The phone call that would, just hours later, inflict a highly damaging blow to Donald Trump’s presidential ambitions came through to Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold mid-morning on Friday 7 October. The source – a Snapchat-era “Deep Throat” – informed Fahrenthold, whose dogged exposure of the operations of the Trump Foundation had so infuriated the billionaire, that they had some previously unaired video of Trump. Would he be interested in viewing it?
“David recognised immediately that [the footage] was explosive,” says the Post’s executive editor Martin Baron, “and the first task was to make sure it was authenticated, which he was able to do pretty quickly.”
The Post sent a transcript of the video – outtakes from a 2005 edition of the NBC show Access Hollywood, in which Trump is heard bragging that “when you’re a star … you can do anything [to women] … grab them by the pussy” – to the Trump campaign for comment.
“They asked us for the actual video,” says the softly-spoken Baron, “and shortly after that they sent us Donald Trump’s initial response.” Five hours on from the tip-off, the video and accompanying piece went live on the Post, reverberating around the world.
While Grope-gate (as some are inevitably calling it) may be a far cry from Watergate, the Post’s most famous scoop, it was nevertheless a momentum-shifting event in the presidential race, which has seen Trump, who had previously claimed that he could “shoot somebody” on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue and not lose votes, since struggle to regain his swagger. Yet, while the Trump revelations have lately flowed thick and fast, there has been criticism (even in the Post) that much of the US media was initially slow to take Trump seriously, particularly early on in the Republican primaries.
Baron vigorously defends his corner. “At the Post, we took the candidacy seriously from the very beginning,” he insists, going on to cite reporting, among other things, on Trump Mortgage, the Trump University, and his “multiple bankruptcies in Atlantic City”.
“Other people reacted in a different way. Certainly there was a tremendous amount of cable coverage of his rallies,” he says. “Wall-to-wall, they would cover his rallies from beginning to end, on live television. I don’t happen to think that was a wise decision on their part.”
Baron does concede, however, that Trump is “skilful” at using the media. “[During the primaries] he would call into shows, which would normally require a candidate to show up in person, they would just take his phone call and he’d be on the air, and then he’d call the next show. He’s been by far the most accessible presidential candidate ever.”Indeed, even when the Trump campaign barred the Post’s reporters from his events (for, they claimed, inaccurate reporting), he still made himself available to Baron’s team. “We had actual published interviews with him, [even] while we were on the blacklist,” he says.
Born in 1954 and raised in Tampa, Florida, Baron, who’s a fluent Spanish speaker, cut his teeth at the Miami Herald, which he first joined in 1976. He went on to work at some of America’s most prestigious titles – the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and the Boston Globe. As Globe editor, the paper won six Pulitzer prizes, including in 2003 for the Spotlight team’s investigation into sexual abuse by Catholic priests, which was turned into the Oscar-winning movie Spotlight last year. In 2013, he became executive editor of the Post, which a little over three years ago was acquired by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for $250m from the Graham family.
Earlier this year, the Post – whose traffic numbers reached a record 83.1m unique visitors in September 2016, a 40% year-on-year increase – moved from its former base to a gleaming, light-filled building on K Street, where reporters sit cheek-by-jowl with software engineers. Beyond financial capital, the Amazon CEO has provided the Post with “intellectual capital, too”, Baron explains. “He’s basically forced us to confront how the internet is different and how we have to adapt to it and embrace it. He’s also given us what he calls ‘runway’, which is time to experiment. So, in funding the experiments, we have time to let them play out, without having to adhere to some strict timeline or strict requirements for profit.”One area Bezos was especially keen that Baron address was the issue of aggregation. “One of the first questions he asked was: ‘You do these long narratives, these deep investigations, but after you’re published, within 15 minutes, half a dozen websites have decided to aggregate you – and they get more traffic than you do. How do you propose to deal with that?’” Baron’s solution was, in effect, to fight fire with fire; hiring in-house bloggers, not only did the Post start aggregating itself, but it began aggregating other people’s content too.
Since acquiring the Post, Bezos – who’s added 140 employees in three years – has held regular conference calls with senior staff. So how interested is he in the editorial side of the paper? The question isn’t even complete before Baron jumps in: “He doesn’t inject himself at all into our journalism. He doesn’t suggest stories for us to do. He doesn’t critique us in any way. Every once in a while, when he sees a story which delights him, he tells us.
“[The conference calls] are all about tactics and strategy. We talked about aggregation, way back when. We’ve talked about our audience engagement team. But in terms of particular stories, particular projects, or particular avenues of coverage, he does not get involved at all.”When asked what he thinks the Post’s output and business model will look like in five years time, Baron concedes that he simply doesn’t know. “I always say the people who are most certain about what the model will be are the furthest removed from any responsibility for actually making that model occur,” he says a touch world-wearily.
“There’s so much that’s happened so fast, and the pace of change has really accelerated. Today we’re sitting here talking about what we are doing for Facebook Live. Or what we’re doing for Snapchat. We’re talking about using bots for Amazon Echo, which we did to provide scores during the Olympics. And during this election we’ll be [using bots] to provide election results. [These aren’t] things we talked about a year ago – maybe we should have, but we didn’t.”Despite his ink-stained background, Baron believes that if institutions such as the Post are to survive, they have to think and behave like technology companies: they need to move fast, take risks, and accept that failure is an essential part of experimentation. “I think people [at the Post] do feel free to propose new ideas and try new things,” he says. “And there’s no penalty for failing. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.” But, he adds quickly, newspapers must always stick to their principles and values. “We can never violate that. If we do, then we destroy our entire argument for existence.”
Education: Lehigh University, Pennsylvania. BA Journalism 1972-1976; MBA 1975-1976.
1976: reporter, the Miami Herald
1979: business reporter, Los Angeles Times
1983: business editor, Los Angeles Times
1991: assistant managing editor, Los Angeles Times
1996: assistant to the managing editor, the New York Times
1997: associate managing editor, the New York Times
2000: executive editor, the Miami Herald
2001: editor, the Boston Globe
2003: the Globe wins Pulitzer prize for public service (for exposing sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic church)
2013: executive editor, the Washington Post
2014: the Post wins public service Pulitzer prize, with the Guardian US (for revealing widespread secret surveillance by the NSA)
2016: the Post wins Pulitzer prize for national reporting (for building a national database on police killings)