Martin Baron has made a major impact on American journalism and has spearheaded three major national newspapers. Members of the University of Miami community comment on his legacy.
When the history of American journalism is written, the name of Martin “Marty” Baron will be featured prominently. He has had a strong influence on many prominent newspapers, and he led The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and the Miami Herald to many Pulitzer Prizes.
Now, Baron has announced that he will retire on Feb. 28 from his role as the executive editor of The Washington Post.
Baron, who was born in Tampa, Florida, began his career at the Miami Herald in 1976. He left after a few years but eventually returned there in 2000 as executive editor. The paper won a Pulitzer for Breaking News Reporting for the coverage of the seizure of Cuban-born Elian Gonzalez by federal agents in 2001.
During his time at The Boston Globe, he oversaw the newspaper’s Spotlight investigative team, which reported on a pattern of sexual abuse by clergy in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston and the Catholic Church’s longtime cover-up of those crimes. The 2015 movie Spotlight told the story of that investigation. The role of Baron was played by Liev Schreiber, and the film earned an Academy Award. The newspaper earned a Pulitzer for its coverage.
At The Washington Post, Baron oversaw an investigation that would lead the paper to a 2014 Pulitzer Prize in public service. The articles exposed the National Security Agency’s global surveillance efforts.
Baron told The New York Times that he intends to “try to stay involved in journalism and to continue to contribute to the profession. I feel like I’m owed a breather after all these years, and I’ll use that time to think through how I want to spend my time.”
Several University of Miami faculty members shared their opinion on the legacy of Baron. The following is what they had to say.
Sam Terilli, associate professor of journalism in the School of Communication, and former counsel for the Miami Herald:
I have known many very bright and talented journalists during my career as a media lawyer, but no one who brought to the profession more intellectual intensity, basic decency, and insightful analysis than Marty Baron. He can seemingly in an instant sum up a story or investigation and understand its potential impact and what it would need to succeed.
Heidi Carr, lecturer in the School of Communication and former Miami Herald editor:
Marty Baron is to journalism in the 21st century what Woodward and Bernstein were in the 1970s. Maybe even bigger. Marty led three newsrooms through covering the biggest stories in the last 20 years and led his newsrooms to 17 Pulitzer Prizes.
What a lot of people outside the newsroom may not know is that it’s the executive editor, not the publisher, who directs the newsroom—they decide the big picture such as what projects to green light, who and how many to hire, and how much firepower to throw at a story. It may be the reporters who get their bylines on the story, but it’s their un-bylined editors, who make sure they get that story.
Marty arrived at the Herald while the Elian Gonzalez story was unfolding. Emotions were very high in the newsroom, but Marty was the calm ship’s captain in the middle of the gale. Tensions were just as high at the newspaper as they were throughout Miami—should the little boy found at sea be returned to his father in Cuba or stay with his distant relatives in Little Havana? But Marty just listened to everyone, never once giving a hint of his opinion.
Now, Marty was five levels above me—he was the boss of the managing editor, who was the boss of the city editor, who was the boss of the deputy city editor, who was my boss. From my desk in the newsroom, I could see all these people gathering in Marty’s office, and then teams of reporters, assignment editors and photo editors would be called in. Marty was never the guy who jumped on the desk, or yelled—yeah, we had had those kinds of bosses in the past, but that was not his style. He led quietly, firmly, and with a splash of dry humor. Picture this very boisterous meeting, with a bunch of very emotional journalists talking over each other. Then everyone would turn to Marty, he’d speak in his way that may have sounded like he was summing up everyone’s idea, but it was really all his, and a dozen people would spill out, loudly shouting marching orders to the rest of us.
After leading the Herald to its Pulitzer for its Elian coverage, Marty was snagged by The Boston Globe, where he made the decision to put the Spotlight team on the Catholic Church’s covering up of sex scandals. Not only did this series of stories also win a Pulitzer, the newspaper’s coverage was turned into a movie. Marty’s style was not to brag about his work being the subject of a major motion picture. Instead, he posted a photo of actor Liev Schreiber and himself on social media with one of his self-deprecating jokes.
Of course, all journalists were rooting for Spotlight to win the Oscar that year, and I was one of thousands of people who sent Marty “good luck” messages. Marty responded right away, noting that the cast, including Schreiber, was sitting in the front rows just in case they got to go up on stage, but he was in the front row of the balcony.
After guiding the Globe to six Pulitzers, Baron became The Washington Post’s executive editor in 2013.
At a time when newspapers across the country were seeing their newsrooms shrivel, The Washington Post was able to double its size (credit due to owner Jeff Bezos who was willing to invest in good journalism). The Washington Post was breaking stories weekly about the Trump presidency. Trump supporters attacked Bezos. But because there’s a wall between Bezos and the newsroom, it was Marty who was making the calls.
His newsroom leadership wasn’t all about covering the White House. He helped the newsroom heal after columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed and dismembered at the direction of a Saudi Arabian prince. Marty was also crucial in getting a Post reporter, who was being held in an Iranian jail for 500 days, released.
The Post was awarded 10 Pulitzers during his tenure for a range of high-profile stories including Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election to National Security Agency surveillance (based on whistleblower Edward Snowden).
Even though the prizes and accolades give you an idea of the importance Marty has made to journalism, I expect his motivation is more noble than winning awards. He is the epitome of a real journalist. He fights to protect sources; he keeps the focus on the stories; he puts facts in front of people, so they can make their own decisions; and he shines a light where some would prefer darkness.
David Kling, professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies:
The 2002 Spotlight series lifted the lid like no other attempt to expose clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Unlike previous cases of sexual abuse, which were often portrayed by the church and hence often reported in the press as isolated incidents (though to be sure, local dioceses attempted to coverup the extent of the abuse). At Marty Baron’s prompting, the Spotlight series focused less on priestly perpetrators of molestation on a case-by-case basis and more on the institutional cover-up. Baron emboldened the Globe‘s investigative team (four journalists, all born Catholics) to dig deeply into a clerical culture of privilege, protection, and secrecy.
In the end, Spotlight exposed a cover-up by local bishops that eventually went all the way up to Boston’s archbishop, Bernard Francis Law. Despite the various layers of protection afforded accused priests and complicit bishops (especially legal machination by church attorneys), the Globe’s dogged investigative team, with assistance from the Globe’s attorneys, prevailed in unsealing court documents that revealed systemic efforts by the Catholic hierarchy to hide sexual abuse crimes.
The Spotlight expose, thanks to Baron’s leadership, resulted in a nationwide explosion of investigative reporting on the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.
Joseph B. Treaster, professor, School of Communication. Treaster worked as a reporter and foreign correspondent for The New York Times for 30 years:
Marty Baron is a model of fine journalism. He didn’t invent good journalism. But he practices it at a very high-level. He inspires great reporting and writing. I hope that leaving The Washington Post doesn’t mean that he is leaving journalism. He’s 66 years old and I think he’s got a lot more journalism in him.
This article originally appeared at https://news.miami.edu/stories/2021/02/the-washington-posts-editor-announces-plans-to-retire.html.