Closing Out "Politics and Poetry" Series, Martin Baron Discusses Polarization and Truth in Journalism

On Thursday, April 29, Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture Ilan Stavans discussed ideological polarization in the American media with journalist Martin Baron in the final event of the college’s virtual “Politics and Poetry” series. The series was made possible by the Seminars on Opposing Views Fund, which was established by the Class of 1970.

Baron has been the executive editor of the Miami Herald, the Boston Globe and the Washington Post. During the event, the two spoke about Baron’s experience as an executive editor, debated the existence of objective truth, discussed tensions in the newsroom and reflected on trends toward digital news platforms and the crisis of local journalism. The discussion was guided by questions from students currently taking Stavans’ colloquium course “Point/Counterpoint: Politics and Poetry,” Amherst alumni and other members of the college community. 

Stavans began the virtual event with introductory remarks. He expressed his gratitude for financial support from the Class of 1970 and spoke about the array of distinguished guests that have appeared in the series. Past discussions have included New York Times Columnist David Brooks, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jericho Brown, U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, sociolinguist John McWhorter and biographers Fred Logevall and Jay Parini and are available for viewing on the Point/Counterpoint webpage

After presenting Baron as an established and respected journalist, Stavans spoke about Baron’s background. Stavans noted that Baron grew up in Tampa, Florida and then went to Lehigh University. After completing an M.B.A., he led each of the newspapers he’s worked for, all of which have received a number of Pulitzer Prizes, the marker for excellence in journalism. Stavans noted that Baron told the Ellian Gonzalez story at the Miami Herald and helped expose the child abuse by the Catholic church while he was at the Boston Globe.

Baron first explained what his role as an executive editor entailed. “The publisher is responsible for everything at the paper including circulation, pricing, marketing, human resources and legal [concerns]. So I get involved in much of the day-to-day coverage, especially the stories that are particularly sensitive,” he said.

Baron then spoke to the definition and purpose of journalism. In Baron’s mind, journalism gives people the information that they need and deserve to know in order to be engaged citizens. He cited James Madison, the primary author of the First Amendment of the Constitution, stating that it is the obligation of the press to examine public characters (i.e., government officials) and critically analyze powerful institutions.

Stavans shifted the conversation next to a discussion of objectivity. Baron cited Kellyanne Conway’s infamous comment that there are facts and “alternative facts.” He stated that he believes in objective reality.

“I think there is such a thing as objective reality. And in order to determine what is a fact, we tend to rely on certain elements. We tend to rely on education. We rely on expertise. We rely on experience. And we rely on actual evidence. And then of course, you need to put the facts into context. Otherwise, they lack meaning,” Baron noted.

Drawing on his experience in a tension-filled newsroom, Baron confessed that political polarization has made it difficult to decide what subjects should be covered. “As a news organization, the question is, ‘Isn’t it our first obligation to tell people what’s actually happening in the real world?’ But you do run into issues where if you don’t cover it exactly right, readers will question whether you were just giving [certain topics] more attention than they actually deserve and strengthening them in the process. And that is a really difficult line to follow — there is no formula [for] determining what topics should be covered,” he said.

The two then turned to speak about the rise of digital media and the future of newspapers. Baron’s instinct is that the internet, social media and wide-scale digitalization is the future. The Washington Post has three million digital-only subscribers across the nation, he said, and certain digital articles have had 100 million readers per month. He added that approximately 30 million of these readers are millennials or younger.

However, Baron admitted, it is unclear when printed newspapers will become obsolete. “I think it’ll be a lot less than 20 years. It could be 10 years. It could be five years. I don’t know. There was a time where people were predicting that the printed newspaper would be gone by now or even before now, and it’s still around. And the reason is because a lot of older people are very loyal to the printed newspaper.”

From here, Baron spoke on what he called “the biggest crisis in journalism itself”: the extinction of local journalism. In Baron’s mind, the disappearance of local newspapers is emblematic of a bigger national problem. He spoke passionately about how losing local news will mean a loss of foundational community bonds. It means that local news stories with the potential for national coverage are left unheard.

Finally, Baron touched on how his Jewish background enabled him to approach the exposé of the Catholic Church with fresh eyes. He also discussed the power that people of wealth, such as Jeff Bezos, yield over the foremost U.S. newspapers.Yet, Baron indicated that Bezos does not exploit this power and instead allows the newspaper to function autonomously. 

Corey Goldstein ’21, a student in the “Politics and Poetry” course, attended the event. “The most memorable part of the event for me was when Prof[essor] Stavans asked [Baron] about the role of news media in hyperpolarized times like these. Martin had a great answer. He said that it is important for news organizations to inform rather than just to affirm.” Goldstein thought it was very insightful when Baron said that journalists would fail in their reporting duties if  they did not confront readers with “uncomfortable truths.”

Neil Bicknell ’64, who is auditing the “Politics and Poetry” course, also attended the event. He emphasized that under skillful questioning by Stavans last Thursday, Baron revealed the man behind the title, “Executive Editor.” 

“As Professor Stavans probed, Baron affirmed repeatedly that under the ownership of Jeff Bezos, the Post has been given the resources and the freedom to pursue its mission without interference and with respect for the professionalism of the staff,” said Bicknell. All in all, he was “refreshed by the interview” and encouraged anyone concerned with the state of our democracy to view the lecture.

Colloquium student Haoran Tong ’23 also enjoyed the conversation with Baron and connected it to his class. He said, “In our class discussion, we discussed what impacts would corporatization of media bring to our notion about the citizenry, legal institutions and politics. Marty seems confident in the role private corporations take in buying traditional newspapers. He is cautiously optimistic about the future of traditional newspapers, citing ‘democracy dies in darkness’ as the central value under which Washington Post operates.”

Tong spoke also about how the discussion prompted him to discover how “poetry in journalism allows personal experiences to be broadcasted and synchronized with macro-worldly issues.” He noted that a lack of poetry’s presence in newspapers indicates a pattern of news being packaged and whole-sold to readers.