War of words: Marty Baron weighs in on media coverage of terrorism against Israel

Former Washington Post editor: ‘The best you can do is have a moral compass yourself, feel that you're covering the story from all the appropriate angles, and that’s probably the best you can do.’

Marty Baron, the former longtime editor of The Washington Post and the author of a new memoir about his tenure atop the paper, has a personal connection to the war between Israel and Hamas that is now dominating the international news cycle.

The 68-year-old veteran newspaperman, who left the Post in 2021 after a nearly decade-long run, is the son of Israeli immigrants and has several relatives living in the Jewish state, some of whom he has spoken with since Hamas’ attack — which he characterized as an “unprovoked” act of “state terrorism.”

“I feel a stronger connection than I think most people would,” Baron, whose family members were not directly affected by the attack in southern Israel, said in an interview with Jewish Insider on Monday afternoon. “But over time, of course, I’ve been in the role of being a journalist, and I view that as being independent. I’ve always viewed it that way. So, do I have a higher level of interest given my family history? Almost certainly. But as a journalist, I always try to maintain journalistic independence.”

Baron’s fierce commitment to objectivity is prevalent throughout his recently published book, Collision of Power: Trump, Bezos, and The Washington Post, released last week. In a phone conversation with JI from Seattle, where he was promoting the memoir, Baron discussed the war in Israel and weighed in on some emerging journalistic debates surrounding mainstream media coverage of the conflict, among other issues he often faced as a top editor at several leading national newspapers.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jewish Insider: As a former longtime newspaper editor, how have you been watching the mainstream media’s evolving coverage of the war in Israel, and how would you approach it if you were leading the Post newsroom now?

Martin Baron: The major news organizations that I follow seem to be doing a very comprehensive and thorough job. They’ve clearly deployed a lot of resources to the story, as they should. It’s hugely important. They have people on the ground. It seems that they have sent additional people into the region, people who have experience covering that region before. They’re covering it, from what I can tell, from every angle, obviously what’s happening on the ground being the most important, but covering its implications for the U.S. involvement in terms of deploying military resources to the region as well; the reaction within the Jewish community in the United States; the protests on one side or the other of the conflict, either pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian; the role of Europe; the implications for Israeli politics; the implications for normalization of formal diplomatic relations between Arab countries and Israel; the reaction from from ordinary people and Arab countries. So I think the coverage has been quite good, quite comprehensive, and I don’t have much to add beyond that. I think they’ve done a very good job.

JI: There’s an emerging meta-debate around the language that newsrooms have been using as the war has unfolded. With this conflict, as in others, there’s a question of whether or not the word ‘terrorists’ should be used over ‘militants’ or ‘fighters,’ for example, to describe Hamas. Do you have any thoughts on the language that news organizations should be using to characterize Hamas?

Baron: I found myself in the middle of those controversies plenty of times and over a long period of time. I mean, the basic policy that we had at the Post, which I embrace, is we should talk about acts of terrorism rather than characterizing individuals, and so when it’s a terrorist act we call it a terrorist act. We did tend to use the word ‘militants.’ I mean, Hamas is the government in Gaza. But clearly, at least in my mind, this was an act of terrorism, no question. There is such a thing as state terrorism, by the way, and in my view, this qualifies as state terrorism, so that would be my take on it.

JI: So in terms of news writing, you would advocate for ‘militants’ to describe Hamas but would characterize the attack more broadly as state terrorism?

Baron: I think the basic Post policy on this is as good as we’re gonna get. I mean, I realize that people on all sides have different views about what ought to be used. People who are advocates for an independent state for Palestinians or people who’ve advocated for their perspective have said, ‘Well, why don’t we use other language to describe the Israelis when they engage in tactics that are objectionable?’ There’s just simply no way that people are going to agree on the language, and that’s true of so many other circumstances, not just in Israel, by the way. 

Inevitably, a government wants the other side, if there are attacks, they want the acts to be described as terrorism; they want the individuals who committed the act to be described as terrorists; they use the word terrorists themselves; they want the media to use that word. I think what’s really important is that we cover what really happened. We can show people what happened, we can show that there was an unprovoked attack and there were huge civilian casualties, enormous brutality, kidnappings, slaughter of people, innocent civilians. I think the really important thing is not to get obsessive about the language that’s used, the terms that are used, but are reporters on the ground, are the reporters there showing what actually happened? And I think they are.

JI: This attack has been described as Israel’s 9/11, its Pearl Harbor, more surprising than the Yom Kippur War. Would you agree with that assessment, and in your long tenure as a head editor, can you recall any commensurate sort of conflict?

Baron: I don’t know. It seems to be. I mean, I have relatives there, and that seems to be how they see it within Israel itself. And it seems like a fair analogy to me.

JI: Have you been in touch with your relatives in Israel?

Baron: Some.

JI: Were they directly affected by this conflict?

Baron: No, not the ones I’ve heard from. 

JI: In addition to having relatives in Israel, you’re also the son of Israeli immigrants. Do you feel like you have a more personal stake in this story?

Baron: I do have a lot of relatives. I haven’t been there in a long time, but I have been there a lot over the course of my life. And so, yeah, I feel a stronger connection than I think most people would. But over time, of course, I’ve been in the role of being a journalist, and I view that as being independent. I’ve always viewed it that way. So, do I have a higher level of interest given my family history? Almost certainly. But as a journalist, I always try to maintain journalistic independence.

Marty Baron at AOL Studios In New York on December 1, 2015 in New York City (Desiree Navarro/WireImage)

JI: Now that you’re no longer leading a newspaper, what has your experience been watching major global news developments like this unfold, as an independent observer rather than a shaper of coverage?

Baron: I was a top editor of three different news organizations over the course of 20 years. I was full-time in the business since 1976. I was involved in a huge number of really important stories, domestically and overseas. The time was right for me to retire, and I thought a lot about that and how much I would miss being in a newsroom. But the reality is that I was exhausted. I was ready to go. These jobs, as demonstrated by this story right now, are not just 24/7 jobs, they’re 24/7 every minute in a digital era. Did I want to continue doing that? Did I want to continue working 24/7 every minute? No, I didn’t. I felt I had done that. I was tired. I was ready to move on to something different with my life in a different way. So I don’t look at what’s happening now saying, ‘Gee, I wish I were there.’ I just was ready to go.

JI: How have you found the reception to your book since it was published last week?

Baron: I’ve been very pleased with the reception so far. It seems like people are finding it pretty intriguing. It’s rare that you get this kind of inside story on what happens in a newsroom, not just on one line of stories, like one investigation, but actually across a wide variety of stories, where you get insight into the transformation of a newsroom, where you get insight into its coverage of an unprecedented period in American history with the arrival of Donald Trump and our own confrontations with the president of the United States, and then insight into my own thinking about how we grapple with some of the issues that have emerged in our profession over this period of time. As people have correctly pointed out, it’s really kind of three books in one. 

JI: Your book offers a strong defense of journalistic objectivity. Do you think the debate around journalistic objectivity will continue to be at the forefront in American newsrooms going forward?

Baron: I think there’s a substantial debate in the profession about objectivity. First of all, I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what objectivity really means. A lot of people conflate that with false equivalence and things like that. That’s not what objectivity originally meant, and it’s not how I define it. I define it as being open-minded, rigorous, comprehensive, thorough, fair, trying to look at the facts as you discover them without being tainted, as much as possible, by your own preconceptions, and then telling the public what we found. 

Part of fairness is not only being fair to the people we’re covering, but being fair to the public, and not pretending that there is no objective reality. There is an objective reality. So we tell people what we found in an unflinching way. That is objectivity. That’s what it’s always meant. It’s not the same as balance and it’s or certainly not the same as false equivalence. And when the overwhelming evidence points in a certain direction, I think it’s important that we make that clear to the public. I think the debate is largely because of a complete misunderstanding and complete mischaracterization of what objectivity really means. 

Now, if people don’t want to use the word but they actually abide by the principle of objectivity? I’m fine with that. If they want to say open-minded inquiry, whatever it is they want to say, as long as I believe that they’re upholding the principles of objectivity as it was originally defined and I currently define it, I’m fine. So, is there a debate about that? Yes, I think there will continue to be a debate and we’ll have to see how it gets resolved.

JI: The debate around objectivity would seem to touch directly on coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and accusations, from both sides, of false equivalence.

Baron: Oh, sure. I mean, look, I’ve been involved in Middle East coverage for a long period of time. Wherever I was, we were constantly criticized. But I can tell you, I’ve been criticized both by supporters of Israel and supporters of Palestinians. I’ve been criticized on the same stories from both ends. That’s the nature of being in charge of that kind of coverage, and you have to expect that. The best you can do is have a moral compass yourself, feel that you’re covering the story from all the appropriate angles, and that’s probably the best you can do. As in most stories, you’re never going to satisfy the people who are basically advocates, people who are activists on issues. That’s just not going to happen. The Middle East is very complicated. There have been conflicts there for a very long period of time. There are different points of view. People have different life experiences there. It’s the job of media organizations to try to reflect the totality of what’s happening in the region, and I don’t expect that that will make any activist or advocate happy.

JI: Is there any particular story you’re most proud of in your career? 

Baron: I’m most proud of the work we did [at The Boston Globe] on the Catholic Church. I’m particularly proud of that because it affected the lives of ordinary people, people who weren’t sufficiently heard before we launched that investigation, people who were largely powerless and up against a very powerful institution. And so we exposed the extent of sexual abuse among priests in the church. But beyond that, we exposed that the church itself had been engaged in a policy and practice of covering up that abuse, thereby enabling that kind of abuse to continue. And so I’m most proud of that because it actually gave voice to people who hadn’t had one before and because it brought accountability to a very powerful institution that had engaged in grave wrongdoing.

JI: And what about your time at the Post?

Baron: I’m proud of our coverage of the presidency of Donald Trump. Obviously, we came in for a lot of criticism from Trump and his allies, but I think we understood what our mission is as a news organization. It’s important to remember that the First Amendment was written with the idea of holding government to account. That’s what James Madison talked about when he was the principal crafter of the First Amendment.

JI: What’s next for you now that your book has been published?

Baron: I have no idea. For the first time in my life, I don’t know what I’m going to do next, and I’m fine with that. I’ll figure it out.

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.