Left, Marty Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post; Right, New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet.
I. LEAKS AND GEEKS
The airplane was aloft when the two television sets in the aft cabin, both turned to the Fox News channel, flashed bulletins about the story. But moments later, the same TV sets were touting another revelation, this one from The Washington Post—Baker’s alma mater. The Post was reporting that the F.B.I. probe had identified “a current White House official as a significant person of interest.”
“It wasn’t even five minutes,” recalled Baker, who has trouble, like most people, keeping track of the competing Post–Times exclusives about the Trump administration that have dominated the media world for months. Two revived bastions of Old Media are engaged in a duel that resembles the World War II rivalry of American general George S. Patton and British general Sir Bernard Montgomery as they scrambled to be first to capture Messina. There is a sense, too, that something fundamental about the nation is at stake. The Washington Post now proclaims every day in its print and online editions, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”
The ongoing tit for tat helps explain the online-traffic records for both newspapers and why they are, more than ever, the tip sheets and storyboards for cable and broadcast news. So the Post discloses that Trump revealed classified information to the Russians; then the Times discloses that Comey memorialized an Oval Office meeting in which the president allegedly pressured him to end the F.B.I.’s investigation into former national-security adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russian officials. In headlines, they both question the honesty of Trump, even using the once taboo words “lie” and “lies.” Dean Baquet, theexecutive editor of the Times, traces the use of those words in his newspaper to Trump’s lies about Barack Obama’s place of birth. To have not used them, he told me, “would have been screwing around with the English language.” At the Post, Glenn Kessler’s interactive Fact Checker graphic keeps a tally of Trump’s false and misleading claims as president. (As of late July: 836.) It was a Post story which broke the news that fake Time magazine covers of a pre-presidential Trump (“HITTING ON ALL FRONTS . . . EVEN TV!”) had been hung prominently at some of his resorts. Meanwhile, a Times bombshell revealed that Trump’s son Donald junior, along with campaign chairman Paul Manafort and son-in-law Jared Kushner, had met, two weeks after Trump’s nomination, with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer who was said to be offering dirt on Hillary Clinton—leaving himself open to charges of attempted collusion with a foreign government. Both papers are windows on—and vehicles for—the animus between Trump and the intelligence community, and thus for what Baquet concedes have been unceasing leaks from a Trump-wary bureaucracy. (“Remarkably easy” is how he described some of the reporting.)
If you miss the stories in print or online, reporters from the two newspapers are beckoned for regular cable-news duty. And there’s always Snapchat, Facebook, and other social tools, part of a subterranean war for survival that marries scoops and computer engineering. It is a contest in which the geeks supplement shoe-leather reporting, a contest that both could win or both could lose, given the vagaries of media fragmentation. The two papers are battling amid a dramatic, decade-plus industry free fall. After hitting a high of more than $49 billion in 2006, total newspaper ad revenues nationwide fell to $18 billion in 2016. According to industry analyst Alan Mutter, print circulation has plunged by half. At the Times and the Post, there is talk internally about a world without the print edition.
Call it the Last Newspaper War, as two great survivors face off with different strategies and different economic realities but the same audacity; an impressive array of talent; and two highly competitive leaders—Baquet and his counterpart at the Post, Marty Baron (who, says one observer, would “rather beat the Times than eat”). Both papers receive lacerating criticism from the White House almost every day. The underlying passion offers the Internet Age version of The Front Page, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 tribute to an indomitable craft in which editor Walter Burns responds to one reporter’s request to know how much space he has for an exclusive by telling him he wants every goddamn word the reporter can give him.
There are days when you can swear that the Post and the Times are giving you every goddamn word on Trump. The Post’s “Democracy Dies in Darkness” may seem a bit overwrought as a slogan—“like the next Batman movie,” Baquet has said—but crusty Walter Burns would probably pound a table, slam down a candlestick telephone, utter a few choice words, and growl, But it’s true!