People in journalism will eat this book up. Normal people should like it too. Martin Baron — “Marty,” in the business — is the era’s most respected newspaper editor. He led the Miami Herald in its coverage of the 2000 Bush-Gore election and Florida recount, and The Washington Post through Trump’s time up to the Jan. 6 insurrection. In between he was in charge of the Globe during its “Spotlight” exposes of pedophilia and coverup by the local Catholic hierarchy, which led to a Pulitzer Prize for public service and an Oscar-winning film.
But because Baron had published no previous books and hardly any articles, I had no idea of what kind of writer he would be. Editing and writing are related but separate skills, like directing and acting. Baron turns out to be good at both.
In a book that contains virtually no personal information about himself — he is 400 pages in before mentioning that he was born in Florida to immigrants from Israel, or that he is fluent in Spanish — Baron notes that in the “Spotlight” film he was “portrayed by Liev Schreiber, who afforded me a lasting image as humorless, laconic, and yet resolute.” He means it as deadpan humor; if this book affords him a revised image, it would be as laconic, resolute, and not at all humorless but instead slyly and often cuttingly observant.
For instance, the book’s dramatic opening account is of what happened when Donald Trump invited Baron, two other senior Post officials, and the Post’s owner, Jeff Bezos, for an ill-conceived charm-offensive dinner with Trump and some of his family at the White House. Baron says: “As Trump meandered from one subject to the next, Jared sat straight, impassive, and almost entirely uncommunicative. (So, we had that in common.)” Trump takes a break from a grievance-filled monologue for family talk. “‘He’s a good kid,’ he said of Kushner, who at the time was thirty-six and a father of three.”
“Collision of Power” gets episodically into current media debates over “objectivity” and Trump-era duties of the press. But that’s not really what the book is about. Baron barely engages these arguments, waving them off with lines like “All of this commentary was nonsense” and “Just do our job. It’s that simple.”
Instead “Collision” offers something scarcer and far more interesting than most arguments over theory, which is a vivid and detailed chronology of how his part of the press actually did its job, day by day, especially during his enormously consequential eight-plus years at the Post.
So many things happened so quickly, in so many realms, that the book is a kind of time capsule of this convulsive era. Within months of his arrival at the paper, the revered Graham family, owners for five generations, sold the Post to Bezos, of Amazon, who the Grahams felt had the “brains, tech savvy, and money” the paper needed to survive. Soon after that, Bezos removed the last Graham family member from her position as publisher and replaced her with a former longtime aide to Ronald Reagan, Fred Ryan. Baron says he liked and respected Ryan, but their endless struggles are a running thread through the book.
Then there was news itself: Edward Snowden’s leaked NSA data (should the Post publish it?). The “Steele Dossier” and related accounts of Russian efforts on behalf of Donald Trump (same question). “But her emails” — about which Baron says, “I wish we could get a mulligan: Russia deserved at least equal weight.” The Mueller report. The 2020 election. The cataclysm of Jan. 6. Much more, including how the Post should respond when Saudi operatives butchered one of its contributors, Jamal Khashoggi. Somehow amid all this Baron must have managed to take detailed daily notes.
To underscore the value of what he has given us: We all know what we like and hate about daily coverage. Baron spares us theories about the sausage-making and instead shows us how it occurs.
The barbed portraits along the way keep the book lively. I’ll leave them for readers to discover, and I’m sure some of those criticized will respond. The biggest surprise among the portrayals is that of Jeff Bezos, for being so positive. Yes, of course, what else would we expect: He’s the owner and boss. But Baron comes across as willing to criticize anybody he thinks deserves it, including Bezos on a few points. A contrast between billionaires is instructive. Nearly every backstage detail we hear about Elon Musk only makes him seem worse. Baron’s numerous exchanges with Bezos have the opposite effect.
One example of dozens: Baron says that before the 2016 Trump-Clinton election, publisher Fred Ryan wanted the paper not to make any endorsement, since he viewed Hillary Clinton as “profoundly flawed.” According to Baron, Bezos was on a call and heard the phrase, “If and when we make an endorsement,” from the late Fred Hiatt, then the editorial page editor. Bezos asked, “Why wouldn’t we make an endorsement?” “The matter was settled,” Baron says. (Ever scrupulous, Baron notes that Fred Ryan now “adamantly disputes” this account.)
Baron also describes how Bezos forthrightly handled the humiliating tabloid publicity about his own extramarital affair, and says he never questioned or interfered in the Post’s often-critical coverage of Amazon. For all his stupendous wealth, Bezos also emphasized that the Post and the whole news business needed to stop giving away their product and make themselves into viable, paying concerns. Baron agreed. “If he treated us like a charity and later tired of us, we’d be in deep trouble, left with operations as unsustainable as the day he bought The Post.”
Near the end of the book, Baron strikes a more wistful, beleaguered note. He doesn’t like his reporters devoting so much time to TV appearances, which Fred Ryan encouraged; as for social media, “day after day, Twitter seemed to bring out reporters’ worst, most unthinking impulses.” Kids these days. He is deeply stung by staff criticism of how his Post handled opportunities for women and minorities. “I could not understand why others would question my motives (and those of my fellow editors).” It is the line in the book that sounds least self-aware.
As the book ends, Joe Biden is being sworn in as president, and Marty Baron steps aside as an editor, presumably to his next role as a writer. This book is an excellent start.
COLLISION OF POWER: Trump, Bezos, and The Washington Post
By Martin Baron
Flatiron, 560 pp., $34.99
James Fallows is the author of 12 books and now writes the Breaking the News blog on Substack.