Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron admitted “it hurts” when discussing attacks on the press by the Trump Administration and the declining public perception of the credibility of the media. Baron appeared this week at Montclair State University in conversation with Merrill Brown, former director of the MSU School of Communication and Media which sponsored the event.
We are well aware of the sensitivity in the White House to criticism. But the journalism community as well is probably not as think-skinned as they’d like us to think. Baron was able to recite all the names his journalist colleagues have been called by Trump, including one I hadn’t heard: “the lowest form of humanity.” He cited one poll in which 36% of Republicans believed that freedom of the press does more harm than good.
The Trump Administration is not the first to go after the media. Baron recalled Richard Nixon’s first vice president Spiro Agnew who referred to the press as the “nattering nabobs of negativity.” Of course we know how that story turned out. After a couple of nabobs at the Washington Post broke the story of Watergate, Nixon was exposed and eventually impeached.
Baron said the current administration is engaging in a campaign to “turn a substantial portion of the public against us.” Their intent to is create the perception among the public that any negative or critical story is “an attack by an opposition party.” He countered the perception of the Washington Post as elitist, noting that there are reporters on staff that include Afghanistan veterans, a woman who grew up on a farm and the son of a minister. He also bemoaned the fact that in the current political climate evidence, expertise and experience have been devalued.
Brown asked Baron what the Post might have done wrong in covering the election. While not stated out loud, the underlying question seemed to be “Did you do enough to expose what Donald Trump is really like to the people who voted for him?” Baron expressed satisfaction with the job his staff did in covering the election. “We did an incredibly thorough job of investigating Trump and his dealings,” he said, adding “we provided the public the information they needed.”
His only criticism was that “we should have detected the level of anxiety and grievance in America even before Donald Trump became a candidate.” The lesson to be learned, from his perspective, is “we always have to be out in the country spending a lot of time talking to ordinary people.”
Baron did criticize the cable networks for showing Trump rallies in their entirety without interruptions, something that was not done for Hillary Clinton’s campaign appearances.
Brown also asked Barron about the Post’s approach to determining when to say the President lied. He responded that he had no problem with saying something Trump said was false but cautioned that to use the word lie you have to have documentation of intent, that the statement was made even though the President knew it was false. He added that the Post’s fact checkers “have been busier than ever.”
What to do? According to Baron, “We need to do our job and to do it right. Not sure what else we can do.”