The Last of the Newspapermen

Collision of Power:
Trump, Bezos, and the Washington Post
by Martin Baron
Flatiron Books, 548 pp.

Fee-fi-fo-fum. Now that Donald Trump is once again pounding on the doors of democracy, what can we expect of the responsible US news media this time around?

Last time, they duly investigated and reported the facts, and the facts all added up to the ironclad conclusion that in no sane world was Trump fit for office. Weirdly, this somehow helped make him president. Chalk up another one for American exceptionalism.

In a traditional dictatorship, a manifestly unhinged autocrat can only hold onto power with the full, frightened control of the media bending perception in his favour. In the US, an imperfect democracy, a manifestly unhinged autocrat can come to power despite an establishment press dead set against him.

As the senior news executive at the Washington Post, Martin Baron was a key member of that establishment press. His newsroom was a thorn in Trump’s ego. Collision of Power is his memoir of what that was like.

The book is about three things, all hurtling around one another. The Trump presidency. The ownership of the Washington Post by Jeff Bezos, one of the richest people who has ever lived. And the management of a national newsroom in the dusk of the news industry. It’s a page turner, but I’m not sure it tells us enough about any one of the three.

Among the last of what used to be known as newspapermen, Baron was the top editor at the Miami Herald then top editor at the Boston Globe (Liev Schreiber played him in the movie Spotlight) before being recruited in 2013 to run the Washington Post newsroom by the Graham family, for whom the newspaper was a sacred trust, a pillar of the free press. In perilous times for news journalism, the Post could count on the deep pockets of its wealthy owners.

Except the wealth of the Graham family came from owning newspapers, and there was no more wealth to be derived from that. If the Washington Post were to persist as a pillar of the free press, it would need a proprietor whose wealth did not depend on owning it. Within months of Baron joining the paper, the Graham family sold it to Jeff Bezos for $250 million, which doesn’t sound like a lot of money to acquire a pillar of the free press in the capital of the free world.

Why did Bezos buy it? He already had a spaceship company. Why bother with this fixer-upper media property from yesteryear?

Baron wants us to know that Bezos did not buy the Post to use it for political influence, because Baron never felt any editorial interference. He may have chafed at the performance metrics the technocratic new owner wanted to impose, but he insists that Bezos bought the Post because he values its necessity and wants to put it on sound footing as a business.

Both Baron and Bezos believe in an independent press that can bear honest witness, command attention, serve the public interest, and turn a profit — four different things all at the same time. They both believe the world needs reality anchors like the Washington Post. Bezos didn’t so much buy a media property as invest in a genre.

Which is another way of saying that Bezos didn’t interfere editorially because he didn’t have to. The Post may insist it has no bias or partisan agenda, but what matters is how it is perceived, and everyone sees it as a liberal organ, just as everyone sees the Wall Street Journal as a conservative organ.

The Bezos business plan for the Post was to expand, in a way that the Philadelphia Inquirer or the Baltimore Sun could not. The paper had a reputation as a national and even international news source, but not the revenue to match. In the future, there might only be a few pillars of the news industry left, but those that remained could be richly profitable and all the more influential. Bezos was determined that the Post would be one of them.

Then, in 2017, Trump became President. He had campaigned against the establishment media as enemies of the people. Now he governed against them in unfiltered tweets from the Oval Office. He was especially livid with the paper across town owned by the bald guy who was way, way richer and showed no obeisance. Every story the Post published that made Trump look bad made him angrier. Bezos, he fumed, was doing this on purpose.

The more Trump raged against the Washington Post, the more its digital subscriptions shot through the roof. Selling itself as a go-to source on once-in-a-lifetime Washington politics, the Post offered dirt cheap subscription promos. At one point, it was adding 5,000 new subscribers a day. I was one of them. Later, around the time Trump ceased to be president, the price jumped and I let my subscription lapse. I wasn’t the only one.

Bezos has owned the Post for more than a decade now. Some years it has made money, some years it hasn’t. Last year he supposedly lost $100 million on the property because of people like me, who won’t pay the freight. I have no idea whether this means there’s a shortfall of $100 million between what the Post spent and what it brought in, or whether it’s a negative valuation of how the company’s stock performed over the year. Either way, it’s a rounding error to the Bezillionaire.

Does all this make Bezos the proprietor of the Post or its benefactor? Is this a rich man subsidizing a worthy cause, the way the monied class keeps symphony orchestras alive, or a rich man taking over a property that needs money to make money, like an NHL franchise?

Some things matter even when they are not profitable, and we support them for that very reason. I imagine that’s exactly what Trump believes about his money-losing media platform Truth Social.

As the Post came under constant barrage from Trump and a riled-up MAGA movement, Bezos kept his cool. Same for Baron’s newsroom. “We’re not at war with the administration,” Baron famously told a media conference in 2017. “We’re at work. We’re doing our jobs.”

An excellent line. It pairs well with “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” the slogan the Post adopted also in 2017, and which at the time other news organizations didn’t much like. They saw it as mawkish, histrionic, a pillar of the press losing its cool. It made them nervous.

I naively assumed “Democracy Dies in Darkness” was a proud upswell of sentiment from the newsroom. Nope. It was a marketing effort. Baron reveals they workshopped all sorts of ideas. This is what they decided on. Part threat, part lament, part plea.

By Canadian standards, the Washington Post newsroom is impossibly big, on the order of 1,000 people. In addition to its cadres of reporters covering Congress, the Executive Branch, the Supreme Court, the Pentagon, the Treasury, and every other important federal department, it has an entire unit whose beat is the clandestine intelligence services. In 2013, this was the team that, along with the Guardian, published Edward Snowden’s explosive data breach revealing the extent of US state surveillance of its own people, angering a government that did not want this known.

That’s what makes the Washington Post a pillar of the free press. The state wants to keep all manner of things secret. The whole point of the Post is to make all manner of things public. Bezos took ownership of the paper three months after it had published the Snowden leak. He knew what he was buying into.

One of the first things Baron tells us about himself, rather than the machinations to which he was witness, is that he deliberately did not read any biographies of Bezos before he met the man, so as to keep his mind clear of other people’s perceptions. This, if I may say, is an utterly bonkers thing for a journalist to be proud of. From that page on, I cocked an eyebrow at Baron’s telling of things.

There was the matter of the Christopher Steele dossier. At the 2016 Democratic convention, Post political reporters got wind of, and very excited about, a supposedly credible report circulating behind the curtains that said Trump was deeply compromised by the Russians. The politics desk asked the security intelligence team to look into this. The security intelligence reporters snorted in derision. Look into what? Rumours? In the spy game? Burn up favours from their sources trying to confirm or deny the contents of a dossier that was almost certainly nine parts confabulation to a kernel of truth?

The tussling and friction between the two reporting teams went on for months — months — as the Post investigated whether the Russians had the goods on Trump. Baron had no clue about any of this. “Stunningly, no one bothered to tell me about it,” he says. “Sometimes the top editor is the last to know.”

Well, the top editor shouldn’t be the last to know. This is like a high school principal being entirely in the dark that the shop class has been working on an atomic bomb.

For a guy who ran the place, Baron says very little about how he guided the coverage. He tells us how he persuaded the people upstairs to hire more tech reporters but couldn’t convince them it was just as important to hire editors. That sort of thing shapes the coverage, sure. But it reveals nothing about his role in the hail of decisions that have to be made every hour of the day in running a newspaper the size and importance of the Washington Post.

The book is supposed to show us what makes the Post the newspaper it is. But Baron barely mentions it’s also a metropolitan paper whose footprint extends far beyond Capitol Hill and Pennsylvania Ave. Of those 1,000 journalists in its newsroom, how many cover the mayor’s office and city council, the cops, the courts, the schools, local business, transit, the arts, real estate, local sports?

Because he tells us next to nothing about that aspect of the property, Baron can’t explain the business strategy. All those subscribers the paper has racked up from across the nation and around the world — are they supposed to bankroll the local coverage they don’t read? If not, why does the part of the Washington Post that covers the US government and brings in the subscription revenue need the part that covers all the other stuff? What do they get out of being yoked together?

The idea, I guess, is to sell the Post as a one-stop destination for smart people looking to keep up with current affairs. If you like how the Post covers politics — if you find it sharp, informative, engaging — then you’ll like how it covers science, business, and sports. Come for the Trump coverage, stay for the book review section.

The paper now has around 2.5 million digital subscribers. At $60 each it adds up to annual revenue of $150 million. Is that enough? The number of subscribers doesn’t look to be doubling or trebling any time soon. And no matter how many subscribers from afar might be drawn to the paper’s movie criticism or its health section, they are not interested in the municipal affairs of Washington, D.C. Even at one of the most robust metropolitan newspapers in North America, local coverage is an orphan.

In lieu of explaining the character of the paper, Baron pretends it doesn’t have one. The point he really wants to make is that the Post’s news coverage is the result of a professional discipline that is politically blind. It doesn’t matter who’s in the White House, the newsroom will follow the same rules of reporting, the same standards of editorial judgment. It’s like an algorithm that way. However imperfect, the methods yield a chronicle of reality everyone can work from.

If only. MAGA populism has no interest in any so-called neutral version of reality, and certainly not one doled out by the fake news Washington Post. Trumpism starts from the proposition that there is no common ground left in America. That’s one of the things that makes it extremist.

Meanwhile, a powerful complaint about the portrait of reality the WaPo offers up, day after day, came from within its own newsroom. It had been brewing for years, but it spiked just toward the end of Baron’s tenure in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The complaint was that the paper’s coverage wasn’t neutral at all, because it consistently dismissed, underplayed, or misconstrued the experience of Black Americans. In that regard, the reporting wasn’t accurate, or even impartial. This pillar of the free press was part of the problem.

Baron was stung by the accusation. He had always tried to be an ally in the fight against racial injustice, and he most certainly was. To be accused of racism, however obliquely, right at the end of his career by members of the newsroom he was doing all he could to promote and protect — how could anyone not feel hurt? To his credit, he doesn’t flinch from recounting the unrest in the newsroom, but neither does he reflect on the implications.

What does it mean for a media brand that sells itself as a deeply reliable news source to have its editorial priorities so publicly contested by its own staff? Is news coverage just the thinly disguised expression of political values? Which is what the Trumpists have been arguing all along.

One last thing: Of all the political players in Washington, D.C., from the mayor to the President, who have been caught up and undone by press attention from the Washington Post over the years — how many of them felt the coverage was unfair? All of them?

It can be a hell of a thing to be on the receiving end of aggressive media attention. It buffets lives and can ruin careers, sometimes deservedly and sometimes not. Maybe it’s fitting for the last of the newspapermen to get the smallest taste of what it’s like to have one’s reputation called into question by a pillar of the press. Karmic, if nothing else.


The Hill Times, March 11, 2024