Marty Baron Accepts ICFJ Founders Award for Excellence in Journalism

Thank you very much. First, congratulations to Rose, Stevan and Elizabeth on receiving awards you so richly deserve. Deepest thanks for your courage and your determination in the face of unimaginable obstacles and perils.

Every year, this event serves as inspiration for journalists throughout the world. In recognizing you, ICFJ once again shines light on the qualities that make us all proud to be in this profession. 

In honoring me, I know that ICFJ recognizes the work of the entire newsroom of The Washington Post – as well as the other newsrooms I have led, at The Boston Globe and The Miami Herald. At each of them, I have been awed by the skill of my colleagues, by their bravery and stamina -- and by their unwavering sense of purpose. 

Not a day goes by that I do not think about the huge debt that I owe them. 

In recent years, I’ve been reflecting also on the debt we all owe the journalists who preceded us -- and our duty to those who will follow.

Our predecessors secured the freedoms we enjoy today. They cemented our role in a democracy. Their struggles were at least as great as ours -- almost certainly greater.

That history can help us address a question we should ask ourselves: How can we serve future generations of journalists as well as our predecessors have served us? 

We can understand the battles they fought; that will give us strength to fight our own. And we can take stock of their wisdom. Now is a good time to do that, when our profession is under unrelenting, malicious assault from the most powerful person on earth.

It was exactly 100 years ago – in 1919 – that Walter Lippmann, a renowned journalist, wrote “Liberty and the News,” published the following year. Lippmann was a leading thinker of his time and most likely the father of the idea of “objectivity” in journalism (a subject I’ll get to).

What he had to say about his era should sound familiar: “There is everywhere an increasingly angry disillusionment about the press, a growing sense of being baffled and misled.”

He saw an onslaught of news that comes “helter-skelter, in inconceivable confusion” and a public “protected by no rules of evidence.” 

He feared an environment where people “cease to respond to truths, and respond simply to opinions . . .  what somebody asserts, not what actually is.” “The cardinal fact,” he said, “is the loss of contact with objective information.” The result, in his view: “people believe whatever fits most comfortably with their prepossessions.”

He rightly diagnosed how all this threatened to push our democratic institutions off their foundations.  

“Without protection against propaganda,” he wrote, “without standards of evidence, without criteria of emphasis, the living substance of all popular decision is exposed to every prejudice and to infinite exploitation . . . There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the information by which to detect lies.”

Lippmann’s advice for news coverage – at least in that slim volume -- was good for his era and remains so for ours. Especially when the president of the United States seeks to undermine the very idea of objective fact – when he aims to disqualify independent arbiters of fact: from courts to historians to scientists and, of course, the press. And when, in his assessment, the only fair press is one that is unfailingly servile and sycophantic.

Lippmann argued for integrity in our purpose and in our methods. He urged us to toss aside preconceptions and set our sights on conducting as “impartial investigation of the facts as is humanly possible.” Importantly, he warned against falling prey to propaganda, from government and others: The “manufacture of consent,” he called it.

“I am convinced,” he wrote, “that we shall accomplish more by fighting for truth than by fighting for our theories.”

He argued for an objectivity, and it’s hugely important to understand what he actually had in mind. 

It was not on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand journalism as it is often wrongly defined. Meticulous, thorough research was not undertaken only to dissolve in timidity about what we discovered. The goal was not to avoid criticism and seek affection.

We would obsess only about how to determine the facts, place them in context and strive for the truth. Our pursuit would be as scientific as possible. We would be generous listeners and eager learners, conscious of our own very real flaws and failings. 

Fairness meant being open-minded, but with a duty to be fair and honest with the public. 

That meant telling people what we found to be true: Doing it straightforwardly. Not muddying it with assertions untethered from reality. Not bending to political pressures from the most powerful. 

The principles of The Washington Post, crafted in 1935, embrace that journalistic framework. “The first mission of a newspaper,” they begin, “is to tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained.”

There is a recognition there that truth can be elusive. Getting at the truth is hard. But the principle also recognizes that there is such a thing as truth. It is not a matter of who has the loudest megaphone or who wields the most power or who benefits. It has nothing to do with who or what is most popular. And it takes no account of your opinion or mine or anyone else’s.

To determine what is factual, what is true, we have always relied on certain building blocks. One is expertise. Another is experience. A third is education. And, above all, we rely on evidence, not infrequently what we witness with our own eyes and ears. 

Sadly, all of those – expertise, experience, education and evidence – are being devalued, by forces that cynically portray fiction as fact and fact as fiction in the service of political ambition and power. 

The president excels at such deceptions, and revels in them. And the objective is clear: Ensure that the public ignores anyone who might contradict him. Extinguish independent voices. Get voters to believe no one but himself -- 100% of the time.

Though the president seems aggressively allergic to any scrutiny, we have no alternative but to hold him to account; all public officials, in fact.

The First Amendment was written, as James Madison declared, to give us the right of “freely examining public characters and measures.” Anyone who swears to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution should know that – should honor that essential pillar of liberty. 

And should honor as well this country’s noble tradition – sadly  forsaken in recent years -- of supporting free expression and a free press around the world. Supporting the brand of journalism as practiced by the exemplary journalists we honor this evening from Serbia and Kenya.

What does the First Amendment demand of us – of today’s journalists -- we who inherited remarkable freedoms as well as heroic rulings by the Supreme Court that guaranteed them? We must stay faithful to the mission that is the requisite companion to our rights. Rights mean nothing if we lack the courage to exercise them.

The president can call us scum or garbage or fake news or enemies of the people or traitors to the country. He can call us any name he’d like. He apparently will continue to use incendiary language that recklessly encourages vile threats and grave harm to journalists.

He can make his war against us. We must do our work.  He can be into name-calling. We must be into fact-finding.

We owe that to the next generation of journalists and those that follow. 

What we see today from the president is not without precedent. Efforts to silence the press date to the earliest days of American journalism. 

The inaugural edition of the first American newspaper was published in Boston on September 25, 1690. The next day, it was shut down by the governor and council of Massachusetts.  

Printing presses, as Virginia’s governor put it in 1671, were the source of “disobedience and heresy and . . . libels against the best government” – language depressingly akin to what we hear today.

In 1798, President John Adams signed the Sedition Act – what University of Chicago professor Geoffrey Stone describes as “perhaps the most grievous assault on free speech in the history of the United States.” Stone’s book, “Perilous Times,” portrays a long history of free speech and free press under threat.

Federalist newspapers called for the Sedition Act’s strict enforcement. So, even then there was media that conspired against their journalistic colleagues to sabotage the very freedoms that gave them all the right to exist. 

The Secretary of State at that time closely scrutinized the press so as to exterminate what he called “the pests of society.” Prosecutions ensued, newspapers were shuttered and the publication of others were suspended while their editors were jailed.

Thankfully, the American people themselves rose up against the Sedition Act. 

With the law’s expiration at the end of John Adams’ term, journalists were freed and government-imposed fines repaid. And upon assuming the presidency, Thomas Jefferson declared that “the essential principles of government” include “the diffusion of information” and “freedom of the press.”

Those freedoms would be fiercely challenged again under another president, Woodrow Wilson, in 1917 as we entered World War I. The Espionage Act, amended the next year with a Sedition Act, brought extraordinary repression. The public and the press were subjected to vast prohibitions on criticism of government and the military.

His predecessor Teddy Roosevelt was aghast. And what the ex-president – as tough and as charismatic as any before or since – had to say deserves a hearing again today. Though a practitioner of executive power, Roosevelt understood the boundaries. He condemned those who would “make it a crime to tell the truth.” They reminded President Wilson that the people of this country were his “fellow citizens,” not “his subjects.”

The Sedition Act was repealed within a couple of years. The Espionage Act, imprudently expansive and loosely written, remains to haunt us.

Not until the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the first days of war with Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany did this country even begin to fully embrace and truly secure the rights of free expression and a free and independent press. The horror of the Third Reich drove home what the alternative might look like.

FDR 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.”

That admonition has been repeatedly tested – during the McCarthy era, during the Nixon administration and again, most assuredly, today. 

At the time of Watergate, President Nixon’s critics were portrayed as “enemies” by the president’s allies and 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.”

As familiar as such hostile rhetoric may be, the words of the Senate Select Committee that investigated 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. On all of us.

Over the course of centuries, journalists fought for that right. Our predecessors thought not only of their own freedoms but of ours, knowing full well that they would not leave us a democracy if they did not also leave us a free press.

We can do nothing less than safeguard these same freedoms for future generations of journalists. That is how we repay a debt we owe to those who came before us. That is how we fulfill our duty to those who come after.


There can be no better way to meet that obligation than to practice – every day – rigorous, vigorous, independent journalism that holds power to account: Faithful to facts, dedicated to truth, fearless in spirit and unshakably committed to our mission in a democracy.


Thank you for listening. And thank you again for this great honor.