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Marty Baron

Martin Baron was born on October 24, 1954 in Tampa, Florida. He is an American journalist who has reported and edited for several newspapers including The Miami Herald, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the Boston Globe, and The Washington Post. Baron graduated from Lehigh University, where he was editor of The Brown and White, and later obtained an MBA. In 1976, he began working for The Miami Herald. In 1979, he moved to the Los Angeles Times where he started as a business reporter before becoming its business editor at the age of 29. In 1996 he arrived at The New York Times where he served, most notably, as associate managing editor. Four years later, he returned to The Miami Herald as executive editor, and led coverage of major stories including Elian Gonzales's return to Cuba and the 2000 election. The Herald won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for the Gonzalez story.

 

At The Globe, Baron's editorial team adopted a focus on investigative journalism of local events, such as the Boston Catholic sexual abuse scandal. The story won a Pulitzer Prize and was eventually turned into the film Spotlight. In Spotlight Baron is played by acclaimed actor Liev Schreiber. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2016. In all, Baron won six Pulitzers in his stint at The Globe during a financially troubled time that involved a series of staff cuts. According to Walter "Robbie" Robinson, The Spotlight editor at the time, "Marty acted like an editor, but he could think like a publisher, because he understood the economics of the business better than most publishers." In January 2013, Baron took over as executive editor of The Washington Post, succeeding Marcus Brauchli. Early in his tenure, Baron together with Barton Gellman, spearheaded The Post's Pulitzer prize-winning coverage of Edward Snowden's NSA disclosures. Under his leadership, The Post has won 4 Pulitzer Prize awards. Baron is widely regarded as one of the best news editors of his generation. To many in the field, he personifies the purest form of journalism.

Spectator Magazine: When you arrived for your very first day at The Boston Globe, what compelled you as an outsider to urge the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal on a Spotlight investigative staff that had already explored the issue previously and dropped the story?

Marty Baron: Well, they hadn’t explored the story. They had done a very good job at looking into the case of a priest by the name of Father Porter, and that was in the early 1990s. They had been very aggressive on that, to the point where they pretty much irritated the archbishop. And this story they had not done a thorough investigation on, but the reason why I got into it was because the day before I started work, as reflected in the movie, I had read a column in The Globe written by a columnist by the name of Eileen McNamara. She had focused on the case of one priest, by the name of Father John Geoghan, who had been accused of abusing as many as 80 kids. The lawyer of the plaintiffs —the victims, the survivors — said that the cardinal himself was aware of this priest's abuse and yet allowed him to be reassigned from parish to parish, without notifying anybody about his serial abuse and essentially allowing him to abuse again and again.

SM: So the story was just deserving of more focus.

“... one thing that’s happened is the declining level of trust between the public and mainstream news organizations or just news organizations in general.”

MB: Yeah, so what had happened was that the lawyer for the church said that they were baseless and irresponsible charges and at the end of the column she said that the truth may never be known because the internal church documents that might reveal the truth are under court seal, meaning they can’t be released to the public. So when I went to my first meeting on my first day of work, I asked what we were doing to follow up on that story and I was told that the documents on that were under seal, and I said I understood that, but had we thought about the possibility of filing a motion to unseal the documents, getting beyond just one side saying one thing and the other side saying something else. So that’s how we launched that investigation.

SM: What do you think set Spotlight apart from other journalism movies like All the President’s Men?

MB: Well I think it is very similar to All the President’s Men, but that was 40 years ago. You know I think that this movie in comparison to other movies about journalists, this one is especially authentic. I think the director and his co-writer on the movie spent a lot of time trying to really understand the reporting process.

SM: What did you tell Liev Schreiber about yourself when you met before the filming?

MB: Well, I don’t know; whatever he asked. We talked for less than two hours in my office in the old building and he asked a lot of questions. I think that he also wanted to understand why we pursued this and, as I told him, that’s our job. I viewed it as work, as our work responsibilities. Since it's a matter of our mission as journalists, I didn’t view it as a matter of heroics, and we talked about that.

SM: Did it seem like he was attempting to get a better understanding of your personality or of the story?

MB: I think he was merely using it as an occasion to observe me as a person, what my mannerisms were like, the way that I spoke, the way that I thought…to basically observe a little bit of my personality, assuming I have one, absorb my personality and try and reflect that accurately in the movie. And so I do not think it was an interview in a true sense of interview. All the interviews had already been done by the writers of the movie...so I think he was trying to get a sense of me. He was actually interested in seeing that the role be bigger, so I think he was probing a little bit to see if there were other scenes that might have been portrayed in the movie...so we talked a little bit about what it was like for me when I first came to Boston, and I talked a bit about how I didn't know my way around and early on I had to carry a map with me and how I would sometimes disappear into corners and pull out a map with my back to the streets so nobody would see me looking at it. He was interested in that, but that never made it into the movie so I don't even know if they filmed a scene like that.

SM: Are you happy with your portrayal and how much screen time you ended up getting? In an interview you admitted to preferring to remain behind the scenes, so was it difficult to accept your role in the movie?  

“No, look I was very happy with my portrayal. I would have to be an awful grouch to complain.”

 

MB: No, look I was very happy with my portrayal. I would have to be an awful grouch to complain. I’m not portrayed with any negatives, so I have to be happy about that. And I think it was an accurate portrayal of a particular chapter of my life, perhaps what I was like at that particular chapter. I don’t think it’s a complete picture of who I am, but it is a faithful representation of what perhaps I was like for that six month period of my life that was captured on screen...less than six months, it was like five months.

SM: Have you gotten back any meaningful positive feedback for Spotlight? Have any victims reached out to you?

MB: Yes, as a matter of fact I’ve done a lot of speaking engagements and victims have come up at those events, and thanked me, which is wonderful and means a lot to me. I went back to my alma mater, Lehigh University, and did a Q and A after a screening for the movie, and an individual in his 80s got up and said that he had been abused by a priest in the 1940s and he had never disclosed this to his late wife, and he just wanted to thank me. I was at Georgetown University the other day for a speaking engagement and also on the panel were people who had worked on this for a long time; Father Thomas Doyle, had worked long and hard within the church to try to get reform, but not successfully, for so many years. He expressed his gratitude for the work we did.

SM: So, you must have known during the Spotlight process that these victims were, if this was successful, going to eventually reach out to you?

MB: No. I really didn’t. I mean I was busy with a lot of things. I was editor of the paper and the Spotlight team was working on this every day. Nobody really had an appreciation for what the impact of this work would be. It was only after we published that we got a sense of the reaction. I think we were more focused on what the negative reaction was going to be rather than the positive reactions of the victims would be. We knew that the church would try to fight back very hard and we suspected that a lot of Catholics would feel like it was a representation of anti-Catholicism on our part — which it was not. So I think we were aware of what kind of potential criticism there would be. In terms of the impact, how the victims themselves would react, I think they were surprised; as represented in the movie, they got hundreds and hundreds of phone calls after the first stories were published. I don’t know that anybody expected that kind of outpour from people who had been victimized by priests.

SM: What inspired you to become a journalist?

MB: It’s hard to reconstruct that, you know? But my parents were immigrants to the United States. They were very interested in what was happening in the world. They had a routine in the household; they got the morning newspaper, they watched the evening local and national news every night, they got Time magazine once a week. They were interested in what was happening in this country that they had come to. I think news was just kind of part of the environment of our household, so I got interested that way.

SM: Can you name some of your heroes in the journalistic and publishing fields and tell us what you have learned and taken to heart from them?

MB: Well, heroes (Laughs) ...I don’t know, I mean I can talk about people who were mentors of mine and had an impact on me. Heroes is a word that is thrown around very loosely. Joe Lelyveld who was the executive editor of The New York Times, who I think I learned a lot from. He was a person of tremendous integrity that showed me how you make decisions about the work, without regard to the individual who wrote it. That you have to judge the work on its own merits, not just because the person who wrote it might be a friend or yours or something. He was a person of unwaveringly high standards, even to the point where people would be upset with him, but he just accepted that as part of his job. And Paul Steiger, who hired me when he was business editor of The Los Angeles Times, who later went onto The Wall Street Journal and has been a friend of mine. Again, I saw his integrity over a long period of time, his commitment to doing good work, his seriousness of purpose, his thoroughness. All of that was very important for me.

SM: In your opinion, what are the most important recent issues deserving investigative reporting?

MB: Well, I’m not sure I would talk publicly about what kinds of things we should be investigating and I’m not sure I entirely know, because a lot of times these things come up over time. Look, I mean, I think there are a whole host of national security issues that we need to keep close tabs on. I think issues of privacy, which we did in the NSA investigation, are really important. I think that in the public world arena, obviously terrorism is something that we need to spend a lot of time investigating. Domestically, I think there’s always an issue with the power of corporations and how they exercise that power and the extent to which they put the consumers or investors or the general public at risk.

SM: What story are you most proud of writing?

MB: Well it’s one that I didn’t write and that’s the church investigation. That’s the one that I’m most proud of being involved in. I didn’t write the story, but there’s no question. There’s no close second. I mean it had such an impact around the world, it had such an impact on the lives of ordinary people, particularly people who had been pushed to the margins of society, people whose voices were not being heard the way that they should have been. It has led to reforms, although those are inadequate. It has affected the way that sexual abuse is handled in a lot of institutions, so I’m most proud of that story.

SM: Where do you think The Washington Post is headed in the future?

“It’s expected that by the year 2020, something like 80% of the world’s population will have a smartphone.”

MB: Well, you know, in terms of the way we approach journalism, we’re heading in the direction of being digital and mobile because that’s how people are reading us. So you’re sitting here with a smartphone here in front of you, everyone’s reading on a smartphone, they expect information at any moment wherever they are on any device that they choose to use, and that’s the way of the world these days. So we have to keep that in mind. And that’s where hundreds of millions of people are getting their information. It’s expected that by the year 2020, something like 80% of the world’s population will have a smartphone. So you know in terms of values, I don’t think those change over time, I think that the values endure from year to year and from decade to decade and I think that we have to be very faithful to our values and being accurate, being fair, being honorable, and also be faithful to our mission about holding powerful interests accountable.

SM: Are you content with your current position and growth as a journalist and editor?

MB: Yeah, I don’t think I can be discontent with my current position. Obviously it’s a great job and a very important position and I can’t complain about the trajectory of my career. It’s been good; I’ve been the top editor of three news organizations: Miami, Boston, and now Washington, so that’s a good career by any measure, I think. And I have no regrets and no plans.

SM: You plan to stay at The Post then?

MB: I plan to.

SM: How do you keep up with and stay ahead of all the technological changes that are reshaping newspapers?

MB: It’s very hard to do. It’s something that’s so fast and I’m not sure I am keeping up — that’s the problem. It’s very difficult to stay on top of all the different new social media venues, all the devices that have emerged. It’ s a huge challenge, fortunately it doesn’t rest all on my shoulders; we have people who specialize in different aspects of this and they should be an expert in their field. My job is to manage them in some way. I can’t be an expert on every one of these things.

SM: What do you think has been the biggest difference in the news industry since you began your career up until now?

MB: Well, obviously the invention of the internet.

SM: Besides technology, what would you say?

MB: Well…I mean one thing that’s happened is the declining level of trust between the public and mainstream news organizations or just news organizations in general. That’s been a concern. It reflects the decline in trust in pretty much all institutions with few exceptions:  military, law enforcement, Congress, big business — all have had a decline in approval on the part of the American public, decline of confidence on the part of the American public, and we have suffered along with that.

SM: So that makes it harder to establish sources?

MB: It makes it more difficult to: look when you write, when you publish, you want people to believe what’s written, you want people to believe that you made a sincere effort to get the truth. If people who look at your work think that you’re just pursuing an ideological agenda or that you’re just trying to be entertaining, then you’re not accomplishing your goal, which is to try to ensure that people actually trust what you wrote, and are willing to rely on it.

SM: How does a neverending war on terrorism affect the role of a free press?

MB: Well, I think we have to think about the free press in the entire world, not just here in the United States. I think it is impossible for a free press to persist in a place where terrorism is dominant. Where journalists’ lives are threatened, where their families can be killed, where they themselves can be killed, just for publishing the truth. So, how does it affect us here in the United States? We don’t have a level of terrorism in the United States right now within our borders that is really threatening the press. Obviously, when we send people overseas, to conflict zones they are at substantial risk. But the biggest concern is for journalists who are operating in other countries. Whether it’s in Mexico, where they come under threat from criminal gangs and drug traffickers. Or whether it’s in Syria where  they can’t really operate because of ISIS and the risk of being executed, beheaded, what have you. Or whether it’s in Iraq where they may be viewed as being aligned with a particular faction and would be made a target. Or whether it’s in China, where a journalist trying to exercise free expression will be shut down and jailed. So there are many threats to journalism all around the world. Whatever threats we face here in the United States are small by comparison to what journalists in the rest of the world confront.

SM: Do you see Edward Snowden as guilty of treason or do you see him as a patriot who blew the whistle on the government’s criminal actions?

MB: I don’t view it as my role to pronounce on people who are sources of ours. Our job is to look at the information that someone like Edward Snowden provides us and determine whether it’s in the public interest or not for us to publish that information. And we determined that some of the information that he provided was in fact in the public interest for us to publish, and that’s what we did. I’m not in the habit of judging the people who do this, that’s for others to do.

SM: Do you have any advice for future journalists and aspiring writers?

MB: I mean, I think it’s a good field to go into. I think that media has become an ever-present part of our lives and, notwithstanding the pressures that exist in our industry, the financial pressures, media is actually growing pretty large. There are all sorts of new sites, there’s venture capital money coming into the field, things like that. So I think that for people who are interested in journalism, there will be a lot of opportunities. It’ll be different from what it was in the past. It’ll be a different kind of industry, but there will still be plenty of opportunities. It’s important that people learn the basics of our profession: how to report, how to write. It’s important that they be intellectually curious, that they recognize that learning doesn’t stop at school, but that it’s a lifelong process. It’s important that they be more impressed with what they don’t know more than with what they do know. It’s important that they, in the current environment, learn all of the tools, new tools that are available to us, and how to use those tools to tell stories in new ways. That’d be my advice.

—Marty Baron for Spectator Magazine, 20__

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