In September, the Institute and its partner, The Atlantic, held the annual Washington Ideas Forum in the heart of the nation’s capital. The event gathered the nation’s leaders in politics, business, health, science, technology, arts, culture, and journalism for three days of can’t-miss conversation. In the center of US political power, leaders like Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Senator Chris Coons, Senator Jeff Flake, VotoLatino’s Maria Teresa Kumar, Chef Tim Ma, WeWork’s Adam Neumann, author Tim O’Brien, General (ret.) David Petraeus, the National Portrtait Gallery’s Kim Sajet, artist Sheldon Scott, and the Broad Institute’s Feng Zhang all tackled the most consequential issues facing the country and the world. Below, Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, sat down with Martin Baron, the executive editor of The Washington Post, at Sidney Harman Hall to discuss journalism in the age of Trump. www.washingtonideas.com
Jeffrey Goldberg: I want to start maybe in an obvious place: truth and lies. What does it mean when a president of United States labels the media “the enemy of the people”?
Martin Baron: There could be long-term consequences that have a corrosive effect on the institution of the media and the press in this country. I’m very concerned about that. Donald Trump initially condemned us, and then tried to delegitimize us, and then even dehumanized us, saying that we were the lowest form of humanity. And then when that wasn’t enough, he said we were the lowest form of life itself. It’s very corrosive. The press is a fundamental institution in this country. We’re provided for in the First Amendment of the Constitution. There’s a reason that the Founders did that. The purpose is to hold government accountable.
JG: Is this period of hostility between the executive and the press truly unprecedented? You’re the editor of the newspaper that broke and reported on Watergate. Can you put this in historical context?
MB: Watergate is probably the best analog to what’s happening today. Richard Nixon was very hostile toward the press, so we were under constant attack. The press’s standing with the American public was very low at that time. People perceived the investigation of the president, and the whole Watergate investigation, as being highly politically motivated. And then, ultimately, Nixon had to resign, and the standing of the press actually went up after that. Our approval ratings reached probably the highest point in memory. They were probably as high as they’re ever going to get. They were in the mid-50s. We’re always going to have people upset with us.
JG: There’s a disagreement among several editors about the use of the word “lie” to describe things that the president has said.
MB: We have not rushed to use the word “lie” in headlines or in stories, because I think you have to actually have documented proof that whoever you’re saying lied actually knew that what he or she was saying was in fact false. So we haven’t used that. We’ve used “falsehood.” We’ve said “untrue.” Now, there may come a point where we would use that word, “lie,” because it becomes evident that the president does know that what he’s saying is not true. I think we’re getting to that point.
JG: You recently put on the banner of The Washington Post, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” as the motto of the paper. Does that term risk making you part of the resistance?
MB: No. And we don’t view ourselves as part of the resistance. The day after the inauguration, the president went to CIA headquarters and he said that he was at war with the media. Well, we’re not at war. We’re at work. We’re doing the job that’s provided for in the First Amendment of the Constitution. That phrase, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” is something that our owner, Jeff Bezos, wanted to do well before Trump was elected president. He wanted to capture our mission and synthesize it in a few words. And our mission is to shine light in dark corners, to hold government accountable.
JG: Let me ask you about the upside of the Trump era vis-à-vis the press. Your newspaper just crossed a line: a million digital subscribers. The press seems to be benefiting from this fight, which the president initiated but which also seems to be helping our business.
MB: There’s no question that we have experienced the “Trump bump.” People want to support us because they want their government to be held accountable, particularly this administration. But there’s more to it than that. Over the course of this election, and certainly this presidency, people have stopped taking the press for granted in a way that they did before. People took the press for granted in this country for decades, and now they’ve come to realize that we’re actually fundamental to a democracy, to the health of a democracy, and that if they want quality journalism, they’re going to have to support quality journalism by paying for it.
JG: How do you convince people who believe that you’re presenting fake facts that, No, we have subjected our stories to a process of proving that this is empirically true. How do you convince people—and this goes to a larger question about the divisions in America—that, however imperfectly, we’re actually trying to get at an observable fact?
MB: When we have stories that confirm people’s preexisting points of view, they like those stories. They share those stories. Even the president has shared our stories on Twitter when he happens to like the story, and then in the next tweet he says we’re fake news. So there’s an internal inconsistency there.
Look, quality is really important. I participate in every hiring decision, because I think every person we hire can make a huge difference for the better—or for the worse. One reporter can make a huge difference in our success, but they could also cause us a huge problem. One copy editor can catch a serious mistake and prevent a disaster for us. So we try to be rigorous in the hiring process to make the right decisions. It’s also important that we hire good editors to make sure they act as a quality-control mechanism in our news organization and that we emphasize editing as much as we do reporting as we continue to grow.