Somewhere there’s a photo of Marty Baron dancing.
Shot in the early ’90s, it shows Baron, then an editor at the Los Angeles Times, doing the Electric Slide at a Halloween party at Bogart’s, a club in Long Beach. Baron is holding a red cowboy hat and wearing sneakers and a blue, short-sleeve shirt in a loud print.
At least that’s how it’s been described. I’ve never seen the photo; no one would show it to me. Because in addition to being a legendary journalist, Baron has a well-earned reputation for being serious and seriously circumspect. Friends and former colleagues are confident he wouldn’t want them to share a 30-year-old photo of him gettin’ jiggy with it at Bogart’s. Just talking about Baron feels like a betrayal to some.
“I’m a little reluctant. Marty’s a special human being to my family,” said Javier Marin, who started El Planeta, Boston’s first Spanish-language newspaper, not long after Baron became editor of The Boston Globe in 2001. “I love the mystery about him.”
At 68, Baron is retired now. He left The Washington Post in 2021 and lives alone in the Berkshires. He’s spent the past few years writing a book, “Collision of Power: Trump, Bezos, and The Washington Post,” which comes out Oct. 3. Clocking in at more than 500 pages, it chronicles the purchase of the Post by one of the world’s richest men and the threat to American democracy posed by a president who routinely attacked the media as an enemy of the people. For news junkies and journalists, it’s a page-turner; Baron writes about having Amazon founder Jeff Bezos as a boss and shares, at last, his assessment of Donald Trump.
What the book doesn’t do, predictably, is reveal much about the author. Baron, it seems, is OK if the public thinks actor Liev Schreiber got it exactly right when he portrayed Baron as stiff and unsmiling in “Spotlight,” the Oscar-winning film about the Globe’s 2002 investigation of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests.
“Look, this isn’t a memoir,” Baron said flatly during a nearly-three-hour conversation at his timber-framed, two-fireplace house on a hill 15 minutes from Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer retreat in Lenox. “This isn’t intended to be, ‘Hey, here’s my life.’ That wouldn’t have been a very interesting book.”
Maybe not, but Baron is more nuanced than the brusque, no-nonsense newsman he’s widely perceived to be. It’s true he can be terse and intense — “I had never led a staff with the express goal of being liked,” he writes — but Baron, who hired me as a Living/Arts writer at the Globe in 2003, also can be funny; speaks fluent Spanish; is an avid hiker, biker, and kayaker; collects the art of photorealist painter Robert Cottingham; and knows a thing or two about classical music and dance.
When I emailed to ask if he’d talk to me about any of that, Baron demurred. “I’m happy to discuss my role in public life,” he replied warily. I took that as a qualified yes, figuring if he told me only what kind of bicycle he rides I’d be adding substantially to the Wikipedia entry of an editor whose newsrooms — at The Miami Herald, the Globe, and the Post — won a combined 18 Pulitzer Prizes.
“Even most people who, quote unquote, know Marty don’t really know him,” said longtime Globe reporter Walter Robinson, who worked on the paper’s Pulitzer-winning series about pedophile priests. “Marty is an arm’s-length kind of guy, but his arms are a lot longer than the rest of us.”
It’s no surprise perhaps that someone as private as Baron would land in the Berkshires, an idyllic outpost with enough arts, culture, and community, at least in the summer, to keep him interested. (He also owns an apartment on New York’s Upper West Side.) Baron is a regular at Jacob’s Pillow, the renowned dance center in Becket; attends concerts at Tanglewood; and sees plays at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, most recently a production of August Wilson’s “Fences.”
Baron’s endorsement of westernmost Massachusetts has made him something of an ambassador for Berkshire County. He’s quietly encouraged several friends to buy homes in the area, even acting as a de facto agent in a few cases. Last fall, he looked at a place in Otis for Alan Miller, a former colleague at the LA Times.
“Marty called us from the house and said it was quite spectacular,” said Miller, founder of the nonprofit News Literacy Project, who lives with his wife in Bethesda, Md. “He told us, ‘If you’re not interested, I’m going to resign as your scout.’ That got our attention.”
The Millers bought the house on Hayes Pond and Baron has been by a few times this summer toting his foldable Oru kayak.
“I’m creating a bit of my own community,” he said. “It’s very down to earth here. It’s not like the Hamptons. Nobody is trying to show off. People are friendly, yet they also respect everybody’s privacy.”
But he’s not biking. In one of the rare personal asides in the book, Baron reveals he’s been diagnosed with a genetic bleeding disorder that causes swift and severe nosebleeds. Twice while in Washington, the blood loss was so extreme he had to hurry to a hospital to get an emergency infusion. The affliction, which killed his father, makes it dangerous to go for 40-mile rides, something he used to enjoy.
“I couldn’t be caught in the middle of nowhere having a terrible nosebleed,” said Baron, who travels to Mass. General Hospital once a month for treatment. “That’s just not going to work.”
Journalist is the only job Baron ever wanted. He was the editor of his high school newspaper, at Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa, Fla., and also at Lehigh University, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a BA and an MBA. (Years later, in an address to a graduating class at his high school, Baron read from the rejection letters he’d received from Princeton, Williams, and Amherst College, whose admissions office assured him he was “qualified for further education” — just not at Amherst.) For Baron, the appeal of journalism wasn’t storytelling, but the opportunity to hold the powerful to account. “It was more mission-driven,” he said. “I believed in what newspapers did.”
That helps explain his poker face. It’s not a pose. Baron describes himself as “inherently stoic,” but he also has a radical devotion to the idea that a journalist should not be an actor in their own story. It’s a belief that put him at odds with some in the Post newsroom, especially around the paper’s coverage of race and politics. In his book, Baron writes about reporters using Twitter as a platform for “personal opinions, advocacy, anger, snark, sniping, failed humor, virtue signaling, personal animus, and a rush to judgment,” which he felt could undermine the credibility of the Post’s reporting at a time when President Trump was calling the paper “a hate machine” and “a big fat lie.”
But some staffers bristled, complaining that Baron was out of touch or, worse, timid. Former Post reporter Wesley Lowery, who left the paper after being told to curtail his use of Twitter to call out competitors and express opinion, may have had Baron in mind when, later, he wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review that the press is “engaging in performative neutrality, paint-by-the-numbers balance, and thoughtless deference to government officials.” The clash with reporters wounded Baron and, ultimately, contributed to his decision to retire.
“I’m still waiting for someone to show me the journalist’s tweet that changed the world,” Baron said, his voice rising above its usual monotone. “Because I haven’t seen one yet. Actual journalism has changed the world, and changed it for the better in so many instances.”
Politico’s Peter Canellos, the Globe’s Washington bureau chief under Baron, describes his former boss as a traditionalist with “a kind of ascetic presence” in the newsroom. “There are charismatic editors who tend to provoke very polarizing reactions. Marty is not that editor,” Canellos said. “As the avatar of powerful objective journalism, it certainly helps that Marty doesn’t overshare about his personal feelings.”
But unshackled now, Baron is sharing a few personal feelings. In the book, he calls Trump “the liar in chief” who’s “bitter, deceitful, and self-absorbed.” More surprising, though, is his unqualified praise of Bezos, whom Baron hails as “disciplined, highly analytical, consistently strategic, and tactical,” while also being “charming,” “witty and self-deprecating,” and “delightful company.” Asked if he feels obligated to extol Bezos because his deep pockets helped turned the Post around — the staff doubled in size after he bought the paper in 2013 — Baron looked slightly annoyed.
“That’s ridiculous,” he said, leaning forward. “He’s the bête noire for so many people, the fact that I said anything positive is a greater risk. Why would I say it if I didn’t mean it?”
Baron’s outsider status served him well, particularly at the Globe. Arriving from The Miami Herald, he’d been apprehensive. He knew virtually no one in Boston and wasn’t the publisher’s first choice to be editor. (Sandra Rowe, then at The Oregonian, had been offered the Globe’s top job, but turned it down.) “Plus,” Baron said, “people were making a point of me being the first Jewish editor of the Globe, and I thought that was kind of strange.”
Baron got the lay of the land by reading — Walter Muir Whitehill’s “Boston: A Topographical History” and Thomas O’Connor’s “Boston Catholics: A History of the Church and Its People,’' among other books — and, on weekends, walking around the city, even as he worried that the Boston Herald might photograph him consulting a map.
“Spotlight” screenwriter Josh Singer said he wrote that scene — new Globe editor gets lost and looks at a map — but it didn’t make it into the movie. “What I loved about it is it shows Marty is always learning. He would have made a very good Talmudic scholar back in the day,” said Singer, whose “Spotlight” screenplay won the Academy Award. “That’s why he has a preternatural sense for where the story is.”
A scene that did make it into the movie is Baron’s first morning news meeting on his first day at the Globe on July 30, 2001. Citing a recent Eileen McNamara column about sexual-abuse claims against a retired Roman Catholic priest, Baron suggested the paper investigate the allegations. Six months later, the Globe published a series of stories that reverberate around the world to this day.
Schreiber’s portrayal, Baron writes, “afforded me a lasting image as humorless, laconic, and yet resolute.” But, honestly, he doesn’t object. “I am serious and I probably am laconic,” he said. (Schreiber and Baron have stayed in touch, and the actor narrates the audiobook of “Collision of Power.”)
When “Spotlight” was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015, Robinson, who’s portrayed in the movie by actor Michael Keaton, said he was stunned by the look on Baron’s face as the lights went up.
“You don’t think of Marty Baron with tears in his eyes,” Robinson said. “It was a glimpse of Marty that Marty doesn’t normally show in public.”
Janice Page has seen it, too — at Bogart’s in Long Beach. Page, the arts editor at the Post who also worked with Baron at the Globe and the LA Times, was in the band performing at Bogart’s when Baron was persuaded to join co-workers doing the Electric Slide.
“Professional Marty is formidable,” Page said. “But there he was, just dancing.”