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How should the media cover Trump and Biden in 2024? One man has an answer

Donald Trump speaks to members of the media in Nov. 2018.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
Donald Trump speaks to members of the media in Nov. 2018.

We journalists lament that we have used the term "uncharted waters" so often in recent years to describe the state of American politics that the term has almost ceased to register.

But what else can we call this? What words feel adequate to the challenge of reporting on what is shaping up to be yet another presidential election year of, yes, uncharted waters covering a Republican frontrunner who may well spend more time in court than on the campaign trail in these coming months?

How do we cover it? What have we learned from covering the elections of 2016 and 2020? How can we do better? How do we earn back public trust?

We put these questions to a man who ran the newsrooms of the Miami Herald and The Boston Globe, and then took over The Washington Post in 2013 and steered that newsroom through Donald Trump's presidency.

Martin Baron wrote about it all in his recent memoir, Collision Of Power, and spoke to All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly about what the media got right and wrong in recent years — and what keeps him awake at night.

The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

Mary Louise Kelly: There's so much discussion these days, as you know, over whether democracy is on the line in next year's election. Do you believe it is?

Martin Baron: Yes, I absolutely do believe it is. All you have to do is listen to what Donald Trump has been talking about, what he says he's going to do in another administration. He's the only politician I've heard actually talk about suspending the Constitution. He's talked about using the military to suppress entirely legitimate protests using the Insurrection Act. He's talked about bringing treason charges against the then-outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He's talked about bringing treason charges against Comcast, the owner of NBC and MSNBC. He's talked explicitly about weaponizing the government against his political enemies. And, of course, he continues to talk about crushing an independent press. So all of those, by nature, by definition, are authoritarian in nature.

Kelly: So let's turn to our role as longstanding members of an independent press. If one believes, as I gather you do, that good journalism is an act of patriotism, what does that look like these days?

Baron: Well, I think we have to be clear about what a second Trump administration would look like. We also have to look at what a second Biden administration would look like and see what his plans are. But with regard to Trump, he's being very explicit about what he intends to do when he's talking about...

Kelly: So we report on what he says he intends to do. That's the point of...

Baron: Well, not just what he says, but talking to his team and the plans that they're making for the policies they intend to implement as soon as he moves into the White House, if that turns out to be the case.

Kelly: So let me put to you a couple of the arguments which you anticipate and write about in your memoir. One is that we can do the greatest reporting in the world, but does it matter if people, including Trump voters, are not reading or listening to media outlets like The Washington Post, or like NPR, if we're not reaching people?

Baron: Yeah. Well, it's true media consumption is highly polarized. The real challenge is how do we reach a broader audience, as you say. I think there are a number of things that we can do. I don't think that it's the case that our work doesn't resonate at all. I think it does resonate with the independent thinkers out there. That may not be a huge portion of the population, but it's a significant portion of the population. But I think we need to cover the totality of American society. We need to reflect people's lives, their concerns.

And then on the more highly charged topics, we need to lay out the evidence. We need to point — if we're talking about a court document, we need to show that court document. We need to annotate it so that people can see exactly where we got the information, point to a video, point to a data set, point to audio, whatever it might be. Make the assumption that people won't believe a word we say, and then say, OK, here's the evidence in the same way that a trial lawyer would present the evidence before a jury and a court.

Listen to All Things Considered each day here or on your local member station for more interviews like this.

Kelly: I guess everything you're telling me sounds utterly reasonable. It also sounds not worlds away from what you might have told me 10 or 20 years ago if I were asking you how to cover a presidential election. Is it enough these days to lay out the evidence, to report facts, if people don't believe them?

Baron: Well, as I said, I do think that there's a portion of the population that is open to evidence. I think we'll never reach the point where everybody is going to trust what we do, but we can certainly reach a majority of the population and have them trust us. And let's look at incremental improvement. And I think that's what we ought to be focusing on.

Kelly: So I know you're out now. You're happily retired. If you were back at the helm of The Washington Post today, would you be telling editors, telling reporters to approach this next election in any way differently than 2020?

Baron: Well, I'm happy with what we did in 2020, in terms of how we covered the election, both in 2020 and 2016, and I would approach it very much in the same way, at least at the Post. I do think there's some things that the media in general could change.

I certainly don't think that CNN and Fox News should do what they did in 2016, which was airing [Trump's] rallies from beginning to end, without any interruption, without acting as an intermediary whatsoever and letting him say whatever he wanted — many of them completely, entirely falsehoods. And so that I don't think was helpful, and it was practically a campaign gift to Donald Trump. So that kind of media behavior, I don't think is appropriate and certainly should not be repeated.

Trump gestures to the crowd after speaking during a rally in 2022.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images
Getty Images
Trump gestures to the crowd after speaking during a rally in 2022.

Kelly: You describe in this book lying awake at night, not able to sleep. In this instance, you're agonizing over whether and what to publish about documents to do with National Security Agency surveillance documents that Edward Snowden had leaked. And you wrote about spending the night reading about the Espionage Act of 1917 and looking at provisions that spell out prison terms. I want to know what should be keeping newsroom editors awake tonight, December 2023.

Baron: I would worry about particularly the impact of generative artificial intelligence — the idea that fake images, fake visuals of all types, whether it be photographs or videos, fake audios, will be circulating. Rapidly, they'll be disseminated across the entire country, across the world, and it will be very difficult for the media to catch up to that. We are completely unprepared for that.

People are going to believe those videos and those fake images and those fake audios, and we are not in a position as a profession to counteract that with the speed that we really need. And so that is what worries me. And I suspect that toward the end of this campaign, we'll see a lot of that stuff, and it will affect people's votes. And we in the profession won't have the capacity to deal with it.

Biden in a meeting at the White House in 2021.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Biden in a meeting at the White House in 2021.

Kelly: Last thing: As you and I speak, it seems major news outlet after major news outlet has been publishing op-eds — or analysis pieces — warning about the risks and dangers of a possible second Trump presidency. My question to you, Marty Baron: Is that a good idea, given a lot of people do not distinguish between reporters on the news pages and editorials and the editorial page?

Baron: Well, I think in all possible ways, we need to explain what a second Trump administration would look like. I think that is the task of people on the opinion pages. I think that's the task of reporters as well. And I think that it's an obligation of...

Kelly: But does it reinforce the view that Trump loves to put out there, that American media is against him, that it's a witch hunt?

Baron: Maybe it does. I don't think we have an alternative, except to tell the American public what it might be in for — what it's likely to be in for — if Trump were to be reelected.

Listen to All Things Considered each day here or on your local member station for more interviews like this.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.