Collision of Power: Trump, Bezos, and the Washington Post
- By Martin Baron
- Flatiron Books
- 560 pp.
- Reviewed by Eugene L. Meyer
- October 16, 2023
The paper’s former top editor offers a no-nonsense appraisal of his tenure.
“We’re not at war. We’re at work.”
With these words, Martin Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post from 2013 to 2021, declared war on those reporters who would be advocates, demonstrators, commentators, remonstrators — as opposed to “just the facts” journalists.
This is the throughline in Baron’s heartfelt, often self-effacing, and occasionally defensive Collision of Power, a memoir of his eight tumultuous years at the helm of one of the nation’s top newspapers.
Baron’s background — he was born in Tampa, Florida, to Jewish parents who emigrated from Israel — contrasts sharply with those of his Post predecessors: the swashbuckling Boston brahmin Ben Bradlee, the outwardly brash Midwesterner Len Downie, and the largely forgotten Marcus Brauchli, a top Wall Street Journal editor whose tenure was brief.
Throughout Baron’s reign loomed two larger-than-life figures: the paper’s new, deep-pocketed owner, Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder who arrived shortly after Baron, and President Donald J. Trump, who railed against “fake news” and “the Amazon Post” and spurred his supporters beyond politics to violence.
How Baron, described as “taciturn and dour,” responded in such a high-pressure setting is also the story of Collision.
Baron rose to his lofty post after achieving fame as the Boston Globe editor featured in the Academy Award-winning movie “Spotlight,” which told the story of how the Globe, under Baron’s leadership, shed light on the longtime child sex abuse committed by priests and covered up by the Catholic Church. It seemed like good practice for the challenges of covering the #MeToo era, as sources came forward with similar abuse allegations against public figures, from politicians to media stars to judicial aspirants. But, as Baron tells it, not so fast. To merit publication, he insisted, the accusers, too, must be named. Not all Post journalists were on board.
The internal conflicts on this subject capture many of the ethical dilemmas and pressures Baron faced from both inside and outside the newsroom. He refused to publish #MeToo accusations against “60 Minutes” executive Jeff Fager for lack of named accusers, but he greenlighted the publication of confirmed allegations against Alabama judge Roy Moore.
Baron faced a special challenge with the tawdry tabloid revelations of Bezos’ sexting and sexually explicit pictures following the unraveling of his marriage. Anguished, he wrote Bezos a sympathetic note, then directed a deep but inconclusive dive into how the embarrassing information leaked. It was a story Baron obviously hated but could not avoid. The dogged pursuit of the truth, he argues, is not advocacy. It’s just good journalism.
The book’s replaying of his tenure shows Baron at his best and most vulnerable: agonizing over when to break sensitive stories but also struggling with newsroom rebellions revolving around issues of race, diversity, and out-of-school public opining on current events and colleagues. Baron’s conflict with activist reporter Wes Lowery, who is Black, following Lowery’s coverage of the killing of Michael Brown, who was also Black, by police in Ferguson, Missouri, was emblematic of the tensions over how reporters should integrate their own “lived experience” into their work. Lowery’s posts on social media, Baron felt, had crossed the line.
Happily, Baron’s memoir is not self-aggrandizing, and he is generous in giving credit to others while owning up to his own shortcomings and missteps. He failed, he acknowledges, to listen well enough to the complaints — indeed, demands — of Black employees at the Post for more diversity at all levels, from favored reporting assignments to top managerial positions.
Some of the crises the Post faced under Baron — including the years-long detention in Iran of the paper’s reporter Jason Rezaian, the murder of its columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and the threats from Trump and his supporters — make Watergate and the Pentagon Papers seem mild by comparison. Then, also on his watch, came two impeachment trials and the Trump-fueled Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Baron was impressed by Bezos’ commitment to the paper, which included providing financial resources and other support for its transformation from a local print publication into a global online behemoth. The Post’s news staff seemed to grow exponentially, especially its high-powered cadre of political reporters. But Baron never got the thorough, long-term strategy session with Bezos that he requested through then publisher Fred Ryan, with whom Baron had disagreements over staffing and other issues. Ryan, Baron writes, wanted to get rid of “mid-level” editors. Baron had a greater sense of the stresses facing overworked staff.
Baron recognizes the importance of winning subscribers and readers in the digital universe, but he doesn’t directly address the existential cost of pursuing them. In shaping headlines and deciding the placement of stories, are the arbiters of online content forsaking solid journalistic judgment by pandering to the shiny-object-craving audience key to papers’ commercial survival? Clearly, clickbait seems to have prevailed at the Post and elsewhere under both Baron and his successor. He doesn’t condemn this reality, however, but accepts it as a necessary evil.
Baron does decry the decline in local news coverage, even as the Post shrinks its own. Mostly, though, he frames journalism’s crises in a broader context. Strangely, while steadfastly supporting neutrality in news reporting, he doesn’t explore the responsibilities or motivations of the unseen editors — who choose which stories are covered, how they’re written, and where they’re placed — whose decisions help frame the national narrative that steers public discourse.
Post-Baron, the paper appears to suffer from both-siderism when covering volatile topics. Trump’s tweet saying departing Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mark Milley was a traitor who should be executed was not reported at first. Milley’s warning at his retirement ceremony about wannabe dictators didn’t even make the print paper. And President Joe Biden’s Arizona speech rebuking Trump as a threat to democracy ran on page three.
The memoir is a retrospective that, while noting economic headwinds, doesn’t fully address the Post’s performance since Baron’s retirement. While reviving its standalone Sunday book-review section, the Post has eliminated many other popular features, including the Sunday magazine, Outlook, Local Opinions, KidsPost, Second Glance, Date Lab, the Style Invitational, stock tables, and sports stats. In a recent press release, it touted a “relaunched” Style section, which so far has yielded only a new italicized nameplate.
For some subscribers, home delivery has been curtailed, with papers now coming in the mail and often arriving a day or two late (and therefore no longer qualifying as “news”). And as I write this, the Post has announced a staff reduction of 240 positions — first through buyouts, then possibly layoffs. Half are to come from the business side, and half from the newsroom, with the already-thinned Metro staff of 89 bearing the brunt. Last year, the Post laid off 20 newsroom employees (without buyouts) while adding several conservative columnists. This time, coverage of transportation, education, and social issues will reportedly be most affected.
Baron devotes several pages of Collision to the genesis of the paper’s catchy slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” which was added to the masthead in 2017 in response to what was seen as other media outlets’ failure to accurately cover incendiary political realities. Optics aside, Bezos called it a “mission statement,” and it remains an important principle for the newspaper to uphold. But, as someone posted recently on the former Twitter upon hearing of the paper’s latest downsizing, “Democracy dies in layoffs.”
I don’t think Marty Baron would disagree.
Eugene L. Meyer, a member of the Independent’s board, worked for the Washington Post for 34 years as a reporter and editor before taking a buyout in 2004. He continues to write and edit and is the author of, among other books, Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army and Hidden Maryland: In Search of America in Miniature. Meyer has been featured in the Biographers International Organization’s podcast series.