Marty Baron is an American journalist who has been the editor of The Washington Post since 2013. Prior to that, he was the editor of The Boston Globe from 2001 to 2012. During his time at The Globe, he shifted the paper’s coverage towards local investigative journalism, helping it earn a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Boston Catholic sexual abuse scandal in early 2002, which was recently highlighted in the recent film, Spotlight, that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. He recently came to the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership to speak about his career in journalism.
Harvard Political Review: What is your perspective on the role that the media has played in Trump’s candidacy?
Marty Baron: I don’t accept the premise that the press has created Donald Trump’s candidacy. I think that exaggerates the role of the media and his ascendance within the Republican Party. “The media” covers a lot of ground. You’re talking about talk radio hosts, cable shows, internet sites, mainstream newspapers, magazines, things like that. So the phrase “the media,” to me, is a largely meaningless phrase, because it covers essentially everything. The reality is that somebody like Donald Trump has numerous ways of reaching a national audience, and he had a message that actually, whether you like it or not, resonated with a good portion of the population. That’s why his campaign took off.
HPR: What is your perspective on Obama lecturing journalists about ideologically oriented reporting?
MB: I agree with him on the basic facts. I’m particularly concerned by the fact that a lot of people only go to sources of information that align with their particular point of view. But I‘m even more concerned by the fact that many of these sites that they turn to are propagating information as fact, when in actuality, they represent falsehoods, actual lies about what’s going on…. I think we have to be concerned about how you have a democracy when people can’t agree on basic facts. The late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the past used to say, “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.” Now, we can’t even agree on what constitutes a fact. I think it’s our obligation in the media to do deep reporting, to do investigative reporting, to hold people accountable, to do everything possible to ascertain the truth, and then to tell people what we found in an unflinching and straightforward way.
HPR: How do you balance the need for clicks and page views with the goal of providing in-depth, informative coverage?
MB: We take metrics into account, but metrics don’t drive everything we do here. We have a large staff of 700 people in our newsroom that’s dedicated to doing original reporting, and we will do stories whether they generate traffic or not. And I think that’s a sharp contrast to many other sites. I mean, it’s a tricky balance. We clearly have to grow, we have to be part of a digital environment. We have to understand how the digital environment is changing the way that people communicate and changing the way that people want to receive news and information. Traditionally, more formal stories that are written in a typical structure for print frequently don’t work well on the web. And there’s another style that’s more informal, that’s more casual, that’s more conversational, that uses many of the tools that we have today—video, audio, original documents, incorporating social media commentary like tweets—that works much better on the web. But I don’t think that anybody could claim that The Washington Post is a completely click-driven news organization. We’re far more likely to publish stories that call the president to account on any number of issues, which are going to get the administration very upset. This administration has not been inclined to give interviews on a regular basis to mainstream news organizations for that very reason.
HPR: With the changes that we’re seeing in the journalism industry, why hasn’t the internet done a better job of encouraging this type of local reporting, rather than concentrating only on major media hubs and national coverage?
MB: I do think it’s a real need, an important need, and I think this is a crisis in journalism, and a crisis particularly in investigative journalism. It’s very much at the local and regional level, and not so much at the national level. And the reason that I think the internet has not helped is that the internet has not offered a successful economic model at the local level. And the reason is that you have outlets like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, which are competing very aggressively and successfully for the advertising that traditionally went to local newspapers–for example, the auto advertising, or the local retailer, or people like that…. So what you have is essentially a disintegration of all of the financial cores that have supported local journalism, and they’re just disintegrating one by one.
HPR: The recent movie Spotlight told the story of the Boston Globe’s investigation into sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Boston under your leadership. The movie depicts how the investigative team was already working on a story when you instructed them to shift their focus to the story about the priests. How do you decide where to shine the spotlight?
MB: It’s just a matter of judgment. I think that, as the movie highlights, people have different priorities. There are a lot of things going on, and people who hope to be doing a deep investigation make a substantial call on the overall resources of the newspaper. It can take a lot of time, it can be really difficult, and it will have an uncertain outcome. You can’t guarantee any particular result; you may find nothing at the end of the line. I think ultimately, you have to make a judgment on what’s the most important, what will hold powerful interests accountable, what is the systemic problem, as opposed to an issue that is less substantial. But those can be very difficult to do, because you’re already working on something and then something else comes along. It’s a real judgment call, and as the movie points out, we don’t always make the right judgments. There are a lot of things competing for our attention. With this movie alone, a dozen people have told me that they have a story to tell me that’s even bigger than Spotlight and when you try to take a look at it, it’s often not bigger than Spotlight—it’s often not even a story—but you have to take a look. But you arrive at a very quick judgment about these kinds of things, and frequently you don’t arrive at the right judgment.
HPR: Does the way the industry is changing due to the internet and other factors make large-scale projects like the one depicted in Spotlight harder to do now?
MB: It does. I think that overall within the industry, the resources dedicated to investigative journalism have sharply diminished in comparison to what existed before. In many news organizations, there has been a determination that it just doesn’t pay its way, that it doesn’t generate enough in the way of visitors or pageviews, that it runs the risk of offending interests in the community, that it requires a lot of resources with uncertain outcomes, and that we can’t afford that at the moment. There are a whole range of potential reasons that people may decide to stop doing it, and that has, in fact, happened at a lot of news organizations. I think there is still good investigative reporting going on, including in Boston, at The Boston Globe, with the Spotlight team, and at a number of other news organizations as well. That’s encouraging that it continues. But there’s no question that, with the reductions that have taken place in newsrooms around the country, there are far fewer resources dedicated to investigative journalism than there were before.
HPR: In a recent essay you published in The Washington Post, you made the point that the most important effect of Spotlight was that it made people realize the importance of journalism. Why do you think that the profession of journalism hasn’t historically been as popular as other professions, and do you think the movie can create long-term change in that perception?
MB: What will the effect of the movie be? I don’t know. It’s a bit much to ask of a movie that it changes the public’s perception. I would hope that it would be the beginning of a conversation about the role of the press. I think the movie makes the point that however flawed we are, that we are still necessary, that we serve an important role in society in holding powerful individuals and institutions accountable, that if we did not exist, wrongdoing would persist, and that no one would hold these powerful interests accountable. I think that’s all true, and all that I can hope for is that people who’ve seen the movie will at least reflect that, think more deeply about that, and begin to ask themselves what would happen if the press didn’t exist. Social media could not have done an investigation of the sort that we did about the Catholic Church. There are many other investigations that the press has pursued successfully that could not have been accomplished by social media. So I would just hope that this would trigger some reflection on the part of the public, no matter how skeptical they are about us, and to think more deeply about the role of the press. They don’t have to accept us as perfect, because God knows we’re not perfect, but I think they should accept us as necessary and playing an important role in society.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Image source: The Washington Post