20 February 2024

Martin Baron: "If Trump returns to the White House he will use his power to punish traditional media"

He believes that the former president would use every legal weapon at his disposal.
In an interview granted to the magazine Hora de Cierre, of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), renowned U.S. editor Martin Baron referred to the consequences that a second presidency of Donald Trump would have for journalism. He also anticipated the launching in May of the Spanish edition of his latest book and spoke about the future of the profession in the face of the irruption of artificial intelligence. The following is the interview.

Your book "Collision of Power: Trump, Bezos, and The Washington Post" has been described as a dissection of political power and the press in the U.S. What lessons does it offer us for the immediate future, especially given the possibility of a second Trump administration?

As I try to make clear in the book, the purpose of a free and independent press is to give the public the information people need and deserve to know so that they might govern themselves. Central to that mission is holding power to account. The most powerful person in the world no doubt is the president of the United States. We can expect that if Trump returns to the White House, he will abuse his power. How do we know that? First, he did it during his first four years as president. Second, he now speaks openly about taking actions that are, by any measure, authoritarian in nature: Using the Department of Justice to prosecute those he considers his political enemies. Bringing treason charges against the press and even former aides of his, such as the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Deploying the military to suppress what would be entirely legitimate protests by invoking the Insurrection Act. Eliminating job protections for government personnel and installing his own political loyalists in every level of the federal government. We in the press, and certainly at The Washington Post, endeavored to hold Trump to account during his four years in the White House. If he wins another four years, we owe it to the American public to do that again, with extra vigor, reporting forthrightly about how Trump is using his immense power.

In a Poynter article, journalists reading your latest book are advised to start at the end, where you raise the need for a new definition of truth for journalistic work. Do you agree?

No, please start at the beginning! I suspect the author of that Poynter article made that remark somewhat in jest, really just to make a point about a central theme of the book. But I hope readers will start at the beginning. Other reviewers, thankfully, have said the book provides a compelling narrative. I hope readers will consume the book in the way that's most effective and interesting — and the way I intended. But if readers want to start at the end, so be it. As long as they read the book, I'm not going to complain!

The Washington Post slogan "Democracy Dies in Darkness," adopted in 2017, is always unsettling. Do you think the outlook for press freedom is darker now than it was when you ran the paper?

I do worry about the outlook for journalism today. The press in the United States has continued to lose the public's trust. We are constantly under attack — routinely in the form of malicious political rhetoric, at other times because of incessant litigation claiming defamation, and too often in the form of threats of physical harm to our staff. The United States still remains a far better environment for journalism than many other countries. Thankfully, we have the First Amendment of the Constitution as a form of protection. There is no doubt in my mind, however, that if Trump returns to the White House he will use his power to punish traditional media that he regards as his political enemies. He will, I suspect, use every legal weapon at his disposal.

Trump seems likely to take his cue from autocrats in other countries. In too many countries, and particularly in Latin America, independent journalism is struggling under the repressive measures implemented by dictators and others who covet dictatorial powers. It is hard to identify a country where conditions for the media have improved rather than deteriorated. I have immense admiration for journalists in Latin America who remain committed to our mission despite the menacing threats to their freedom and well-being.

You oversaw the newsroom during a period of significant change in the media landscape. What do you believe were the most impactful changes during your tenure?

I believe we in the industry have finally come to understand that the digital era requires fundamental changes in how we tell stories and how we disseminate our information. The new ways don't guarantee success, of course, but the old ways definitively no longer work. I believe we also must accept that our strategies and tactics will have to be constantly re-evaluated as technology changes. Whatever we're doing today, no matter how successful, may not work tomorrow. We are working in a field that is subject to constant disruption. We can now anticipate radical upheaval as a result of generative artificial intelligence. We need to be both constant learners and fast learners. And while we can and must hold on to our values, the way we tell stories and distribute them cannot remain constant.

How do you think the role of investigative journalism has evolved, and what challenges does it face in today's digital age?

I believe our tools have become more powerful. I'm particularly impressed, for example, with visual forensics that I see in The Washington Post, New York Times and other media outlets. Gathering videos from many sources, piecing them together and subjecting them to sophisticated analysis using new digital tools can be enormously powerful in conducting investigations.

Other than overwhelming political pressures in many countries, the biggest challenge to investigative journalism is undoubtedly the scarcity of money and time. Media outlets need to earn enough to pay for time-consuming, expensive investigations. But revenue at most news organizations is diminishing.

The Washington Post expanded its international coverage under your leadership. How important do you believe it is for American news organizations to cover global events, and what impact does this have on shaping public perception?

I think international coverage is critical for American news organizations like The Washington Post. What happens in other countries has a profound impact on our own. Economic and political conditions in Latin America, for example, have an enormous impact on the United States — in terms of trade, migration and drug trafficking, for example. Also, the United States has been incessantly at war since the attacks of 9/11: first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq and now, indirectly, in Ukraine as we provide arms and humanitarian aid. Events in the Middle East have led to massive protests in the United States and are destined to have a big influence on voting patterns in the presidential election this year. The American press has a duty to reflect what's happening around the world fully and fairly.

It seems to us that you are not very optimistic about the close relationship that journalists and some media have developed with social networks. Do you think that this relationship should be rethought? If so, in which ways?

My problem is with the behavior of individual journalists, not the media outlets themselves. Most news organizations, at least in the United States, have clear guidelines on how their staff members should behave on social media. The problem is that many journalists are violating those standards, undermining the reputation of the very institutions that employ them. The worst social media behavior is almost certainly on Twitter, or X, which has become a forum for impulsive commentary, sarcasm, failed humor, a rush to judgment and the dissemination of unverified information. None of that is good for a journalist engaging in that behavior. None of that is good for other staffers whose reputations are damaged by the reckless and intemperate behavior of their colleagues. And certainly none of that enhances the reputation of any media institution that seeks a reputation for open-minded, fair, honest, honorable and thorough journalism. On the contrary, it has a corrosive effect on public confidence in the press.

As technology continues to advance at the speed of light, what do you see as the most significant opportunities and challenges for the future of journalism? Also, looking ahead, will AI benefit journalism or the opposite?

The most significant opportunity — and challenge — is surely generative AI. Generative AI will make fabrications of every sort — in still images, video images and audio recordings —easier, more frequent, more dangerous and infinitely more challenging to detect and disprove. We are sure to see a lot of this in the final months of the U.S. presidential election this year. We've already seen it, in fact. As a profession, and as a society, we are unnervingly ill-prepared to deal with the consequences. The consequences could be catastrophic. Images and audio recordings that are fake will be accepted as real. Those that are real will be dismissed as fake. The public will wonder if it is even possible to distinguish truth from fiction. Distrust and cynicism will deepen. Propaganda will flourish. Reality will become a stranger. The soil is fertile for malicious exploitation.

But generative AI also can be used constructively as a time-management tool within our newsrooms. It is a powerful tool, but it always requires human review. Using the already verified information within our possession, for example, generative AI can write headlines that are effective for search engines and social media, can quickly find the best photos to accompany our stories, can write alerts and update stories with newly obtained facts. It can also be used to quickly detect information elsewhere that might aid us in the reporting process. There are innumerable other ways generative AI can be used to beneficial effect.

Your prestige as a top American editor has spread globally, including throughout Latin America. Are there any plans to publish your book in Spanish?

Yes, a publisher in Spain, La Esfera de los Libros, anticipates publishing the book in May of this year.

What would be your advise to Latin American editors fighting against rising authoritarianism, facing the growth of organized crime amidst a wave of disinformation and a sustainability crisis?

It is hard to give great advice, to be honest. I do not want to preach to journalists who are dealing with truly horrific conditions. I'm well familiar with the pressures that Latin American editors and reporters are confronting. None of the pressures I and my journalistic colleagues faced in the United States can compare.

I would say this, however: It's important that all of us in this profession adhere to the highest standards. Let's not give ammunition to our enemies that allow them to easily attack us. Let's focus on providing full and fair coverage, ensuring that everything we publish or broadcast is completely verified, and that our stories are as rigorously reported as possible. Let's provide every piece of documentation we can. We have the tools to do that online.

Of course, while journalists should be courageous, they also must protect themselves. They do themselves, their families, their media outlets and the public no favors if they are arrested, imprisoned, attacked or assassinated. I can't begin to advise others on how to balance courage and caution. Each journalist and each media organization will have to assess for itself how staff safety (and also business sustainability) are best achieved.


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