Marty Baron remains an optimist about the future of journalism.
The executive editor of the Washington Post spoke Saturday, in conversation with author David Maraniss, at the Cap Times Idea Fest. Baron was previously the editor of the Boston Globe and led the team that broke the Catholic priest sex abuse scandal that was documented in the film "Spotlight." He highlighted ongoing business challenges for the industry but affirmed the importance of its basic tenets: finding facts, connecting them and effectively relaying them to readers.
“I think there’s always a need for journalism… there’s always a need for someone to tell us what’s actually happening,” Baron said. “That’s our job. People continue to value that and even though the business model … is changing dramatically.”
It is key that news organizations continue to bring facts to the fore, even as they challenge readers' perceptions and institutions of power, Baron said.
"There are plenty of so-called journalistic institutions that are just giving their readers exactly what they want," Baron said. "We will run investigations that will upset people. Hillary Clinton supporters were upset, Bernie supporters were upset... there is probably nobody we haven't upset at one time or another and I think that shows a level of independence."
Practicing good national journalism during Donald Trump's presidential administration has meant that Washington Post reporters continue to do their jobs. The paper's scoops over the last several months on developments within the Trump administration are the result, in part, of well-sourced and experienced reporters that have built trust among government officials, not one-off leaks, Baron said.
"It's not just a matter of leaks. There are (reporters) who have been working on these beats in some instances for decades. They've earned a lot of people's trust. They know, they understand the subject matter, they'll exercise good judgement and protect the confidentiality of their sources. It's not just a matter of somebody sending a leak... it's not that simple," Baron said. "We've come under severe attacks from the administration. The White House is very concerned about leaks, not only about classified information but unclassified information as well."
The Washington Post's owner, the billionaire Amazon.com founder, Jeff Bezos, has given the paper autonomy to do its job, even if it challenges or affects Amazon, Baron said.
"He has said on many occasions that someone who aspires to hold the highest position deserves to be scrutinized and criticized and we and the Washington Post have a job to perform that is central to our mission," Baron said.
Baron said he is concerned about Trump's approach to the media and said it is akin to troubling patterns in other countries where a free press is attacked.
"There’s been a process here with the administration, which is to de-legitimize the press... and actually, they've moved beyond that," he said. "I think there is a process that takes place... it's a worrisome progression."
There is condemnation, marginalization, then delegitimization and intimidation, Baron said. That can be seen with threats Trump has made to take reporters or news organizations to court, or attempt to compel them to reveal sources in court.
Vigorous debate about what policies America should adopt is important, Baron said, but he is concerned about efforts to shut down a free press.
"I have great concern about that. I don’t want to see us go down that path. I don’t think the American public is served if we go down that path… that’s not what the founding fathers had in mind," Baron said.
Baron reflected on being portrayed in the "Spotlight" movie, which was released in 2015 and won the Academy Award for Best Picture. He recalled, as the movie documented, how he was met with silence when he originally asked editors at the Boston Globe to take another look at a priest abuse scandal the paper had covered before.
"The difference was we had an opportunity to get the internal records and that made all the difference in the world," Baron said. The paper was able to get records from the Catholic Church unsealed and see documented conversations between church leaders and priests accused or suspected of abuse who were shuffled from one parish to another.
"A lot of people have asked me since the movie came out, 'Weren’t you concerned about it being such a powerful institution?' And my answer is, 'What are we supposed to do, go after the weak institutions?' I don’t understand that. The big powerful institutions can do far more damage than the weak institutions."