I’ve been a little bummed, lately, about the state of journalism.
The fake news problem. The social media “bubble”/confirmation bias challenge. The news literacy crisis. The business model/$$$ problem.
I have been threatening to buy a food truck and rumble off into the sunset. (The idea is crepes, sweet and savory. I even had a name in mind: “Crepe Escape.”)
And then my BFF, who has been worried about me lately, sent me the link to this Vanity Fair piece that contains the full text of Washington Post managing editor Marty Baron’s speech upon accepting the Hitchens Prize this week. (You may be familiar with him from the film “Spotlight” — you know, Liev Schreiber?)
I want to share it with you because it says everything I think you need to know, going forward, as a journalist. Or as a person who respects the work of journalists and understands how important this work is to democracy.
Here’s part of what Baron said:
“Values are what matter most. And this is a good time to talk about them. A good time to reaffirm what we as journalists stand for.
This is a time we are compelled to fight for free expression and a free press—rights granted us under the Constitution, yes, but also the very qualities that have long set us apart from other nations.
We will have a new president soon. He was elected after waging an outright assault on the press. Animosity toward the media was a centerpiece of his campaign. He described the press as “disgusting,” “scum,” “lowlifes.” He called journalists the “lowest form of humanity.” That apparently wasn’t enough. So he called us “the lowest form of life.” In the final weeks of the campaign he labeled us “the enemies.”
It is no wonder that some members of our staff at The Washington Post and at other news organizations received vile insults and threats of personal harm so worrisome that extra security was required. It is no wonder that one Internet venue known for hate and misogyny and white nationalism posted the home addresses of media executives, clearly inviting vandalism or worse. Thankfully, nothing that I know of happened to anyone. Then there was the yearlong anti-Semitic targeting of journalists on Twitter.
Donald Trump said he wanted to “open up” libel laws. And he proposed to harass unfriendly media outlets by suing them, driving up their legal expenses with a goal of weakening them financially.
With respect to The Washington Post, he ordered our press credentials revoked during the campaign, barring us from routine press access to him and his events, because our coverage didn’t meet with his approval. Even before we were subjected to his months-long blacklist, Donald Trump falsely alleged that our owner, Jeff Bezos, was orchestrating that coverage. And he openly hinted that, if he became president, he would retaliate.
Jeff Bezos himself addressed this perfectly at one point—on several occasions actually.
“We want a society,” he said, “where any of us, any individual in this country, any institution in this country, if they choose to, can scrutinize, examine, and criticize an elected official, especially a candidate for the highest office in the most powerful country on earth. . . .
“We have fundamental laws and . . . we have Constitutional rights in this country to free speech. But that’s not the whole reason that it works here. We also have cultural norms that support that, where you don’t have to be afraid of retaliation. And those cultural norms are at least as important as the Constitution.”
Getting elected didn’t change anything. After his election—in the midst of protests against him—Donald Trump resorted to Twitter to accuse the media of inciting violence when, of course, there had been no incitement whatsoever by anyone.
The other night, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour eloquently explained the gravity of such deliberately false accusations emanating from a future head of state. She was speaking when she was honored by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“Postcard from the world,” she said, “This is how it goes with authoritarians like Sisi, Erdoğan, Putin, the Ayatollahs, Duterte, et al . . . First the media is accused of inciting, then sympathizing, then associating—until they suddenly find themselves accused of being full-fledged terrorists and subversives. Then they end up in handcuffs, in cages, in kangaroo courts, in prison—and then who knows?”
When the press is under attack, we cannot always count on our nation’s institutions to safeguard our freedoms—not even the courts.
At times throughout our history, they have shamefully failed to do so—whether it was the Sedition Act of 1798 under President John Adams, harshly repressive Sedition and Espionage Acts under Woodrow Wilson in the context of World War I, or the McCarthy Era that still serves to remind us of what comes of a dishonest and reckless search for enemies.
The ultimate defense of press freedom lies in our daily work.
Many journalists wonder with considerable weariness what it is going to be like for us during the next four—perhaps eight—years. Will we be incessantly harassed and vilified? Will the new administration seize on opportunities to try intimidating us? Will we face obstruction at every turn?
If so, what do we do?
The answer, I believe, is pretty simple. Just do our job. Do it as it’s supposed to be done.
Every day as I walk into our newsroom, I confront a wall that articulates a set of principles that were established in 1933 by a new owner for The Post, Eugene Meyer, whose family went on to publish The Post for 80 years.
The principles begin like this: “The first mission of a newspaper is to tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained.”
The public expects that of us. If we fail to pursue the truth and to tell it unflinchingly—because we’re fearful that we’ll be unpopular, or because powerful interests (including the White House and the Congress) will assail us, or because we worry about financial repercussions to advertising or subscriptions—the public will not forgive us.
Nor, in my view, should they.
After the release of the movie Spotlight, I was often asked how we at The Boston Globe were willing to take on the most powerful institution in New England and among the most powerful in the world, the Catholic Church.
The question really mystifies me—especially when it comes from journalists or those who hope to enter the profession. Because holding the most powerful to account is what we are supposed to do.
If we do not do that, then what exactly is the purpose of journalism?
God forbid we take on the weaker institutions, the weaker individuals, while letting the strongest ones off the hook only because they can forcefully fight back.
A day before I started work at The Boston Globe in the summer of 2001, I read something startling. It was a column by The Globe’s own Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, Eileen McNamara. She wrote about the case of John Geoghan. He was a priest. Geoghan had been accused of abusing as many as 80 children. It was shocking. So I read closely.
The column detailed how the attorney for the survivors—those victimized by the priest—had asserted that the cardinal himself, Cardinal Bernard Law, knew about this priest’s repeated abuse and yet continued to reassign him from one parish to the next—notifying no one, not the parish priest and certainly not the parishioners, that a priest known to have committed sexual assaults would serve in ministry at their church.
Those were the allegations of the plaintiffs’ attorney. But the attorneys for the Church called those allegations baseless and irresponsible.
And then Eileen ended her column by saying the truth might never be known because the internal Church documents that could reveal the truth were under court seal.
When there are allegations of grave wrongdoing, we can’t settle for the truth never being known.
We needed to know, and that is what propelled me—and my colleagues at The Boston Globe—to launch our investigation and to file a court motion to unseal those internal documents that would tell us what the Church was so determined to keep secret.
The first question we sought to answer, of course, was whether the Cardinal himself knew of this priest’s abuse and yet reassigned him to other parishes despite consistently strong evidence of serial abuse of children. The answer to that question proved to be an unequivocal yes.
We also wanted to know if there were other abusers like this priest? Beyond that, did the Church knowingly place abusers into parishes where their history of abuse was kept secret—and where they abused again? Was concealing abuse and reassigning priests the Church’s actual policy and practice? The answer to all those questions turned out to be an unequivocal yes.
The result of excavating the truth was a public good. Children were made more safe.
Well after our first story was published in January 2002, I received a letter from Father Thomas P. Doyle, who had waged a long and lonely battle within the Church on behalf of abuse victims. He wrote this: “This nightmare would have gone and on were it not for you and the Globe staff. As one who has been deeply involved in fighting for justice for the victims and survivors for many years, I thank you with every part of my being.
“I assure you,” he wrote, “that what you and the Globe have done for the victims, the Church and society cannot be adequately measured. It is momentous and its good effects will reverberate for decades.”
There is a lesson in Father Doyle’s letter: The truth is not meant to be hidden. It is not meant to be suppressed. It is not meant to be ignored. It is not meant to be disguised. It is not meant to be manipulated. It is not meant to be falsified. Otherwise, wrongdoing will persist.
I kept Father Doyle’s letter on my desk in Boston until the day, four years ago, that I left to join The Washington Post. It served as a reminder of what brought me to journalism and what kept me in it. And as a reminder of the work we as journalists must always do.
Yes and yes and yes.