Martin Baron interview: ‘Polarisation is a business model’

2024-05-02.The Executive Editor of The Washington Post during Donald Trump’s presidency will be one of the leading figures at the World News Media Congress in Copenhagen later this month. He spoke about journalism, nostalgia and provocation in an interview with Fernando Belzunce, Editor in Chief of Spain’s Group Vocento, and a board member of the World Editors Forum.

Martin Baron, photographed in New York by Caroline Conejero

by WAN-IFRA External Contributor | May 2, 2024

By Fernando Belzunce

On the wall of Martin Baron’s apartment in New York there is a painting by Juan Genovés, in which dozens of people seem to be trapped between two great walls. “It’s his, ‘Yes, they’re migrants.’ Some are trying to jump over the walls, overcome the obstacles. I like the painting and the idea behind it,” he remarks, visibly relaxed on the video conference screen. His Spanish has improved markedly, he says, thanks to an Asturian teacher. And no doubt thanks also to his legendary determination, capable of overcoming the Genovés walls and many others that he describes in his recent book, “Collision of Power.”

The renowned American journalist, known even outside the profession for the Oscar-winning film “Spotlight,” recounts in 545 pages full of magnanimity his eight years at the helm of The Washington Post. A crucial period in which, among other matters of interest, Donald Trump entered and left the White House, putting an entire society, its political system and its media to the test.

Baron will be one of the leading figures at WAN-IFRA’s World News Media Congress to be held from 27-29 May in Copenhagen.

Fernando Belzunce: Would a Trump victory be a defeat for journalism? 

Marty Baron: I don’t think so. We can’t blame the press for voters’ thoughts. It’s up to them to decide who should be president, and they’re thinking about various things: the inflation rate, their own economic interests, the situation on the southern border, crime…. Voters often have bad information and sometimes even misinformation. 

How can it be that this type of information wins out over what is published by the serious press? 

The internet has allowed the creation of a lot of media. There are almost no obstacles. Several new media spread false information because polarisation is a business model. One way to reach the public, to hook more readers, is to provoke fury, anger and create tensions among the audience. There’s an opportunity in spreading disinformation or conspiracy theories…. We are living in a completely different era than the one we knew 20 years ago. The situation has changed completely. 

Are you concerned about the fact that a single person can generate such distrust towards journalism? 

Trump said the press was the enemy of the people. Trust in the press was already down before his arrival, but he has aggravated the situation. For him it’s a political opportunity. He needs an enemy and he can always blame the press. He also has media allies, like Fox News and others, who constantly broadcast falsehoods and have helped undermine this credibility. It’s a problem for the traditional media because we depend entirely on the public’s trust. It is the bedrock of our profession. 

You say that with Trump, subscriptions have increased. Would his return be good for business?

The situation has changed a lot. It is true that during the presidential campaign and during his administration Trump generated a lot of interest. There were not enough institutions to scrutinise him and readers gave us a lot of support. But after his electoral defeat, interest in politics waned. Many readers are now fed up with reading news about Trump. It makes them anxious. Let’s see what happens. 

Will the slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness” ever be removed from the Post masthead?

After Trump’s election defeat, some readers recommended that we remove it because, in their opinion, it was no longer needed. But it is forever. He was a candidate when we started the process of creating the slogan. It is in keeping with the role that a media outlet like The Washington Post should play in the nation’s capital. It is a tradition of this newspaper to hold power to account, to scrutinise the powerful, as it did, for example, during the Richard Nixon administration. No matter who is in the White House. 

One of the most complicated decisions of your career was to publish the classified information related to terrorism leaked by Edward Snowden. What were your reflections? 

These were classified documents at the highest level of national security. They described a government system of surveillance, almost spying, on the electronic conversations of thousands of people. Many were not involved in terrorism, but they were in contact with people suspected of having links. They were very weak connections and the system was incorporating more and more surveillance.

I was concerned about the risk to national security, but I thought, and so did our team, that it was in the public interest. What would happen if we allowed that system to be hidden forever? That system would grow and the government would have the ability to get a lot of information about much of the U.S. population. That’s why we made the decision to release a good part of the documents, but not all of them. The revelation came as a great surprise to the technology companies, to the public and to many politicians, who would not have allowed such an aggressive system. As a result, the system was modified. It was a good result.

In the book, you say that Jeff Bezos, the newspaper’s owner, was a great ally and that he was instrumental in moving the Post from a local to a global brand.

He said we had several advantages. The name of the paper itself and being headquartered in the U.S. capital could help us make the leap. The newspapers I had previously run, The Boston Globe and The Miami Herald, did not have this opportunity. In addition, many citizens had never read the Post, but its tradition of prestige could attract them. Bezos spoke of the gift of the internet, where we could deliver journalism digitally without the obligation to deliver a print newspaper. When I arrived at the paper in early 2013 everyone was thinking about a decline. There were 540 people in the newsroom. In recent years it has suffered losses and the staff has been cut a little bit, yes, but there’s a budget for 940 journalists. 

Bezos also told you that the death knell for any company is to glorify the past. Could the memory of Watergate be negative? 

I don’t think so. It gave them a lot of prestige and left that legacy of accountability and scrutiny of power. It became the mission of the newspaper. He was referring more to the fact that many journalists did not want to change the way they wrote or the way they told stories. They were attached to print newspapers. There has been too much resistance to change in our field over the years, unfortunately. 

Your former colleagues at the Post say you became a great digital expert in record time. How did you acquire all that knowledge?

The explanation is that I wanted to succeed. I didn’t want to lose. I’m always thinking about competition and the survival of our medium. The world had changed and there was no future in being in mourning all the time. If we didn’t take advantage of the digital tools we had, we were going to become cannon fodder for competitors. It would be a form of unilateral disarmament. We were going to lose if we didn’t change.

Don’t you think that some newspaper companies can suffer from nostalgia?

It is one of the diseases in our profession. I understand nostalgia. I used to suffer from it, but I found that we were going to lose if we clung to nostalgia. 

What other diseases do you see?

Resistance to change and nostalgia, which I’ve already discussed, and also defeatism about our future. There are too many people who think we are going to fail, and I have never met anyone who has succeeded thinking they were going to fail. Our strategies will have to change every six years or less, and we have to be able to adapt. Just two years ago none of us were talking about generative artificial intelligence and you can see it’s going to fundamentally change our field.

You are very critical of the role that platforms such as Google or Facebook have played against journalism. Is it a battle that has already been lost?

It is important that there are new rules regarding technological platforms. They have had the advantage of making money with content without being in any way accountable for it. We traditional media cannot publish anything without accountability. We have to rethink the laws that govern the behaviour of these companies. 

Are we, as editors and an industry, doing enough to protect and defend independent journalism?

Traditional media are doing what they can to defend journalism in their countries. It is a big challenge because, unfortunately, some new media see themselves as ideological media, not independent, and one of their strategies is to demonise other media and undermine their economic model. There has been a big change. The media grouped in WAN-IFRA are independent, traditional media. But there are other media that make a mockery of the standards and norms of our profession. 

What distinguishes professional journalism and news organisations from everyday media?

Media organisations have an obligation to think more about the future. Journalists have that need. We cannot think in the short term. 

You state in your book that social networks have generated continuous problems with some journalists. How can this problem, so common to so many media organisations, be addressed?

We must have guidelines on the behaviour of our staff on social networks. If someone does not want to comply with them, they should not be our employee. They should accept them before they are hired. We editors have the right to create and preserve an identity and the reputation of our media.

The behaviour of some journalists, when they express their opinions on social networks, undermines this credibility. We should not allow such behaviour. I believe in codes of ethics and conduct.

Movements like Black Lives Matter or MeToo have also had an impact on some American newsrooms. How should diversity be addressed? 

I value diversity in the newsroom because it helps us uncover stories. It’s a great advantage to have a diverse staff. But there are limits. We can’t become activists or advocates for a movement that we have to cover. We can’t maintain our independence if we participate in the events we cover. I think there are limits. 

Your book is very different from the movie “Spotlight.” It reflects very well how tough this profession is, how much sacrifice is involved.

“Spotlight” recounted a moment of success for journalism, when The Boston Globe uncovered the sexual abuse scandal in the Church. The book also includes achievements, moments of celebration, but obviously there are very difficult moments in running a newsroom.

If you were to impart one bit of advice to a newsroom leader starting their career as an editor-in-chief, what would it be?

It’s the same advice I would give to any journalist: we have to keep learning. This is a learning profession. We have to know what is happening in our societies, in our countries, in our communities. And we have to keep learning from changes in our profession or in technology. We have to recognise that our strategies will have to change maybe every six years or less.

Do you miss journalism?

I wrote this book about my experience and it is a form of journalism. If you mean do I miss my job as an editor, the truth is that I don’t miss the obligation to work all the time. Because now you work 24 hours a day, almost every minute. I used to work all the time, I was sleep deprived and suffered from an illness that fortunately has improved. I was 66 years old, I had worked 45 years as a journalist and, in particular, the last 20 years as editor of three different newspapers. I was tired, worn out. I had thought a lot about my future, about my life. I concluded that the time had come to do something else.

A shorter version of this interview first appeared in Spanish in Vocento publications. Read

Collision of Power: Trump, Bezos, and the Washington Post by Martin Baron  is published in English by Flatiron books. 

WAN-IFRA External Contributor

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