COLLISION OF POWER: Trump, Bezos, and The Washington Post, by Martin Baron
About a year and a half after acquiring The Washington Post for $250 million in 2013, Jeff Bezos told its executives to come up with a slogan for it. “An idea I want to belong to,” was the directive from Bezos, the founder of Amazon. “I’d easily pay $100 to be associated with that idea.”
The newspaper convened committees and hired branding consultants. They landed on “A Free People Demand to Know,” but MacKenzie Scott, Bezos’ wife at the time, nixed it. The slogan he finally approved, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” was unveiled in February 2017, weeks into Donald Trump’s presidency. It was a hit with readers, though it disquieted Martin Baron, the newspaper’s executive editor, who insisted, “We’re not at war with the administration. We’re at work.”
Baron’s “Collision of Power: Trump, Bezos, and The Washington Post,” is less a traditional memoir than a closely observed, gripping chronicle of politics and journalism during a decade of turmoil. (Baron joined The Post in 2013 and retired in 2021.) Against a backdrop of electoral upheaval, the #MeToo movement, a contested Supreme Court nomination, two impeachment trials and an insurrection, his monumental book tells three distinct but overlapping stories.
The first is that of a press corps struggling to make sense of a demagogue unbridled by conventional norms and boundaries, who skillfully positioned the press as his enemy. The book opens with Trump offering his musings to Bezos; Baron; The Post’s publisher, Fred Ryan; and its editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt, during a White House dinner at the very moment that the paper broke the news that the Justice Department’s special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was investigating the business dealings of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
The Post delegation tried to make clear that there would be no quid pro quo regarding coverage, yet the president called Bezos the next morning to urge The Post to be “more fair to me,” adding, “I don’t know if you get involved in the newsroom, but I’m sure you do to some degree.” Bezos, Baron writes, would “neither be courted nor clobbered into submission.”
In the book’s most candid episode, Baron depicts the newsroom’s monthslong struggle to make sense of the now largely discredited “Steele dossier,” a thinly sourced compilation of rumors about Trump’s Russia ties. Reporters, the saying goes, are only as good as their sources. The Post’s political reporters demanded that their colleagues covering national security chase down the rumors; this group found the request absurd — “We’re supposed to buttonhole national security officials to ask whether Trump is a Russian asset?” Shockingly, no one thought to tell Baron. If there are no secrets in newsrooms, there are certainly information silos.
Ultimately, Buzzfeed News published the unverified dossier, and Baron takes the outlet to task for putting digital traffic over journalistic integrity. “It circulated incendiary and salacious allegations without any evidence that they were true,” he writes. “And it gave Trump a rewarding opportunity to smear the entire press.” But he also faults himself for not pushing The Post harder to explain to readers its own effort — and inability — to corroborate the dossier’s most significant claims.
The second story “Collision of Power” relates is of the encounter of new wealth (Bezos) with old (Bezos bought The Post from the Graham family, who had owned it since 1933). Under the leadership of Katharine Graham, and then her son Donald, The Post came to global prominence for its coverage of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, but by 2012, the publisher, Katharine Weymouth (Katharine Graham’s granddaughter and Donald’s niece), concluded that the family didn’t have the money, ideas or wherewithal to save the paper from the spiral of decline that has decimated the news industry.
Bezos brought to The Post a flair for consumer marketing, deep knowledge of digital products and services, and an admirable respect for the paper’s editorial independence. Soon after the purchase, the website began to load faster (especially on smartphones, where most readers now get their news). One new digital tool allowed for simultaneous testing of different headlines to see which attracted the most readers. Another, nicknamed the “MartyBot,” automatically reminded reporters of upcoming deadlines.
How news organizations produce articles, charge for subscriptions and market themselves might seem mundane, but such details — Bezos had views on the color of the website’s “subscribe” button — mattered enormously for The Post’s digital turnaround. (The turnaround isn’t complete: Digital subscriptions fell after Trump left office. The Post lost money last year and in January laid off 20 employees. Ryan resigned as publisher in June.) There were no illusions about the relative power of Silicon Valley and Washington, as the fate of storied media brands came to be at the mercy of Google, Facebook, Twitter (now X) and Apple. “We were supplicants in a world where they were sovereign,” Baron writes.
To Baron’s credit, The Post aggressively covered Amazon’s labor practices, its dominant market position and its panoptic collecting of customer data. Owning The Post cost Bezos more than just money (though he has made back his $250 million, and then some). In 2018, his phone was hacked, perhaps, some experts speculated, by the Saudi government, in response to the paper’s critical coverage of the kingdom, including columns by Jamal Khashoggi, who was later assassinated at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
In 2019, The National Enquirer published intimate text messages that Bezos had sent to a lover, Lauren Sanchez, and which the tabloid had bought from her brother as part of what Bezos called a blackmail attempt. (His marriage to MacKenzie Scott ended, and Bezos and Sanchez are now engaged.) Baron tells the story of Bezos’ benevolent stewardship, but doesn’t address whether it’s a long-term problem for billionaires to own newsrooms. Rupert Murdoch, who controlled Fox News and The Wall Street Journal until September, when he announced he was stepping down, gets only a cursory mention.
The third, and most subtle, story in “Collision of Power” is of the humbling of American journalism — what happened to newspapers after their business model collapsed. Before joining The Post, Baron was the top editor at The Miami Herald during the Elián González saga and the 2000 Florida recount, and then at The Boston Globe, which under his watch broke the story of sexual abuse by priests in the Boston Archdiocese. (The investigation was dramatized in the 2015 movie “Spotlight,” in which Baron is played by Liev Schreiber — who also narrates the audiobook of “Collision of Power.”) He had to lead through cutbacks and austerity, reducing the news staff of The Globe (then owned by The New York Times) by 40 percent, as he prioritized local and investigative coverage over foreign and national news.
“Collision of Power” is not a journalism memoir replete with larger-than-life politicians, like Ben Bradlee’s “A Good Life” (1995), or salty anecdotes about newsroom culture, like Arthur Gelb’s “City Room” (2003). If those books captured the heyday of postwar journalism — when profits from advertising made international and investigative coverage possible — Baron’s chronicles an era when disruptions from the internet (and now artificial intelligence) have profoundly shaken journalists’ confidence in the survival of their craft and the stability of their livelihoods.
As the industry has become far more digital and diverse, younger journalists have challenged traditional notions of objectivity. Frustrated by reporters’ combative and emotional tweets, and their broader airing of their social identities, Baron — a staunch traditionalist — considered resigning in June 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic and the racial justice uprising roiled American institutions, including newsrooms. His “despondency” about reporters putting their own voices above those of their publications is compelling, though the move toward personal expression is understandable given that social media incentivizes attention-grabbing and newspapers have become less loyal to their workers.
As Baron describes it, the job of an editor today revolves as much around spreadsheets, team-building, labor negotiations and social media guidelines as it does around relationships with reporters and supervision of coverage. That Baron managed that high-wire act so successfully — The Post won 10 Pulitzers on his watch — in an era of wrenching changes in politics and journalism shows that newsroom leadership, however devoid of ease or glamour, remains essential.
COLLISION OF POWER: Trump, Bezos, and The Washington Post | By Martin Baron | Illustrated | 548 pp. | Flatiron Books | $34.99