If you feel, as many people do, that keeping up with the news over the last decade has been harrowing, imagine being at the center of it, making the decisions about what gets covered and how — and how to deal with the blowback.
That’s the riveting story told in “Collision of Power: Trump, Bezos, and The Washington Post,” the new book by Martin Baron, who was executive editor of the Post from 2013 until he retired in 2021.
Baron, who was born and raised in Tampa, has had a legendary career as a journalist, serving as executive editor of The Miami Herald and The Boston Globe before his tenure at the Post. At the Globe, he directed the team of investigative reporters who exposed a widespread pattern of sexual abuses by Catholic priests and coverups by the Church. Their work won a Pulitzer Prize and inspired the Oscar-winning movie “Spotlight,” in which Baron was played by Liev Schreiber, who, Baron writes, “afforded me a lasting image as humorless, laconic, yet resolute.”
Baron is neither laconic nor humorless in this compelling, detail-rich book, but that resolute character comes through clearly.
“Collision of Power” isn’t a memoir, although it’s told from Baron’s point of view. It’s an insider’s history of one of the most tumultuous periods our nation has experienced, and of how one national newspaper reported those events.
When Baron came to the Post, the news industry was already in major upheaval. The internet had changed everything, from how newsroom staff did their jobs to how news media made, or didn’t make, money.
The Post had a storied history, including its groundbreaking coverage of Watergate in the 1970s, but by 2013 it was in serious financial trouble, so much so that the Graham family, which had owned it for 80 years, was looking for a buyer.
Seven months after Baron was hired to oversee the newsroom, the new owner was announced: Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon and one of the richest men on earth.
Baron admits he didn’t know what to expect; Bezos was a “tech titan” and an innovator who had radically changed how Americans shop, but what kind of newspaper owner would he be? He had the very deep pockets to boost the Post financially, but would he use it as a personal soapbox and try to shape the news?
The editor was, for the most part, pleasantly surprised. “Cynics will scoff,” Baron writes, “something I can appreciate as a journalist who is preternaturally skeptical. And a man of his riches and power deserves to be doubted. But everything I’ve heard and seen tells me that Bezos honestly believes in an essential role for journalism in a democracy, even if for good reason he has become the searing target of it.”
That is the opposite of the worldview of this book’s other main player. As Baron tells it, Donald Trump sees journalism as an annoyance, and he doesn’t much care about democracy, either. And any reporting that does not paint him in the most flattering light is “fake news,” no matter how true it is.
Baron opens the book with a prologue describing a secret dinner (never before reported, he notes) at the White House in June of 2017. The guests were Baron, Bezos, Post publisher Fred Ryan and editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, hosted by then-President Trump, first lady Melania Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Baron had resisted the dinner. He’d never met Trump and didn’t feel a need to; less than a month into his presidency, Trump had tweeted that the press was “the enemy of the American People.”
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Baron figured Trump would see the dinner as a quid pro quo. And Bezos’ presence made him nervous because he thought it created the false impression that Bezos had “a hand in news coverage.”
The dinner turned out to be yet another opportunity for Trump to deliver a litany of grievances and boasts, a sit-down version of his stump speech. He singled out the Post: “We were awful, he said repeatedly. We treated him unfairly. And with every such utterance, he would poke me in the shoulder with his left elbow.”
The message was clear, Baron writes. Trump wanted the Post to back off, and he expected Bezos to make that happen. He didn’t.
In the years to come, Trump would take aim at Amazon with everything from threats to double its postage rates to blocks in the company’s pursuit of a $10 billion military cloud computing contract: “Bezos was to be punished for not reining in The Post.”
At several points in the book, Baron emphasizes his steadfast belief in the journalistic tradition of nonpartisan pursuit of the truth and the necessity for individual journalists to avoid public political expression. It was a principle that guided his career, and, as he writes, one that put him at serious odds with younger Post staffers about social media use.
But he’s retired now, speaking only for himself, and in this book he expresses how he feels about Trump — and he brings the receipts.
Relationships between the press and the White House have been more or less contentious in every administration, but Trump’s behavior, Baron writes, went beyond all bounds. Post reporters, and many other journalists, were insulted to their faces in interviews as “nasty,” “dishonest” and “animals.” Worse were the vicious harassment, doxing and death threats from Trump supporters, requiring the newspaper to greatly increase security measures during his term.
Despite all that, Baron writes, and despite Trump’s constant refrain about the “failing” media, his presidency was very good for the news business. Digital subscriptions to the Post soared: “Almost overnight, we vaulted to one million digital-only subscriptions by the fall of 2017, more than double what we had secured at the start of the year.” By the time Trump left office, the number had climbed to 3 million.
With that financial upswing and Bezos’ support, the Post almost doubled its newsroom staff. The fact-checking staff grew to keep up with the administration; by the time Trump left office, they had documented more than 30,000 false statements by him.
Baron propels the reader briskly through how the Post covered Trump’s four years in office, starting with the shocking 2016 election and the investigations of Russian influence. He describes some errors and missed chances, and settles a few scores, as when he writes of Trump’s first impeachment, “Members of Congress can set the standard for impeachment — and conviction — wherever they wish. Political self-interest carries greater weight than principle.
“We in the press, however, are still obliged to try to distinguish right from wrong.”
The book culminates in the perfect storm of news in 2020-21: the COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, the hotly contested 2020 election and the insurrection that followed. Any one of those would have challenged a newsroom; their confluence, and Trump’s role in all of them, was unprecedented.
But, Baron writes, the Post rose to the challenge. Trump had declared, on the second day of his presidency, in a speech at CIA headquarters, “I have a running war with the media.”
When asked for his response, Baron said, “We’re not at war with the administration. We’re at work.”
Collision of Power: Trump, Bezos, and The Washington Post
By Martin Baron
Flatiron Books, 548 pages, $34.99
Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading
Martin Baron will be a featured author at the Times Festival of Reading, in conversation with Times editor Mark Katches. The festival takes place from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Nov. 11 at The Palladium, 253 Fifth Ave. N, St. Petersburg. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $75 for VIP and are available at festivalofreading.com.