Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron Talks Journalism Under Trump
Executive Editor of the Washington Post and veteran journalist Marty Baron delivered Penn State’s annual Oweida Lecture in Journalism Ethics on Tuesday, addressing the ethical responsibilities of his organization and other media outlets in a political climate often hostile to journalists.
Baron spoke extensively about the Trump administration’s continued accusations of faulty reporting, centering his talk on the sentiments expressed in a statement from Chief White House Strategist and former Editor of Breitbart News Steve Bannon that questioned the conduct of the modern American media.
In late January, following the inauguration of Donald Trump, Bannon told the New York Times in an interview that “the media should be embarrassed, and humiliated, and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while. The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country, they still don’t understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.”
Baron noted the gravity of Bannon’s statement, and proceeded to respond to the questions it raised for members of the press.
“Yes, we absolutely need to listen,” he said. “But we should not keep our mouths shut, and certainly not on orders from the White House.”
“For the press, this is a time that calls for commentary, and analysis, and above all, calls for energetic reporting,” he continued.
Baron went on to stress the importance of a free press and the freedom of speech to the American political system, reminding the audience that the first amendment privileges outlined in the country’s constitution were meant to serve as a “check on abusive power.”
“Ours is a country that makes a moral demand on its people and its press to speak up, not to shut up,” he said.
He then noted that many top media outlets were criticized for not taking Donald Trump’s candidacy seriously in the early stages of the election. He explained that the Post had recognized the sincerity of Trump’s campaign early on in the race, and that the press’s true problem lay in a different aspect of proper coverage of the election —capturing the voices of the American people.
“For the most part, the press failed to detect, and explore, the depth of anxiety and grievance in America,” he said, adding that the press must work harder to “give the people of America insights into each other” by embedding itself in and reporting on the culture of the thousands of communities across the country.
Finally, he claimed that the independence and competition between different news outlets makes it impossible for the media as a whole to be an “opposition party,” and that any resistance against the government stems only from its commitment to its duty as the informant of American citizens.
Baron’s speech compared modern threats to journalistic integrity to those imposed by the Nixon administration in the 1960s and 70s, and called on his extensive experience as an editor known to take risks to explain the values of the modern journalist.
He also spoke to the intense priority of evidence, experience, and expertise in the ethical model of journalism, citing the importance of concrete facts in modern reporting.
“We, as journalists, demand evidence, no matter what it shows,” he said.
Baron fielded several questions from the audience, including some that challenged the relevance of Donald Trump’s tweets as they relate to news coverage of the current presidential administration.
“I don’t buy into the idea that these tweets should be ignored, because it turns out that they are, I think, truly representative of what he’s thinking about, what he wants to do,” he said.
Despite a consistent firmness regarding the ethical standards of the media, Baron was frank when discussing the responsibility of the modern journalist.
“Today, one of our great challenges as journalists is to ensure that we do not slide into a world that some worry is already upon us,” he said. “We owe it to the public to make clear that the alternative to facts is not alternative facts.”