News at Mason
Marty Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, on journalism's role in holding government accountable
May 16, 2017 / by John Hollis
Washington Post Executive Editor Martin “Marty” Baron will be George Mason University’s Commencement speaker on May 20. Known for his tireless efforts at uncovering truth and his unwavering commitment to integrity, Baron has guided newsrooms under his leadership to 12 Pulitzer Prizes, including five since assuming his current position at The Washington Post in January 2013.
Before arriving at The Post, Baron led The Boston Globe to six Pulitzers, including the investigation that served as the inspiration for the Academy Award-winning movie “Spotlight.” He’s held top editing positions at The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and the Miami Herald.
He recently sat down to discuss the current state of journalism and the core values that he insists have remained constant in a fast-changing industry.
Q. What was the last book you read and what current journalists do you like to read and admire?
A. I love to read all of our staff writers every day and I read pretty widely, so it’s no one person. The most recent book I read was “The Papers & The Papers,” a legal and political history of the Pentagon Papers written by Sanford Ungar. What it says about the fortitude of the press in publishing what the government seeks to suppress is highly relevant today. The determination of The New York Times, Washington Post and others to publish a classified and revelatory history of the Vietnam War remains an inspiration.
Q. Can you talk about the parallels between universities and newspapers/journalism, how they are both in the pursuit of truth?
A. Every day when I walk into our office, we have our principles out front here. The first one is to try to obtain the truth, or at least the truth that can be ascertained. The truth can be elusive, but it’s a process of striving. We have to constantly be in pursuit of the truth. And I think that’s true for universities as well. People at universities are deeply engaged in an effort to understand the world as best as you can understand it. So we’re both engaged in similar pursuits.
Q. Has anything prepared you for a time when the president of the United States was personally attacking the credibility of journalists, at times even calling them out by name?
A. I was in high school at the time and my first year in college was the time of Watergate. That was a period when the president was attacking the press all the time. His first vice president, Spiro Agnew, was the attack dog for the administration. He uttered the words “the nattering nabobs of negativity” in describing the press. I think those of us in the press have always encountered criticism from the administration—that’s nothing new. I think what’s different this time is this particular president, during his campaign, made the press the centerpiece of his strategy and now, during his administration, he’s put attacks on the press at the heart of his governing. The effect here is to try to position us as something other than an independent arbiter of what the administration is doing … so that anytime we write or broadcast about the administration, that it is perceived as merely a part of argument rather than independent fact checking.
Q. Is it frustrating?
A. It’s not the environment that I would prefer, but I wouldn’t say that it’s frustrating. In some ways, it’s motivating because it reminds us why we do our jobs, why a free press is important to this country, why we have a First Amendment in the first place: So that people—including the press—can hold their government to account. It’s important to keep in mind that it doesn’t just provide freedoms for the press; it provides overall protections for free speech, for the right to petition your government, for the right to peacefully assemble, all of that. And the purpose of that amendment is to hold government accountable. It’s a continual process, so we in the press have to keep doing our jobs. And I think the public also has an obligation to continue to monitor their government. So it’s not always pleasant. I can tell you this, it’s not going to dissuade us from doing our jobs.
Q. The Post is owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder of one of the most successful digital companies in the world in Amazon. What has been the technological impact on your newsroom, and how do you see technology shaping journalism in the future?
A. It’s meant a lot to our newsroom. Jeff immediately changed the strategy of The Washington Post from a news organization primarily focused on this region—D.C., Maryland and Virginia, to becoming a national and even international news organization. He brought—and I think this is often ignored—he brought intellectual capital. He brought a receptivity to others’ ideas as well and helped us think through ‘What do we need to do in the internet era when we’re running a news organization?’ That’s been very helpful. He also brought financial capital … The two big areas of his investment have been the newsroom—in terms of resources for us—and, separately, for technology. We cannot be the vanguard of technology, but we can no longer be laggard in the area of technology and fall behind. It’s also important for us to have control of our own technology so that we can adapt very quickly.
Q. You’ve received a lot of awards and have been hailed by some as the best editor in journalism, and perhaps the best of all time. What’s been the secret to your success?
A. I’ve worked with a lot of great editors … so that’s not a title I embrace. I think one thing I try to do is recognize that I don’t have all the answers, but that I work with a lot of people who do have the answers or who can get them. So it’s really important for someone in my position to listen to my colleagues, to hear what they have to say, to welcome their best ideas, do what I can to create an environment to encourage that good work, and provide an atmosphere and direction if possible. That’s what I try to do. I try to be an enabler of other people, not autocratic.
Q. What would you say is the best advice that somebody has ever given you, either professionally or personally?
A. Early on in my career as a journalist, I was told that it’s possible to be beaten on a story, and that will happen from time to time. Sometimes other people are going to have their victories. You need to figure out how we can recover. Just keep coming back and try to do it better next time. As far as other advice, I think I do get some wisdom from a book I read early on when I was becoming an editor for the first time back in the early 1980s: It’s important to be viewed as someone who treats other people fairly, who recognizes their successes and doesn’t just look for opportunities to criticize, and who always tries to live up to the highest standards of the profession.
Q. What do you like best about talking to college students?
A. [Laughing] I have to say it’s hard talking to college students because there are so many different kinds of students studying different kinds of fields. I think what I appreciate about it is that, for me, it’s a privilege, an opportunity and a responsibility because of my career. I view it as an opportunity to talk about the values that are important, talk about this profession that is critical to a civil society, to try to communicate some things about our profession that I think are misunderstood. For me, it’s a great opportunity to talk to the people who are going to shape our country—our world—for decades to come.
Q. What advice would you give young people entering the journalism field?
A. I think that the fundamentals of the profession haven’t changed. You need to be fair, honest, honorable, accurate and committed to telling the truth. It’s important that people recognize that once the communication changes, the storytelling will have to change, too. We should recognize that (the internet) is a new medium that requires its own form of communication and, in fact, it’s more than one medium. It represents multiple, different mediums. We have to recognize that there are just different ways of telling stories on these different platforms. So people who are getting into the profession have to be very much committed to the core values that have always been with us in this profession, but they need to be incredibly open to new ways of telling stories.