Marty Baron and a turning point for the Washington Post

Yesterday, Marty Baron announced that he’s retiring as editor of the Washington Post, effective at the end of February. Baron arrived at the Post eight years ago after spells as executive editor at the Miami Herald and the Boston Globe (the latter immortalized by Liev Schreiber in Spotlight). In that time, the Post won ten Pulitzer prizes, was bought out by the billionaire Jeff Bezos, roughly doubled the size of its newsroom (which is still expanding), and adapted to the demands of the internet; the paper now has around three million digital subscribers, more than triple its 2016 total. It’s long been rumored in media circles that Baron planned to step down sometime after the 2020 election. Yesterday, he told Paul Farhi, a media reporter at the Post, that his job is exhausting, and that he’s ready to move on. “With the internet being so big a part of it, it’s twenty-four/seven, three-sixty-five,” Baron said. “It means you never really get to disconnect.”

In the hours after his announcement, tributes to Baron’s leadership poured in. Barton Gellman, a former national-security reporter at the Post (who is now at The Atlantic), praised Baron’s handling, in 2013, of the secrets that Edward Snowden leaked about the National Security Agency and shared with Gellman and others. “I remember thinking he might throw me out of his office when I laid out my outlandish conditions—a windowless room, a heavy safe, encrypted email and so on—for bringing the Snowden documents to the Post,” Gellman told Farhi, but “every choice he made came from a place of courage and common sense and journalistic integrity.” (That wouldn’t be the last big national-security story that Baron would shepherd: in 2019, the Post published the Afghanistan Papers, a huge project revealing the deceptions behind America’s longest war. Thanks to the Trump news cycle, it did not get the sustained attention it deserved.) Jason Rezaian, a Post reporter who spent more than five-hundred days in jail in Iran, hailed Baron, who worked to secure his release, as a “tireless advocate in public and behind closed doors.” Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the New York Times, who had a friendly rivalry with Baron, said he “made every institution he touched better.” Margaret Sullivan, a media critic at the Post, called Baron “a truly outstanding editor” and said that “American citizens owe him a standing ovation.” Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, argued that during the Trump era, Baron made the Post “a more essential read” than the Times. I agree.

ICYMI: Vladimir Putin, Alexei Navalny, and journalism’s power to drive protest

Not that everything has gone smoothly for Baron—in recent months, in particular, the Post has had to reckon with newsroom tensions around issues of race, representation, and the treatment of its staff. A year ago this week, Baron suspended Felicia Sonmez, a politics reporter at the paper, and upbraided her for “a real lack of judgment” after she tweeted (innocuously) about a past rape allegation against the basketball star Kobe Bryant in the hours after Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash. Hundreds of Sonmez’s colleagues signed a letter supporting her, accusing Post management of seeking repeatedly to “control” Sonmez’s speech on sexual violence, and of failing to protect her after her Bryant tweet triggered a wave of threats and abuse against her. A few days later, Sonmez was reinstated; Baron pledged a review of the Post’s social-media policies, but did not apologize. This was not an isolated incident: around the same time, the Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani reported that Baron had also censured Wesley Lowery, a Pulitzer prize-winning Post journalist, over his tweets about media coverage of race. At the time, Lowery did not directly address the story, but did tweet asking, “What’s the point of bringing diverse experiences and voices into a room only to muzzle them?” He has since left the Post for CBS, and been a leading voice in the industry-wide debate about the meaning of “objectivity.” (Yesterday, Lowery tweeted a smiley face twenty minutes after Baron’s retirement was confirmed.)

Last April, the findings of a report about the Post’s social-media policies circulated internally; it concluded, based on interviews with staff, that management may be quicker to forgive the indiscretions of “white men and newsroom stars” than those of “women, minorities, and less high-profile reporters.” Such inequities haven’t been limited to social media. In 2019, the Post’s union conducted a pay study and found that women and people of color in the newsroom earned less than white men; last summer, a number of Black journalists who had left the Post spoke out, online and in interviews with Ben Smith, the media columnist at the Times, about what they perceived to be barriers to their professional advancement at the paper. “This place just seems to run off its best people,” Soraya Nadia McDonald, who left the Post for The Undefeated, a site owned by ESPN, told Smith. (In the same, mammoth story on tensions at the paper, Smith reported that Baron killed a story that Bob Woodward wanted to run outing the then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh as a liar, and was left infuriated by an article the Post ran about people getting high before watching the movie Cats, which he felt “glorified recreational drug use.”) The Post has since filled new editorial roles focused on race—including the post of managing editor for diversity and inclusion that was filled by Krissah Thompson, a veteran of the paper—but, as Business Insider’s Steven Perlberg reported recently, numerous Post staffers feel that the internal reckoning is incomplete. In his exit note, Baron acknowledged that, despite “progress,” the Post still needs “a wider diversity of life experiences and backgrounds represented in our newsroom and reflected in our coverage.”

Baron’s departure doesn’t just come at a natural inflection point in the national political news cycle, but at a moment of philosophical introspection for the news business. The calls for a new approach by Lowery and others have often been caricatured, by traditionalists, as a capitulation of rigor and fairness to subjectivity and opinion, but in reality, rigor is central to the reformers’ vision—recognizing the flawed assumptions of the old model of objectivity isn’t inimical to hard-hitting journalism, but should bolster it. The Post isn’t the only outlet to have initiated a changing of the guard since this broader conversation started, but it is the most powerful to be seeking a new top editor, and the paper now has an opportunity to prove that righting the errors of Baron’s approach will only strengthen his legacy as an editorial powerhouse. As Smith noted last year, Baron’s tenure has been defined by a “steadfast adherence to the longstanding rules of newspaper journalism and the defense of the institution.” I wrote at the time that assessing the merit and continued relevance of those rules requires seeing them as separate from the institution. That will soon be someone else’s job.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Below, more media jobs news:

  • The Post: Last month, Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo reported on speculation as to who might be in the running to succeed Baron. Kevin Merida, who served as a managing editor at the Post and is now editor in chief of The Undefeated and a senior executive at ESPN, and Steven Ginsberg, the Post’s current national editor, are thought to be the favorites, though Pompeo noted that a recruitment process had not begun at time of writing. (Baron, for his part, plans to take a “breather” before deciding what he’ll do next.)
  • The Economist: James Bennet—who was ousted as the Times’s opinion editor last year after his section ran a controversial op-ed by Republican Senator Tom Cottonis joining The Economist as a visiting senior editor for a year; he plans to write on foreign policy and advise on broader digital initiatives. Last week, the Times confirmed that Kathleen Kingsbury, who replaced Bennet as opinion editor on an interim basis, will keep that job permanently.
  • TheTimes: Lauren Wolfe, who lost her job as an editor at the Times after tweeting last week that watching Joe Biden’s plane land on inauguration day gave her “chills,” has spoken publicly about her treatment. The Times noted that Wolfe only worked for the paper on an informal basis, and denied parting ways with her “over a single tweet,” but Wolfe told Erik Wemple, of the Post, that—while a manager had warned her about her Twitter once before—the chills missive was “the only reason they fired me.” Wolfe feels that the Times’s statement about her termination was inappropriate. “Whatever they’re implying,” she said, “it’s a shot at my reputation, which I worked very carefully to build.” 
  • The Idaho Statesman: On Monday, McClatchy fired Christina Lords, the editor of the Idaho Statesman. The paper’s union said afterward that Lords was fired for tweeting her frustration at being unable to procure access to Microsoft Excel for a new hire; yesterday, Lords gave the same account to the Post. In an open letter, Kristin Roberts, vice president of news at McClatchy, said that the company wouldn’t share details of a personnel matter, but said that it has “never terminated anyone’s employment because they were vocal about concerns or because they advocate for staff.” Roberts said that she spoke with Lords about the possibility of her returning to her job “as a leader committed to solving problems together,” but Lords declined. Lords said that she appreciated the gesture, but that McClatchy’s offer entailed “certain stipulations I did not feel comfortable agreeing to.”
  • CBS: Over the weekend, Meg James, of the Los Angeles Times, published a two-part investigation focused on Peter Dunn, the president of CBS Television Stations—one story looked at a deal to acquire a station that came with an exclusive golf-club membership thrown in; the other alleged that Dunn and David Friend, his lieutenant, “cultivated a hostile work environment that included bullying female managers and blocking efforts to hire and retain Black journalists.” On Monday, CBS placed Dunn and Friend on administrative leave pending an investigation.
  • Fox: Yesterday, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington reported that Kayleigh McEnany, the former White House press secretary, revealed in a recent disclosure report that she had reached an “employment agreement” with Fox News, starting this month—though a Fox spokesperson denied that the network currently employs McEnany. Fox definitely has hired Larry Kudlow, a senior economic adviser to Trump, as a contributor. He’ll also host a show on Fox Business.


Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, all but five Republican senators voted to dismiss Trump’s impeachment trial as unconstitutional; the trial will go ahead, but the prospects for conviction, which would require at least seventeen Republican votes, now look slim. That’s a sharp change from two weeks ago, when media reports breathlessly suggested that senior Republicans were minded to break with Trump. Declan Garvey, an editor at The Dispatch, noted yesterday that there was “legitimate momentum” for a break back then. “That it stalled so quickly is a testament to the power of partisanship and right-wing media.”
  • Adam Serwer, of The Atlantic, reminds journalists and the public that “Biden will lie to you,” because lying is a thing presidents do. “The press and the public should resist the temptation to assume that the Biden administration will always be on the level, or that its dishonesties can be forgiven because Biden’s predecessor wielded falsehood with such abandon,” Serwer writes. “Already, Biden has sought to mislead the public by setting expectations for vaccinations that experts have said are too modest—which will allow the president to declare his approach a great success if the goal is exceeded.”
  • Leon Black is stepping down as chief executive of Apollo Global Management—a private-equity firm that, on the media front, financed Gatehouse’s merger with Gannett and acquired local TV stations from Cox Media—following a review into payments, totalling more than $150 million, that he made to the pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. The review found that the payments—which, the Times reports, “effectively bankrolled” Epstein’s post-conviction lifestyle—were legitimate business transactions. Black will remain as Apollo’s chairman.
  • Twitter is getting into the newsletter game by acquiring Revue, a Dutch platform; Sara Fischers reports, for Axios, that the deal “marks Twitter’s first step into building out long-form content experiences on Twitter, and its first foray into subscription revenue.” In other newsletter news, the Everything Bundle—a collection of Substack newsletters that teamed up to offer readers a joint subscription—is leaving Substack to become an independent company called Every. Kia Kokalitcheva has more, also for Axios.
  • Yesterday saw the official launch of Pipe Wrench, a new online magazine offering “a new issue every other month, made of a longform story surrounded by a constellation of interpretations and reactions and asides in conversation with it.” The first issue will appear in April. Pipe Wrench was founded by former staffers at Longreads, including Michelle Weber, Pipe Wrench’s editor in chief, and Catherine Cusick, its publisher.
  • The Fort Lee Traveller—an eighty-year-old military newspaper that is printed by Gannett and produced by the public affairs office of the Army garrison at Fort Lee, Virginia—will put out its final edition tomorrow. According to Bill Atkinson, of the Petersburg Progress-Index, the Traveller is shuttering, in part, due to a COVID-linked decline in ad sales. The garrison will continue to be served by an online portal called Fort Lee News.
  • On Monday, Handelsblatt, a German newspaper, reported that officials in that country believe that the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID vaccine may only be eight-percent effective among seniors—a claim that set off a firestorm in Britain, which has been racing to give its older residents the shot. AstraZeneca, however, dismissed the story, and yesterday, Germany’s health ministry suggested that the eight-percent figure may have stemmed from a basic misreading of the vaccine’s trial data. (Handelsblatt is standing by its story.)
  • And Will Wilkinson—who recently lost his job at the Niskanen Center, a center-right think tank, after tweeting a joke about “lynching” Mike Pence—pushed back on media reports that called Wilkinson a victim of “cancel culture.” The term, he writes, is meaningless, serving only “to short-circuit debate, avoid the underlying substantive controversy, and shift the entire burden of justification onto advocates of the rival position.”

ICYMI: How much do we need to know about domestic terrorists?

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.