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Outgoing Washington Post editor Marty Baron reflects on the state of American journalism

This week marks a turning point at one of the nation's premier newspapers. Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron is stepping down on Sunday after eight years at the Post and more than four decades in the news business. His departure comes during a week when his paper won four George Polk Awards for its coverage. Baron joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the state of American journalism.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This week marks a turning point at one of the nation's premier newspapers. Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron is stepping down on Sunday, after eight years at The Post, and more than four decades in the news business, including as executive editor at The Boston Globe.

    His departure comes on a week when his paper won four George Polk Awards for its coverage, and, as we have just heard, the U.S. government issued a report on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a longtime contributing columnist at The Post.

    And Marty Baron joins us now.

    Welcome.

    You have said you said you're ready to move on. It has been an incredibly active news period, these last few years especially. But, as you look back over your career, are the American people better informed by the press today than they were when you started out as a reporter in, what, 1976?

  • Martin Baron:

    You know, it's hard to say.

    Certainly, I think we have done our job in providing information to the public. Whether the public is better informed or not is another question, because so many people now are going to sources of information, or so-called information, that affirms their preexisting point of view.

    They're looking to be affirmed, and not necessarily to be informed. Being informed means that you learn things that you didn't know otherwise, or that — things that may contradict your preexisting expectations or perceptions. And that's a challenge for us.

    So, I'm not sure I can say the American public is better informed. I'm not sure it is. But I think we are doing our job in terms of informing the public.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let me ask you about that, because, as you know, the polls are showing a surprisingly large percentage of Americans say they don't trust the news media.

    I think something like a third say they don't have any trust at all. Maybe a quarter say they have some trust. Is this a longstanding condition that we are in? Is there something that can be done about it? What are the ramifications?

  • Martin Baron:

    Well, I think it's going to be with us for quite a while, because we're a highly polarized society. So that is going to have an impact on people's perceptions of the press.

    Many people are looking for media outlets that just tell them what they think is absolutely true. So, if they think the election was stolen, they're looking for a media outlet that will tell them the election was stolen, even if the election was not stolen.

    So, this is a problem. This is a problem that we confront. I don't think that it's unique to the press, by the way. There's been a decline in trust in all institutions, in just about every institution, really, except for the military, so a decline in trust in Congress, a decline in trust in the judiciary, a decline in trust in the financial sector, a decline in trust in the health sector, a decline in trust in scientists and all of that.

    And so we're part of that. And I think we need to go about the business of trying to reestablish some level of trust in our primary institutions, particularly the ones that are arbiters of information and of fact.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I think, as all of us know, President Trump played some role in that. He spent a lot of time criticizing the press, calling it fake news, saying reporters are enemies of the American people.

    And yet, ironically, Marty Baron, at the end of — by the end of his term in office, news audiences grew enormously, both for newspapers, all news organizations.

    Did Donald Trump, ironically, end up helping strengthen the press, after all was said and done?

  • Martin Baron:

    Well, I would say that he helped us and he hurt us.

    He helped us, in the sense that people's interest in politics was heightened. People started to subscribe to news organizations like ours because they were concerned, because they wanted to make sure that government was held accountable, that somebody held government accountable, and they saw us as fulfilling that role.

    But he hurt us, in that he went about the business of trying to subvert and essentially demolish the role of an independent press in American democracy. And that has led to the decline in trust — or it has contributed, I should say, to the decline in trust that we were talking about earlier.

    And so that — over the long run, that's not very helpful.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, The Washington Post certainly did — has grown under new ownership, Jeff Bezos. It's grown over the last several years under your leadership. The New York Times has seen growth.

    But local newspapers have really taken a hit. What, over the last 15 years, I was reading, 1,800 newspapers, local weeklies and dailies, have shut down. What does that mean for the country?

  • Martin Baron:

    It's really concerning. It's the biggest challenge in journalism today. And I think it's a challenge for democracy overall.

    We need local news organizations to cover our communities, to keep a watch on what state officials are doing, what local officials are doing, whether they're running the city council or the county commission or the school board or the police department or local environmental agencies, you name it, the courts, all of that. Who is going to cover all of that if the press isn't there to do so?

    Who is going to provide the public the kind of information they need and deserve to know in order to be engaged citizens? Only the press can do that. And so to the extent that these institutions are deprived of the resources they need to provide coverage, then that represents not just a threat to our profession and our business, but a threat to democracy itself, and democracy at the local level and at the state level.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, certainly, another feature of what we have seen over the last year or so, Marty Baron, in all the press is a move, a cry for more diversity, more inclusion.

    It's something that we in the press have talked about for a long time, but with this deep racial reckoning going on in the country, there's a call from inside newsrooms to be more — not only more diverse, but to give journalists of color a greater voice, more responsibility.

    What do news organizations owe journalists of color, journalists who have not had a voice in decision-making before?

  • Martin Baron:

    We need to cover the country in its entirety. We need to cover people in every corner of our country, people from — with all different backgrounds.

    And it's important that we have — in order to do that, it's important that we have diverse newsrooms. We at The Post have had among the most diverse newsrooms of major news organizations in the country.

    But there's still a lot of work for us to do, and that's been made clear by people who work on our staff and people outside of our organization as well. And I think that that is justifiable criticism. And it's something that we are working on to improve.

    We need more journalists of color in more senior positions in our newsroom and throughout our organization. So, it's not enough to have substantial diversity on the staff overall. It's important that journalists of color be in the most senior positions in our newsroom.

    And so, earlier this year — or last year, I should say, we named a managing editor for diversity and inclusion. That is one of the most senior editors we have. And we also dedicated a dozen positions to cover issues of race, ethnicity, and identity in America, covering everything from health disparities, to environmental disparities, to disparities in the administration of justice.

    And that is — that was a concrete step forward, a significant step forward. But we recognize that that is not the end of the line. That's merely a step forward. And I would expect that, at The Post, we will continue to make progress in that regard.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, hand in hand with this, we are seeing a number of younger journalists will of color saying that they increasingly believe their work as a journalist needs to be infused with the fight for justice, which raises the question, how much can journalists advocate for a cause, no matter how good the cause is, and still do credible reporting?

  • Martin Baron:

    Well, I think we need to be independent. That's our role here at The Post, is to be independent journalists.

    We should cover race. We should cover injustice. We should do that through our reporting. And that's how we should approach it, is make sure that we're covering the subjects that are of critical importance to this country, make sure that we're doing it well, make sure that we're covering the important human rights issues in our nation and around the world, for that matter.

    And we do that through reporting, at least on the news side. Obviously, we have an opinion side, and they express their opinions. But that's entirely separate from our news department, which I run.

    And so I think that we need to dedicate reporting resources to these kinds of subjects and cover them more. And that's why we have now — as I said, we dedicate a dozen positions in our newsroom specifically for covering these kinds of issues. And the coverage is not limited to those dozen people, by the way. There are many others who are involved in this coverage, and should be.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As you know, the administration, the Biden administration, released a report from the intelligence community concluding that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, was involved, did authorize the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

    What was your reaction to that?

  • Martin Baron:

    I expected the report would say that. We reported that that was the conclusion of the intelligence community. We reported that many months ago.

    And now, with the release of this report, we see that that reporting was validated.

    That said, seeing it in a report, seeing it in an official government document merely reinforces the abhorrent nature of what occurred. I mean, who would expect that a government would simply invite a journalist into a diplomatic post, assassinate him, dismember him, dispose of his body, somewhere? And we still to this day do not know where his body is.

    It is shocking. It's abhorrent. And the release of this report merely reinforced just how horrible that action was.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Marty Baron, who is stepping down this Sunday as executive editor of The Washington Post, after a distinguished career, 40-plus years as a journalist.

    Marty Baron, thank you very much.

  • Martin Baron:

    Thank you, Judy. Appreciate it.

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