Marty Baron is the executive editor of The Washington Post. He is also the winner of this year’s Hitchens Prize, which is awarded to journalists and authors whose work “reflects a commitment to free expression and inquiry, a range and depth of intellect, and a willingness to pursue the truth without regard to personal or professional consequence,” according to the Dennis and Victoria Ross Foundation’s criteria.
During his acceptance speech for this award last year, Baron offered his view of the role and importance of journalism in the face of a president who may be more hostile toward the press than previous administrations. Below is the portion of his speech dealing with this topic as well as the full video.
“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.” -Marty Baron
Regardless of if your take on Trump’s relationship with the media lines up with Baron’s perspective on it, it is clear Baron is passionate about journalism and the first amendment. What are your thoughts on Baron’s message?