In the 2015 film “Spotlight,” Liev Schreiber played the editor-in-chief of the Boston Globe Martin Baron as “humorless, laconic and yet determined”. This is Baron’s own description in “Collision of power“, a memoir about his recent gig as editor-in-chief of the Washington Post.
Baron has no problem with the film spearheading his leadership of the Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. What irks him is that his reputation hasn’t stopped critics from criticizing his cautious handling of stories of sexual harassment and assault at the Post. “That hurt,” he writes.
Amid intense economic pressures and gaping generational, political and cultural divides, life at the top of the newspaper hierarchy can be nasty, brutal and short. Baron, an epitome of traditional journalistic values, has met the challenges better than most. A veteran of both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, he led three newsrooms (the first being the Miami Herald) to multiple awards, leaving each on his own terms.
The same cannot be said of several current top editors at The New York Times, who have been marred in various ways by annoying personalities, bad timing and bad luck. Adam Nagourney’s “The times“, an often riveting chronicle of four decades (1976-2016) of management upheaval and digital transformation, delivers the gossip, thanks in part to interviews with almost all of the surviving school principals. Nagourney’s insider status — he still works for the Times, covering West Coast cultural affairs — undoubtedly contributed to his access.
Both books are essential for media junkies. But like Robert Caro’s biographies, they should appeal to anyone interested in power: how it works and how it is lost. The context here is the ongoing struggle to keep the news industry solvent, a strenuous undertaking for even the most talented and resourceful organizations.
Both volumes offer a great man’s (and in the Times’ case, a not-so-great woman’s) version of the story. No one addresses the legions of reporters and editors whose careers are doomed as the company, fixated on declining profits and slow to adapt to the Internet, has shed jobs. What the books show is how these two major news organizations managed to pivot to life-sustaining digital subscriptions while much of the local news landscape lay in shambles.
“Collision of Power” describes clashes between the Postal Service and President Donald Trump, as well as between Trump and Jeff Bezos, the multibillionaire founder of Amazon. Bezos bought the struggling Post newspaper from the Graham family for $250 million in 2013, just months after Baron became editor-in-chief.
Baron repeatedly emphasizes Bezos’ respect for the Post’s journalistic independence. The newspaper reported on Amazon’s business and the tabloid-worthy dissolution of Bezos’ marriage without the boss’s interference. Meanwhile, Bezos invested money — on a limited basis — in new employees, modernized the Postal Service’s technology and, despite threats to his business, ignored Trump’s demands to curb the Postal Service’s investigative zeal. When his editors failed, Bezos himself chose the paper’s new slogan: “Democracy dies in the dark.”
Baron finds Bezos charming. He complains mildly that the owner could have spent more time with the Post’s staff — and essentially that Bezos didn’t fully understand the value of editors.
Post readers will be familiar with Baron’s recaps of Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on the Trump administration and the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, as well as other investigative coups. He breaks some news about disputes in the office, reporting that the political staff was more enthusiastic about stories about ties between the Trump campaign and Russia than the national security team and the Moscow office – a chasm about it, He himself wasn’t “stunning” at first informed.
“Collision of Power” tells us little about Baron’s life and career before the post. Still, the book reveals the man.
In the wake of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and the police murder of George Floyd, Baron struggled: sometimes indecent, through conflicts with his employees over diversity, political participation and social media use. Two of Baron’s biggest headaches came as a Pulitzer Prize-winning black reporter Wesley Lowery and Felicia Sonmez, a reporter who identified himself as a sexual assault survivor. In Baron’s telling, neither cared much for his cherished norm of journalistic objectivity. Both would eventually leave the post office.
Baron explains that he was “tired of well-meaning but moralizing young journalists – and their ever-supportive union – lecturing me on best management practices when few have ever managed anyone” or “they had any appreciation for the difficult task of being ambitious Achieving the growth targets they brought with them was beneficial for everyone.”
“Nothing was more hurtful,” he adds, “than the insults of my colleagues—whose skills and courage I admired and whose news organization I had spent eight years trying to save.”
Despite his vaunted composure, Baron felt unappreciated and misunderstood. As he retires in February 2021, he seems eager to leave.
By contrast, as Nagourney tells it, New York Times editors starting with the legendary AM Rosenthal—“confident to the point of arrogance” and later “embattled and self-pitying”—often had to be pushed out of their jobs. In fact, Rosenthal had to be plucked out twice – the second time, in 1999, from a 13-year tenure as editorial columnist.
The Times has produced numerous fine stories and memoirs, including Gay Taleses “The kingdom and the power” (1969), Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones’ “The trust(1999) and “City Room” (2003) by former editor-in-chief Arthur Gelb. Both candid and fair, Nagourney’s volume is a valuable addition to the canon, adding detail to already well-reported stories.
Nagourney compares two aggressive and rival figures, Howell Raines and Jill Abramson. Raines, who headed the newsroom from 2001 to 2003, clashed frequently with Abramson, then the Washington bureau chief. Both, says Nagourney, “were calculating and ruthless when it mattered most, and capable of the greatest candor – qualities that would help them rise to the top of the newsroom.” Their hubris would also contribute to their downfall.
Raines was brought down in large part by the plagiarism and cheating of a young reporter named Jayson Blair. A minor embarrassment involving a correspondent who relied too heavily on freelance reporting contributed, as did the widespread staff hostility that Raines had inspired. In the end, Nagourney writes, “he did not see the kindling piling up around his feet.”
Abramson, the Times’ first female editor-in-chief, won the job despite foreign editor Susan Chira warning publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. that her management style was “volatile, sporadically cruel and intolerant of dissent.” As editor in chief from 2011 to 2014, Abramson fought back against what she saw as business incursions into the newsroom, fatally alienating her managing editor and former boyfriend, Dean Baquet. After her firing, Baquet (who had briefly been editor-in-chief of the LA Times) became the first black female editor-in-chief of the New York Times.
Interwoven with these juicy, neo-Shakespearean tales is Nagourney’s account of the Times’ digital pivot, “a chaotic and occasionally embarrassing undertaking that at times seemed doomed.” The Times’ implementation of a paywall in 2011 was criticized by successfully copied by the Washington Post, but less so by other newspapers across the country. (And even the post office has been since Baron’s departure faltered financiallyaccording to a New York Times report.) This complex story—of just-in-time transformation and its national consequences—probably deserves a book of its own.
Klein, a arts reporter and critic in Philadelphia, was a longtime reporter and editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer and an associate editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.