by Marty Baron
Executive Editor, The Washington Post
Boston Bar Association Law Day Celebration
Boston Symphony Hall
June 26, 2019
This material was reprinted with permission from the author. It may not be copied, reproduced, or reprinted without permission.
Thank you for inviting me back to Boston and for inviting me to be here with you this evening. And thank you for dedicating Law Day to free expression, including a free press. Jon Albano contacted me many months ago and extended the invitation. I can only ever say yes to Jon. I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. Without his legal skills and without his commitment to journalism and its mission of getting at the truth, The Boston Globe could not have revealed – starting in January, 2002 — a decades-long cover-up of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. Today, the issue continues to reverberate within the Church — and within other institutions responsible for the care of children.
I joined the Globe in the summer of 2001. The Sunday before I was to start my new job I had read a column by Eileen McNamara about the case of Father John Geoghan. He had been accused of abusing as many as 80 kids. The lawyer for the plaintiffs, Mitchell Garabedian, argued that the Cardinal himself – Cardinal Law – knew of Geoghan’s serial abuse and yet reassigned him from parish to parish – without notifying the parish priest, parishioners or the community at large. Lawyers for the Church assailed those statements as baseless and irresponsible. Eileen concluded her column by noting that the truth might never be known. Internal Church documents that might reveal it were hidden from public view, subject to a confidentiality order.
Two things struck me. First was the idea that a Cardinal would know of serial abuse by a priest and yet allow him to continue in ministry. The second was her lament that the truth might never be known. That is chum to journalists – or at least it should be.
And so I brought up the subject on my first day of work at the Globe, at our morning news meeting: What were we doing to go beyond one side saying one thing, the other side saying the opposite. What were we doing to get at the truth? Had we considered taking legal action to unseal the documents?
After some discussion, my new colleagues steered me to Jon Albano, the Globe’s outside counsel. A couple of weeks later, he laid out the facts, the legal arguments we might make, the arguments the Church would most likely make, and what we knew about the judge, Constance Sweeney.
I pressed Jon for a bottom line: What are the chances we will prevail? I learned he isn’t the sort to go out on a limb: Fifty-fifty, he said. Very helpful! But, you know, those are good odds for journalists. And, so, we moved forward. In support of a motion that would give us access to discovery materials plaintiffs had obtained from the Church, Jon wrote: “The public has an intense and legitimate public interest in learning about the risks involved in entrusting their children with any authority figure, be it a teacher, coach or cleric.”
By receiving previously sealed internal records of the Archdiocese – in the Geoghan case and later in similar cases (for which I owe thanks to Chief Justice Gants, ruling as Suffolk Superior Court judge) — the Globe’s Spotlight team was able to show what the Church knew, what it did (and failed to do), and how deceitfully and condescendingly it treated parishioners whose children were abused and assaulted. There’s a lesson in that outcome: The truth tends to get out when it gets an assist from people who believe it absolutely must. And the truth can do a lot of good.
At a time when my profession is under incessant attack from the world’s most powerful person, it has become necessary to remind the American public of the good that journalism can accomplish when it works to get at the truth. It also has become necessary to emphasize why a free, vigorous and independent press matters in a democracy. Revealing the Church cover-up meant the world to survivors. They had known the truth. They knew it had been shamefully suppressed. They knew institutions that were supposed to listen to them did not – or simply chose not to act out of inattention, inertia, indifference or callousness. Now, finally, their voices had been heard, their stories told. There was, at least, the prospect of accountability.
Let me tell you about a moment in the aftermath of that Boston Globe investigation and the movie “Spotlight” that portrayed it. It is a moment I shall not forget. A moment for me that maintains a vivid resonance in the present. It happened a little over three years ago, during a screening of the movie “Spotlight” at my alma mater, Lehigh University. During the Q&A session, a man rose to the microphone to speak.
“It was a very hard movie for me to watch,” he said. “I tried to see it a couple of times. I only got to the parking lot and turned around. I’m 80-plus years old. I was sexually abused by a priest in 1947. I was 11. I live with it every day. I was fatherless. I didn’t know if anybody would believe me. I never spoke about it. My wife passed away many years ago. She never knew about it. It was in ’47 he molested me. And he was ordained in 1947.
“Not a day goes by,” he said, “that I don’t have to live with this. I never spoke about it like I said — thank you – till it broke in Boston and then I started talking about it . . . “I do go to therapy,” he continued, “I took my children with me. So, they do understand. And they fully support me. And I thank you very much.”
I think about that gentleman when I hear our president say the press is the “enemy of the American people.”
He did not see us as his enemy. He saw us as an ally. Finally, he had one. Other survivors of abuse — and their families and friends — feel the same. And so do many other Americans who have had journalists listen to them when no one else would — giving power to those who had none, in the cause of fair treatment. They were grateful for journalists who sought to get at the truth when people in authority sought to trample on it or conceal it.
Today, we face another threat, perhaps even more sinister and subversive. This one is to the very concept of truth itself. It began as a calculated assault on my profession, though it hasn’t ended there. It has gone on for more than four years now: during presidential primaries, a general election and past the half-way mark of a presidency.
First there was an effort to marginalize the press and then to delegitimize us. Then there was a campaign to dehumanize us as disgusting and scum and garbage and the lowest form of life. Ultimately, we were depicted as “fake news,” “enemies of the people,” a “stain” on the country, traitors. There is no mystery as to why this is happening. It is a cynical strategy to disqualify the press as an independent arbiter of fact.
But we in the press are not the only targets. The aim is to disqualify other institutions and professions as arbiters of fact, too: the courts, law enforcement, intelligence agencies, historians, even scientists. Under assault are all the elements that help us determine what is factual: evidence, expertise, experience. Each has been devalued or dismissed or denied. The goal is evident: To obliterate the very idea of objective truth.
Before the 2016 election, Lesley Stahl of CBS News went to Trump Tower to meet with candidate Donald Trump. At one point, after he started into his familiar harangue about the media, she asked him why he persisted in leveling such attacks. As she tells it, he said, “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.”
It was a moment of startling but revealing honesty. That is, in fact, the president’s goal. No one should believe the media if we contradict him. They should believe only one person – him. Him alone. And 100% of the time. Bret Stephens, the conservative columnist, put it perfectly in a speech in early 2017 when he was at the Wall Street Journal, before he joined the New York Times op-ed page. The president, he said, “is trying to substitute propaganda for news, boosterism for information.”
“His objection,” he continued, “is to objectivity itself. He’s perfectly happy for the media to be disgusting and corrupt – so long as it’s on his side.”
Stephens was giving the Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture at UCLA. Pearl had been the Wall Street Journal’s South Asia correspondent when in 2002 he was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan. His throat was cut by a senior al-Qaeda operative, his body dismembered. He died, like too many journalists in conflict zones, just trying to gather facts for the purpose of informing the public. In honoring Danny Pearl, Stephens said, we as journalists “honor the responsibility to separate truth from falsehood, which is never more important than when powerful people insist that falsehoods are truths, or that there is no such thing as truth to begin with.”
He spoke of our obligation “not to look around, or beyond, or away from the facts, but to look straight at them, to recognize and call them for what they are, nothing more or less. To see things as they are before we re-interpret them into what we’d like them to be . . . To speak the truth irrespective of what it means for our popularity or influence.” That is good counsel for journalists. For citizens, too.
If we come to feel the truth is unknowable, then mission accomplished for those who seek to subvert it: People just believe what they would like to believe. If a disillusioned public concludes that everyone is lying for selfish reasons, mission accomplished as well. Because then it doesn’t matter if our leaders are being truthful, so long as they serve our individual interests. If in the United States we now believe truth can only come from the head of state, then we have surrendered the very idea that inspired the founding of our nation. And in that way, we betray our country.
The issue here is not the political party or government policies you favor. That’s what elections are for. Vibrant, even pointed, debate is healthy. That’s what a democracy is all about. That’s what makes it work. We should encourage that, embrace it, celebrate it.
The issue here is whether we as a society can even agree on a baseline set of facts – and whether democracy can function if we don’t. As Yale professor Timothy Snyder wrote in his bestselling book “On Tyranny”: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.”
Let me offer just a flavor here of the bogus conspiracies and falsehoods the president himself has spread: He claimed Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. He suggested Justice Antonin Scalia was killed in his sleep. He asserted that the IRS audits him because he’s Christian. He claimed that on 9/11 he watched TV footage of thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the collapse of the World Trade Center. He said Ted Cruz’ Cuban-born father was involved somehow in the assassination of JFK. He said his inauguration crowd on the National Mall was the largest ever. He claimed 3-5 million people voted illegally in 2016. He claimed Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower.
Most recently, the president claimed that the Mueller Report provided “total exoneration” when, with respect to obstruction, the special counsel wrote flatly the report “does not exonerate him.” In so actively — and unashamedly — propagating falsehoods and conspiracy theories, the president extends an invitation to others to do the same. He has not condemned the worst actors. In some instances, he has sought to protect them. Astonishingly, he has risen to the defense of shameless conspiracists like Alex Jones of Infowars when he was barred from Facebook and Twitter. It’s worth reminding you of what someone like Alex Jones has done. Through his Infowars site, Jones claimed that the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, was a fabricated event, choreographed by the Obama administration and its allies. Images from the scene, he said, were “synthetic,” “manufactured,” “completely fake, with actors.”
Twenty children and 7 adults were slaughtered at Sandy Hook. The parents of a murdered six-year-old boy ultimately spoke out about the harassment they endured because of Alex Jones’s conspiracy-mongering.
Here is what they wrote: “The heartache of burying a child is a sorrow we would not wish upon anyone. Yet to our horror, we have found that there are some in this society who lack empathy for the suffering of others. Among them are the conspiracy theorists that deny our tragedy was real. They seek us out and accuse us of being government agents who are faking our grief and lying about our loss.”
The president, during his presidential campaign, gave Alex Jones an interview, pronouncing his reputation “amazing.” The Washington Post, on the other hand, gets accused of being fake news. Still – admittedly — the president has had some success in his assault on the mainstream press, primarily among his political base. Polls show that nearly half of American voters now believe the media fabricate news stories about Trump and his administration. Three-quarters of Republicans believe that. More than a third of Republicans believe freedom of the press does more harm than good. Nearly half of Republicans say the courts should be able to “shut down” biased media organizations.
Opinions are sharply divided by party affiliation. Polling by the Pew Research Center recently found the largest partisan divide ever over the media’s watchdog role, with 82% of Democrats saying criticism from news organizations keeps politicians from doing things that shouldn’t be done but only 38% of Republicans saying that.
One interesting twist is that overall trust in the media, according to Gallup, went up in recent years – from an all-time low of 32% in 2016 to 45% in 2018. That has been driven mostly by a sharp improvement among Democrats (76% express overall trust and confidence) and a modest increase among independents. Even among Republicans, trust has risen somewhat – though it remains strikingly low at 21%.
Here’s another twist: More Americans trust the media to tell the truth about important issues than President Trump. The gap is 24 percentage points, with the president scoring an all-time low, according to a Quinnipiac Poll last September. Score one for the press!
But again, the partisan divide is huge. Republicans trust Trump over the media by a 72-12 margin. Democrats trust the media over Trump by an 89-1 margin. Ninety-five percent of Democrats believe the media is an important part of democracy. Republicans believe the media is the enemy of the people by a margin of 47-31. Needless to say, this divide is not healthy for our profession. I would say it’s not healthy for democracy either. Certainly, ours is an imperfect profession. We make mistakes of fact and mistakes of judgment. We have flaws. That makes us just like people in any other profession, except that our faults are on public display because our job is to publish and broadcast. But I would also say, as columnist Bret Stephens noted in that speech I mentioned, for us this is not a popularity contest. Attacks on the press come with the territory.
Attacks, however severe and frequent, don’t necessarily mean we’re doing something wrong. They may mean we’re doing something right. I recall how in 2002 prominent Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, speaking of the Catholic Church scandal, suggested the coverage had something to do with — as he put it — “the disproportionate Jewish influence in the American media.” Perhaps it was mere coincidence that I was the Jewish editor of The Boston Globe.
And that same year one of your legal colleagues in Boston who would later become ambassador to the Vatican declared that awarding the Pulitzer Prize to the Boston Globe for its coverage would be “like giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Osama bin Laden.” But things change. Witness what occurred at the Vatican’s conference on the protection of minors this past February. Archbishop Charles Scicluna, now the Vatican’s investigator for clergy abuse, mentioned favorably the movie Spotlight and said: “We need to say thank you to all the media who have helped the Church come to awareness and also bring the stories, the narratives of so many victims to light.”
Quite a turnabout. In time, the truth gets out. In time, people recognize it — and most people appreciate it. So, I’m willing to be patient. Time will, eventually, tell.
Every day, walking into our newsroom, I face head-on the principles of The Post that were crafted in 1935. The first instructs us “to tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained.” There is a lot in that brief phrase. It suggests a process of striving. Truth can be elusive. But that principle also holds that there is such a thing as truth – that it is not merely a matter of opinion or of who benefits or who has the loudest megaphone or who wields the most power.
Over decades, The Post and other leading news organizations have faced efforts by government to suppress the truth, most famously during the Pentagon Papers case and during Watergate. As you know, the Pentagon Papers case ultimately landed in the Supreme Court, which on June 30, 1971, ruled 6-3 in favor of the press and against Richard Nixon’s White House, which had sought to bar publication.
Every justice issued his own opinion. The opinion of Justice Hugo Black best captures the spirit that animates The Post’s newsroom to this day.
“In the First Amendment,” he wrote, “the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors . . . The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.”
Last month, this administration once again – via the Justice Department – took action that threatens reporting on national security matters, just as the Nixon White House did in pursuing The New York Times and The Washington Post over publication of the Pentagon Papers.
An expanded 18-count indictment of Julian Assange under the Espionage Act of 1917 was announced, advancing a legal theory that could criminalize common practices in journalism that have long served the public interest. The indictment accuses Assange of seeking, receiving and then publishing classified material. As Carrie DeCell, an attorney with the Knight First Amendment Institute, put it: “That’s exactly what good national security and investigative journalists do every day. These charges,” she said, “could be brought against national security and investigative journalists simply for doing their jobs, and doing them well.”
All of this is made worse by government officials’ continuing pattern of overclassifying information. Frequently, it is for no reason other than to shield themselves from scrutiny. Threats to free expression and a free press have a long history in this country, notwithstanding the language of the First Amendment and despite how James Madison, as its chief author, embraced “the right of freely examining public characters and measures.”
Leaders have too often failed us: Think of the Sedition Act of 1798 under President John Adams; and Sedition and Espionage Acts under Woodrow Wilson; and the McCarthy Era. We learned the hard way what happens when we fail to live up to our founding principles. It took us too long to fully appreciate those principles in the first place. While the United States joyfully celebrated the centennials of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, it did nothing to mark 100 years of what came to be known as the Bill of Rights.
Not until 1941, on the 150th anniversary of those rights – during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and in the first days of war with Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany – did this country celebrate what the president called a “declaration of human rights which has influenced the thinking of all mankind.” Finally, and thankfully, we began to see the Bill of Rights – including and perhaps especially the First Amendment — as central to what makes the United States genuinely exceptional among nations.
Only after witnessing the horror of the Third Reich did this country came to truly value free expression — and fully embrace a press that maintained genuine independence from government. FDR once declared that “Representative democracy will never tolerate suppression of true news at the behest of government.”
Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote in 1945 on behalf of the First Amendment: “every person must be his own watchman for truth, because the forefathers did not trust any government to separate the true from the false for us.”
Justice Jackson’s advice was good then, and it serves us well now. The greatest inspiration for someone in my position so often comes not from Supreme Court justices but from readers. On the glass wall of my office, I have posted dozens of their notes.
Here’s one: “Don’t falter, don’t quit, don’t doubt for a moment that you are crucial to our democracy. We need you.” And another: “I am counting on you and your able reporters to ‘keep at it.’ I have come to believe that the free press has saved our asses time and time again. Never has it been more important than it is today.”
At the time of Watergate, President Nixon’s critics were portrayed as “enemies” by the president’s aides. His sympathizers in certain sectors of the media excoriated their fellow journalists, like those at The Washington Post, for the “venomous machinations of a hostile and unreliable press.”
There’s a familiar ring to all that. But the words of the Senate Select Committee investigating Nixon should echo today as well. “The American people,” their report declared in 1974, “have been re-awakened to the task democracy imposes upon them – steadfast vigilance of the conduct of the public officials they choose to lead them.”
Vigilance of public officials is, above all, the task democracy imposes on journalism. At The Washington Post, we well understand that. It is our history. It is our heritage. It forms the soul of our newsroom. So, with confidence I can leave you with this pledge about our role in this American democracy: We will meet our obligations.
Thank you for inviting me to be with you this evening.