Departing Washington Post editor’s comment on listening to staff is everything that’s wrong with the current generation of newsroom leaders

Marty Baron, who stepped down as Washington Post editor this week, has been hailed as a hero by journalists at his and other elite media organizations — showered with adulatory news stories and softball interviews.

But one exchange in a Vanity Fair interview perfectly demonstrates why his departure is welcome, and overdue.

At issue was what Baron had learned from confronting the powerful criticisms being raised by some staffers about hiring, coverage, and newsroom conventions that, as former Post reporter Wesley Lowery once put it, unquestioningly reflect the “views and inclinations of whiteness.“

Baron’s response was clueless, condescending, and dismissive. It showed that he was only interested in performative listening – as appearing to have listened – rather than in listening itself. It showed how he considered staffers who challenged him as ignorant supplicants asking him to toss away core journalistic principles “because of the sentiments of the moment,” which of course he would never do — rather than as peers who want the Post to actually live up to those principles.

It perfectly exemplified the sense of unquestioned white, male superiority that a growing number of journalists – Black, brown, white, young, old, male, female, nonbinary, at every career stage – believes is devitalizing our newsrooms at a moment when society urgently needs us to step it up.

Here’s the exchange between Baron and Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo:

Pompeo: Well, what is the answer to these very heated, emotional, divisive discussions around race and speech that we’re seeing again and again, not just at the Times, but also in just the past couple of weeks alone at Slate, at Gimlet? I guess, what did you learn or take away from your own experience as a manager confronting these issues?

Baron: Clearly we need to do a better job of listening. I think I and others probably need to do more in anticipating these issues, perhaps listening better to the staff more closely, and then drawing people out before pressure builds and it explodes. And you know, that’s probably something that I should have done. And probably something that should be done more regularly at other news organizations, including our competitors. I think people want to be heard. We need to listen to them, and by the way, listening doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to end up agreeing. I do think it’s important that news organizations have standards and that people stick to those standards. We are institutions; we are more than a collection of individuals under one group. Our institution stands for something. We have core principles that we believe in, and I wouldn’t just toss those away just because of the sentiments of the moment. But I do think that we need to talk those out more regularly with people on the staff. It’s quite possible that the way we apply those principles can be adapted to the different environment that we’re in today. But I don’t have a ready answer for how to do that. And I’ll be interested to see how people navigate it. It’s just not very easy to navigate.

I mean wow, right?

What did he learn from confronting these issues? He learned nothing.

“Our institution stands for something,” Baron says.

What colossal gall.

I posted Baron’s comments on Twitter and asked for feedback from others.

The most generous interpretation was that it was just word salad – so full of perhapses and possiblys and undefined terms that it amounted to nothing.

“He’s using a whole lot of words to give the impression that he’s saying something, but the tell is in stuff like repeating ‘standards’ without saying anything about what those standards actually are, or how he thinks they function,” wrote @Scoaliera1.

But there was also a lot of legitimate anger at Baron’s dismissiveness. “I want to know how does having a non-regressive stance on race go against ‘core principles’,” replied journalist Sydette Harry.

“Marty Baron seems to saying that not reporting from a white privilege perspective is somehow incompatible with ‘standards’ & ‘core principles’ of the Post — even worse, he sees the concerns about bias in coverage as ‘the sentiments of the moment,’“ wrote @PaulLukasiak.

“This ‘we need to do a better job of listening to people’ is garbage. People who know have been saying what’s systemically wrong and how to fix it for a long, long time. If they haven’t gotten the message this late in the game, it’s on purpose,” wrote @AnimalSmug.

Baron’s only regret appears to be that he didn’t let staffers blow off enough steam to prevent an explosion.

It was “very much a patronizing ‘pat on the head’ position,” wrote @BeckyIB.

Diversity but not really

Baron’s comments acutely exemplify how newsroom leaders’ moves to diversify their staffs not only have been insufficient, but have been totally undercut by their refusal to listen to the people they’ve hired.

They refuse to seriously reassess the above-the-fray, both-sides approach to covering urgent national issues, even when the people they hire point out that some of those issues are matters of life and death. They refuse to consider that the vaunted notions of objectivity they defend so fiercely are actually, in practice, the views of a white guy who doesn’t even exist.

As New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen wrote in June, in the midst of a staff revolt at the New York Times:

Many decades ago, the leadership class in big league journalism accepted the argument that racial integration had to come to their newsrooms, or the journalism would suffer. Or at least, this is what they said to themselves. But what they also said (without quite realizing it) is: We can have all that, a more diverse and multi-colored newsroom, and maintain the view from nowhere. They never faced up to the contradiction: minority journalists who are supposed to simultaneously supply a missing perspective and suppress that perspective in order to establish their objectivity.

Baron further illustrated that point in an interview with Kojo Nnamdi of Washington’s NPR member-station WAMU. Baron acknowledged the importance of having diverse life experiences represented in the newsroom, which he said “opens our eyes and our ears to what we might not otherwise see.”

But moments before, Baron had stressed his commitment to a concept of objectivity that he defined precisely as rejecting the value of life experiences in the reporting process. People “may come into a story influenced by their own life experiences, their own preconceptions,” he said. “It’s really important that we try, as hard as possible, to set those aside.”

And what that really means is adopting a “neutral” position that by default centers the life experiences of a white male.

The subversive subtext of the homages

As it happens, the coverage of Baron’s departure, though intended to lionize him, unintentionally highlighted to what extent newsrooms – and their narratives – are dominated by white men.

New York Times reporter Marc Tracey’s article about Baron’s departure, and his years under new owner Jeff Bezos, was headlined in the print edition: “The Men Who Remade The Washington Post”

The response, including from some Post staff, was blistering.

“So grateful for Great Men,” Post foreign affairs reporter Emily Rauhala tweeted, along with a nauseated-face emoji. “It’s honestly an honor just to provide low level female assistance to the men making our era.”

A Post producer expressed outrage:

As did a former Post audience editor:

The fact that a headline like that could coast its way into print says a lot about the realities of the industry.

The article itself, to my mind, also failed to make the case that Baron had done much more than not waste the vast amounts of money that Bezos poured into the enterprise. It was that investment that halted the Post’s tailspin into irrelevance. Baron hired an enormous number of very talented people – and they did the work that he gets credit for.

Wesley Lowery bristled at yet another Baron puff piece, this one by the Washington Post’s own Sarah Ellison. Ellison wrote that “In Baron’s final year in Washington, unexpected leadership challenges emerged at The Post.”

Lowery responded:

Racial tension at WaPo was an “unexpected” leadership challenge last summer? That will be news to the dozens of black WaPo staffers who met w/Marty in 2015 to specifically request these issues be addressed. He said that he was too busy “saving” the paper to worry about diversity

The idea that racial tension at WaPo — a newspaper that has had constant racial tension since it started letting black people work there — would be “unexpected” just absolutely nonsensical and ahistorical.

Baron’s refusal throughout all these interviews to acknowledge mistakes tells you so much about him and his fellow newsroom leaders, and why they never learn.

Even the one time that Baron admitted any error in coverage, he did so grudgingly, and without remorse. Under persistent questioning from Marc Pitzke and Roland Nelles of Der Spiegel, Baron acknowledged that journalists should have been “much more forthright about Trump’s mendacity.” But as I wrote at the time, Baron then cast journalists as the victims of a president who exploited their “good principles,” and insisted that it didn’t really matter anyway.

And in several interviews, Baron engaged in revisionism that I can personally debunk. According to Baron, it was Bezos’s brilliant idea, when he bought the Post in 2013, to have it pursue a national and international audience, not just a local one.

As Mark Stencel, who valiantly championed that exact idea for much of his nine years at the Post, noted:

The fact is that the Post has long resisted reform from within as well as from without. And in his victory lap, Baron unwittingly explained why: Because they don’t listen to constructive criticism.

In the Post article, Baron said he was happy when Bezos bought the paper.

“I had long felt — actually well before that — that we needed fresh thinking in the industry,” he said. “Because I was not hearing any new ideas from anybody.”


  1. Now some media are even claiming that Dan Froomkin actually pissed his pants in wokey rage while he wrote this over-the-top hit piece about Marty Baron, as if it wasn’t easy enough to criticize Marty for his real crimes, instead of some imaginary failure to get down on all fours and kiss the ass of every professional “victim” from sea to shining sea.

    So Dan Froomkin pitched a hissy-fit because Marty Baron isn’t politically correct enough, and it’s really like reading a silly freshman essay from Smith College or some other worthless source of hate-whitey propaganda.

  2. The worst puff piece on Baron came from the PBS News Hour when Judy Woodworth skipped the critical topics of the Post’s handling of Trumps mendacity and authoritarianism and the failure to pay attention to diversity. PBS prides itself on being balanced and that is the problem

  3. I agree that the kind of objectivity that Baron promoted isn’t really objective if it is skewed by unconscious biases. On the other hand there are times that objectivity is important, when readers need to be informed of the facts on both sides of a debate rather than just being presented with one side as the Post has been doing recently with their blatant opposition to Biden’s Covid relief bill.
    In the past couple of weeks the Post has carried an article by Larry Summers fear mongering about the threat of inflation from the debt the bill will add. There was an editorial that quoted Summers as well as Douglas Holtz Eakin and other unnamed economists saying the same thing but ignoring the fact that 130+ economists have signed a letter in support of the bill. There was another article about how the Fed is now an ally of the White House because Jerome Powell supports a large bill, accompanied by hand wringing about the appearance of the Fed not being independent because Powell and Yellen agree. Next came an article by Steven Pearlstein with the snarky title “In Democrats’ progressive paradise, borrowing is free, spending pays for itself, and interest rates never rise” and today there is yet another editorial complaining about the size of the stimulus, saying that economic data, not politics, should be determining the size of the bill. From what I have seen the Post has presented no data to support their hissy fit about the bill and ignored the mountain of evidence that supports a large bill.
    Even worse I have yet to see articles by top economists who have presented the evidence from decades of data showing that large amounts of debt can be handled by countries which borrow in their own currency without inflation becoming a problem. The Post is hammering the size of the bill, ignoring the fact that people like Janet Yellen and Jerome Powell— two people who have proven to be experts at managing our economy and are recognized world wide for it — as well as other highly regarded economists who strongly support the bill.
    This is a situation in which a balanced presentation of facts, i.e. objectivity is desperately needed but the Post isn’t even trying to look balanced.

    If anyone is having a problem posting try turning off your cross site tracking setting.

  4. The ” unquestioned white, male superiority” leaves out the issue of class that pervades political journalism but continues to be unquestioned. As high-profile media hire more non-white, non-male political journalists, you can be sure that they’ll largely come from the same private-school to Ivy League pipeline that the white male journalists come from.

    Political journalism will continue to be the province of people who’ve been isolated from working-class people since childhood, and who are more likely to benefit from than to question economic inequality. Some won’t be white, and some won’t be male, but don’t count on any being first-generation university students or community college grads. As long as they make sure to publicly display contempt for people like Bernie Sanders, they’ll do ok, career-wise.


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