deterred by what the Administration does, what the president does or says about us. I think that that is one of his objectives, is to try to intimidate us. He certainly is trying to undermine confidence in our reporting. But we know what our mission is. And our mission is to try to find the truth, to get at the truth. And that's what we try to do every day. This organization has a long history and our reporting on so many important issues over the course of history has been validated.
And it's been validated quite regularly in the coverage of this administration as well. So many times, the White House, including the president himself, has said that reporting wasn't true. Then within a matter of days, it's proven to be true. One thing just by way of example recently, is that we reported that the president had made the decision to fire his National Security Advisor. The president said that that wasn't true, and then within a day or two, he fired his National Security Advisor. The same holds true for other news organizations. So the New York Times for example, had said that he was going to, looking to shake up his legal team, that he was looking to take on additional lawyers. He said that was fake news. And then within a day or two, he was making efforts to bring in new lawyers. So this has happened time and time again. And our reporting has been validated by subsequent events, and very often by what the president himself says, within a day or two.
RW: What did you mean when you said the soul and spine of a journalist, and how that's necessary today?
MB: Sure. Well, the soul is what I was saying before and that is, this mission of getting at the truth. When we walk into our newsroom here at the Washington Post every day, we're faced with the principles of the Washington Post that were set down in the mid-1930s. And the first of those principles is to try to ascertain the truth, as nearly as the truth may be ascertained. Now, that recognizes that the truth can be illusive, and so there's a process of striving there. But it also recognizes that there is such a thing as truth, and it's not just a matter of your personal opinion. So the soul is consistently trying to get at the truth.
The spine is that there are a lot of people who try to prevent us from achieving that objective, including these days, the administration. And so there are constant efforts to intimidate us, to distract us, to deter us, and it's important that we have a strong spine, and that we stick to our mission, and that we not be sent off course.
RW: In that reporting though, it's not uncommon for you to refer to unnamed officials or sources who don't want to be identified. I imagine this is a question you get a lot from readers, but why does the Post do that kind of sourcing?
MB: Well, because very often that's the only way to get at the truth. You can imagine that if somebody were to have his or her name used, that person would be fired immediately. And the reality is that people who have access to information within our government, are not willing to lose their jobs, but they do want the truth to get out. And so, they find us to be a proper venue for doing that. And we recognize that people who come forward may have any number of agendas, and it's important for us to determine what those agendas might be. We don't just talk to one person. You'll see that in many of our stories we've talked to nine people, we've talked to 12 people, we've talked to 21 people.
There was one instance where we were reporting on the President's National Security Advisor, very early in the administration, General Flynn. And we had reported that he had spoken to Russians, contradicting what he had said before, that he had said he had not spoken to the Russians about relaxing sanctions. And the president gave a speech thereafter, in which he said that we had no sources for that story, that we said that we had nine sources. The president said we had no sources, and then subsequent to that, the two things happened. First, immediately he called for a leak investigation. So if we had no sources, and what we reported was not true, what exact leak was he calling for, why was he requesting an investigation? I mean, there would have been no true information then. Subsequent to that, he then fired his National Security Advisor, General Flynn, on the very grounds that he had lied to the vice-president when he told the vice-president that he had had no conversations with the Russians thereby validating the original story that we reported. Now we obtained that information from anonymous sources, and the President said we had none. In fact, we did have the nine sources that we said on the original story.
RW: You're listening to Colorado Matters. I'm Ryan Warner, and my guest is Marty Baron, Executive Editor of the Washington Post. This Friday he'll accept the Denver Press Club's highest honor. Here in Colorado it could be argued that an even more pressing issue is the financial health of journalism. When the editorial board at the Denver Post recently printed a scathing take down of its corporate owner, which has forced the firing of many journalists, you tweeted that it was extraordinary and courageous to speak up. Journalists are not typically supposed to be the news, but does this feel different to you?
MB: Unfortunately, they are the news because you have a newsroom there, which is about 90 to 100 people, and it's being cut by a third in a major growing metropolitan area like Denver. Quite honestly, having 60 people in a newsroom is just insufficient to cover a metropolitan area of that size. It's just impossible. That's a very difficult situation, and I think that were that to occur, and it appears that it is going to occur, civic life in the Denver area is going to suffer as it would in any other major metropolitan area.
RW: Some people at the Denver Post and in Colorado are calling for a wealthy individual or group to step up and try to buy it. It makes me think, of course, of Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post. How has that changed things? First of all, do you have many conversations with him? I wonder if he ever talks to you about revenue.
MB: Our senior management here has a conversation with Jeff once every two weeks. We talk about tactics and strategies, a whole range of subjects in that realm. We never talk about our stories that we're working on. He's never assigned a story, never suppressed a story. He's never even critiqued a story. We operate entirely with independence. Typically, in our conversations with him we don't talk about revenue. We talk about how we might get more subscribers, how we might get more readers, pricing structure, new technology, all of that. I cannot even think of a conversation that we've had where we've talked about overall revenue. We might talk about revenue that we're getting from subscriptions or something like that as a way of measuring our success on that front, and we've had a lot, but we don't talk about the overall financial performance of the company.
RW: Are you a firm believer that people have to pay to read the news?
MB: I am a firm believer that it's necessary, that if people don't pay for quality news the very fact is they're not going to get quality news. It's simply impossible to sustain news organizations on advertising alone especially in an environment where we have so much competition particularly from major tech firms like Google, like Apple, like Facebook. People are going to have to pay, and I think they should pay. Traditionally, they have paid. If you bought a newspaper in the old days, and even in the current days, you actually paid for that newspaper. Now there were always people who were standing outside the box, outside the newspaper box looking in and reading the headlines on the front page, and they wouldn't put a quarter in the box. We have many millions of people like that these days, and they expect to actually get the news for free. They want to glance at a couple of stories and look at a few paragraphs. The reality is that if news organizations like ours or like the Denver Post or other newspapers around the country are going to survive, people are going to have to pay for that coverage. Otherwise, there just won't be any coverage.
RW: That is Pulitzer Prize winner Marty Baron, Executive Editor of the Washington Post. He plans to be in Colorado later this week to accept the highest award from the Denver Press Club. This is Colorado Matters from CPR News.