Marty Baron warns press against fear and timidity

Marty Baron

Earlier today I attended an event honoring Boston Globe editor Marty Baron as the 2012 winner of the Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award, presented by the New England First Amendment Coalition.

Baron is the second winner. The first, in 2011, was retired New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, a longtime defender of the First Amendment.

Baron’s talk is well worth reading in full. Afterwards he sent me the text at my request, and I’m pleased to present it here. I was particularly struck by this, which comes near the end of his speech:

The greatest danger to a vigorous press today, however, comes from ourselves.

This is a moment in American history when the press has been made a fat target. The press is routinely belittled, badgered, harassed, disparaged, demonized, and subjected to acts of intimidation from all corners — through words and actions, including boycotts, threats of cancellations (or defunding, in the case of public broadcasting), and even surreptitious taping, later subjected to selective, deceitful editing. Our independence — simply posing legitimate questions — is seen as an obstacle to what our critics consider a righteous moral, ideological, political, or business agenda. In some instances, they have deployed scorched-earth tactics against us in hopes of dealing a crippling blow.

In this environment, too many news organizations are holding back, out of fear — fear that we will be saddled with an uncomfortable political label, fear that we will be accused of bias, fear that we will be portrayed as negative, fear that we will lose customers, fear that advertisers will run from us, fear that we will be assailed as anti-this or anti-that, fear that we will offend someone, anyone. Fear, in short, that our weakened financial condition will be made weaker because we did something strong and right, because we simply told the truth and told it straight.

The full text of Baron’s prepared remarks — minus an improvised shoutout he gave to classmates from Lehigh University who were on hand — follows.

***

This award is named after a great publisher, Stephen Hamblett, who helped build a great newspaper, the Providence Journal.

The first award was given, last year, to a magnificent journalist, Tony Lewis — whose talent and erudition made him a leading expert on the First Amendment and one of the country’s pre-eminent columnists, at the New York Times.

And today I get to stand before so many extraordinary leaders in the field of journalism — publishers, writers, editors, journalists of every type — whose dedication to our craft and our mission serves as inspiration to me daily.

So, I am honored that I was invited to be with you to accept this award. And I am deeply grateful for what it means. This is recognition not solely for me, but also for all of my colleagues at The Boston Globe, many of whom were kind enough to be here today.

Their work — in informing the public and in holding powerful individuals and institutions accountable to all the citizens of this community — is the fulfillment of the First Amendment and affirmation of the enduring necessity of a free and vigorous press.

Before I go on, I want to acknowledge a few visitors who have came some distance to be here.

First, my younger brother Michael and my sister-in-law Mary — over there — who kindly came up from Atlanta.

When Michael was invited, he shot me an email asking whether I’d be delivering a boring speech. I told him that if it was boring, I could promise that it would be brief. And with that assurance, he and Mary booked a ticket.

So, bad news, Michael. It’s not that brief.

Second, I want to acknowledge my assistant of more than 10 years at the Globe, Joanny McCabe, who retired in December, leaving me adrift. Whatever I have done at the Globe was accomplished with Joanny’s aid, her support, and her friendship. Thank you, Joanny, for coming.

Let me say at the start, too, that I think it is fitting that this award is named after a publisher.

Those of us in the newsroom need to understand — and at times need to be reminded — that the strength of a news organization lies ultimately with the publisher. And I’m not talking entirely, or even primarily, of resources — staff and money — as important as that is, or as often as I bring it up. Or even the overall financial performance, which is even more important.

When I say strength of a news organization, I have in mind strength of character.

The freedoms of the First Amendment matter little if we are prepared only to declare our rights but not to exercise them — if we are unwilling to do what was envisioned: holding our government accountable … bringing truth into the open and submitting it for public debate … guarding against abuse of power.

Tony Lewis, the richly deserving recipient of this award a year ago, wrote in his excellent book “Freedom for the Thought We Hate” of a dissent in 1927 by Justice Brandeis that became one of the most eloquent statements on behalf of freedom of speech.

Those who won our independence, Brandeis wrote, “believed liberty to be the secret of happiness and courage to be the secret of liberty.” And Justice Brandeis added, “the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people.”

And that was, no doubt, the transcendent theme of Tony’s book. “The American press,” Tony wrote, “has been given extraordinary freedom by the Supreme Court’s interpretations of the First Amendment. In return, it owes society courage. “

Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to work under publishers who not only allowed, but encouraged and safeguarded, fearless journalism that challenged the most powerful people in our communities and in the nation. One of them is here today: Chris Mayer, publisher of The Boston Globe.

I may not always have agreed on everything with my publishers — in fact, we did not always agree. But we did agree on what was most important: that our purpose was to find the truth and tell it as honestly, accurately, fairly, and forthrightly as we could.

I am forever grateful.

When I came to Boston from The Miami Herald in the summer of 2001, I had just come off one of those great moments in the exercise of our press freedoms. This was aided by the expansive public records laws of Florida, and endorsed by our publisher Alberto Ibarguen and the chief executive of Knight Ridder, our parent company — Tony Ridder.

The 2000 presidential election had ended on a note of historic bitterness and doubt. Who had really won? Bush or Gore?

The breathtakingly close result in Florida, along with a disastrously flawed voting process, had left the presidency in the hands of the courts. First, it was the Florida Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Al Gore’s motion for a recount. Then, it landed in the US Supreme Court, which ruled that there should be no recount — and that the initial determination of George W. Bush’s slim victory would stand. And with that, he became our president.

We at the Miami Herald quickly concluded that we should do our own recount. The state’s Sunshine Law gave us the right, in our view, to examine all ballots in all 67 counties. And we were determined to inspect each and every one — hanging chads and all.

Our publisher and our parent company CEO were concerned, naturally, about how a recount would be viewed by the public if only Miami Herald journalists were doing the counting. And they insisted that we find a major, national accounting firm to do its own count alongside us. We in the newsroom agreed.

But that was easier said than done. We started calling the biggest, most prominent accounting firms. And one by one, they said they wanted nothing to do with this. Off the record, they told us they feared losing their clients — many of them companies headed by executives who supported Bush.

Not one of the top five accounting firms would agree. Two firms were just below that level — Grant Thornton and BDO Seidman. BDO Seidman, mercifully, agreed to work with us and fortunately signed a contract before its headquarters could object, which it later did (in a particularly excited manner, I was told). But a deal was a deal, especially when it was on paper and signed, and we went ahead.

When we announced this effort, you can imagine the reaction: Bush supporters and some commentators said this was an effort by the press — specifically, by the supposedly liberal Miami Herald — to delegitimize the Bush presidency.

But we went ahead. Tony Ridder, Knight Ridder’s CEO, asked me what the effort would cost. I estimated $250,000, a lot of money. By the time our results were published in the spring of 2001, the total cost — of our travel, the hourly rates we were paying the accounting firm, its travel, and our legal costs to challenge supervisors of election who denied us access to ballots — added up to $850,000. And Tony Ridder paid the bill, no questions asked … And, by the grace of God (and Tony), I wasn’t fired for some really lousy financial forecasting.

Does anyone remember what the results showed?

That Bush almost certainly would have won a recount — a result later confirmed by a separate recount conducted by a huge consortium of media organizations that included the New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, the broadcast networks, and many others.

We still hear mutterings that Gore really won that election. But it took a fair and careful press to set the record straight for history. It cost money, but mostly it required fortitude in the face of possible repercussions. It was among the proudest moments of my career.

What then happened after my arrival at The Boston Globe made me even prouder.

A priest by the name of John Geoghan was accused of having molested 80 children or more. The Archdiocese of Boston was in a court fight with victims, and the plaintiffs alleged that the cardinal, Bernard Law himself, knew of Father Geoghan’s history of abuse and yet reassigned him to another parish, where he would again commit sexual assault on children.

Eileen McNamara, the Globe’s Pulitzer-winning columnist, had weighed in with a searing piece just before my first day at the Globe, suggesting the truth about the Archdiocese might never be known because internal Church documents filed as part of the case were covered by a confidentiality order. As Eileen put it, the Church sought to keep the public from looking “into corners of the Church that the cardinal would prefer to keep forever in shadow.”

My experience at the Miami Herald and with Florida’s Sunshine Law had conditioned me to the notion that information left in the shadow,  deliberately concealed from public view, need not remain there — that there was recourse in the law. But I did not know Massachusetts law.

And so at my first news meeting at the Globe, in the summer of 2001, I asked what we were doing to follow up — whether we could get beyond the denials of the Church and the accusations of the plaintiff’s lawyer. Could we determine the truth? I was reminded that the Church’s internal documents were under court seal. So I asked whether we had considered mounting a legal challenge to the confidentiality order.

We had not, but we would. And with the advice of our superb lawyer, Jon Albano, who is here today, we did. And because of his brilliant argument, we prevailed, before a judge who — thankfully — saw the issues clearly and was free from the grip of old allegiances and a culture of deference that had protected the Church for so long.

I reread the ruling the other day, with enormous satisfaction.  Here is what Judge Constance Sweeney wrote:

“It is difficult to conjure up an argument that would persuade a reasonable person that many of the issues raised in these cases and their underlying discovery documents do not lend themselves to public scrutiny…The press, as an essential conduit of information to the public has a legitimate and important interest in the transactions which are the subject of these cases.”

Thank you, Jon Albano, for getting that ruling for us.

When we were considering whether to seek a motion to unseal these documents, I asked Jon to place odds on whether we would prevail. “Fifty, fifty,” he said. Now that’s a lawyer speaking. But this lawyer’s superb work tipped the odds very much in our favor.

Those internal Church documents, and many others, would finally make their way into our hands and, through us, into public consciousness. Well beyond that, the Globe’s remarkable Spotlight Team was going full-steam on an investigation that was entirely independent of our actions in court. Because of that persistent, penetrating, wide-ranging investigation by Spotlight — 900 stories in the first year of coverage — and because of the court documents we alone fought for, the Church would never be the same.

The head of that Spotlight team, one of the best investigative journalists in the country, is here today, too: Walter Robinson.

The repercussions of that investigation have been felt by the Church across the nation and worldwide, with no end in sight. And those stories may forever have altered how major institutions handle allegations of sexual abuse. Witness what happened in recent months at Penn State.

Even though I believe most Catholics now understand that what we did was right, and for the long-term good of the Church and society at large, we have faced hostility, some till this day. I will never forget the speech in 2002, given in Rome, by Mary Ann Glendon, the Harvard law professor who would later become ambassador to the Vatican, when she declared that — and this is verbatim — “awarding the Pulitzer Prize to the Boston Globe would be like giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Osama bin Laden.”

But the lesson we absorbed at the Globe was quite different, and it has been our guiding principle: No institution, no individual, no matter how powerful, can be immune from public accountability.

Over the years, I am proud to say, the Globe has been willing to challenge the most powerful in our community, regardless of ideological or political affiliation.

We have investigated the Speaker of the House for corruption, and he is now in federal prison as a result.

We have investigated a corrupt system of patronage in the Probation Department, and it is now being reformed as a result, with criminal investigations in process and indictments expected.

We have investigated the court system and found it at times shamefully lacking in justice. Once we found it allowing debt collectors to essentially run the courts and to run roughshod over the rights and lives of creditors — using heavy-handed tactics and outright deceit. More recently, we found judges ignoring the law, the evidence, and common sense in acquitting dangerously drunk drivers and allowing them back on the road when defendants chose the route of non-jury trials.

We investigated the pricing practices of the state’s biggest medical institution to document how it drove up health costs..

This year we risked the ire of the restaurant and fish industries when our investigation, conducted with DNA testing, proved that diners were frequently promised one fish but getting something else entirely — and, not infrequently, some really bad stuff.

And we have documented one abuse after the next in government: Rampant manipulation of the system to jack up pensions for public officials; firefighters who gamed the disability system; the Chelsea housing authority director who wildly inflated his salary and then concealed it, lying to the state.

We, of course, aren’t the only ones doing this sort of thing. We have a vibrant press in New England, and the organizations you represent do so much outstanding work. And throughout the country, news organizations — from newspapers to news nonprofits to broadcast outlets — are holding their public officials and others with power accountable to the society at large.

In Massachusetts, discouragingly, we are not helped by the public records laws. Commonwealth Magazine here has taken an admirable lead in documenting the failures of those laws, which it aptly described as a “paper tiger.” A Commonwealth Magazine story several years ago noted, and I’ll quote, “The stonewalling tactics used by public officials include ignoring records requests, claiming records don’t exist, disingenuously claiming exemptions, redacting so much from the records as to render them useless, and charging so much money to produce the documents that they are unaffordable for most citizens.”

Unfortunately, our state lawmakers, even when under pressure to write new ethics rules as the Speaker of the House faced corruption charges, had neither the vision nor the fortitude to make government more open.

On these matters, there already exists a fine roadmap to follow, and it was drawn up many decades ago in Florida by a legislator named Reubin Askew, who would go on to become governor. First with the Sunshine Law in 1967, and later with enhancements he engineered as the state’s highest office-holder, Florida emerged as a model for open government — allowing, as Justice Brandeis anticipated, sunlight to become the best disinfectant.

Reflecting a few years ago on the Sunshine Law, former Governor Askew told the newspaper in Tallahassee this: “You’ve got to remember in government whose business you’re doing: the people’s. And if you’re doing the people’s business, you’ve got to give them the tools to judge the product.”

That is why the work of our host today, the New England First Amendment Coalition, is so vital. Its mission is to press for more open government. My hope is that it gathers strength, with our continued support.

The greatest danger to a vigorous press today, however, comes from ourselves.

This is a moment in American history when the press has been made a fat target. The press is routinely belittled, badgered, harassed, disparaged, demonized, and subjected to acts of intimidation from all corners — through words and actions, including boycotts, threats of cancellations (or defunding, in the case of public broadcasting), and even surreptitious taping, later subjected to selective, deceitful editing. Our independence — simply posing legitimate questions — is seen as an obstacle to what our critics consider a righteous moral, ideological, political, or business agenda. In some instances, they have deployed scorched-earth tactics against us in hopes of dealing a crippling blow.

In this environment, too many news organizations are holding back, out of fear — fear that we will be saddled with an uncomfortable political label, fear that we will be accused of bias, fear that we will be portrayed as negative, fear that we will lose customers, fear that advertisers will run from us, fear that we will be assailed as anti-this or anti-that, fear that we will offend someone, anyone. Fear, in short, that our weakened financial condition will be made weaker because we did something strong and right, because we simply told the truth and told it straight.

In a superb new book called “God’s Jury” about the Inquisition and striking early-stage parallels emerging today, Cullen Murphy reminds us that among the most profound effects of that long and horrible chapter in world history were the books never written, the pervasive self-censorship, with incalculable consequences for human advancement. At work, as he put it, was the “sheer chilling effect of any regime of intellectual manipulation.”

We saw the consequences of that “chilling effect” most dramatically a decade ago in the aftermath of 9/11. The argument for war in Iraq was constructed on one false premise after the next.

With rare and praise-worthy exceptions, the press — shaken by the attacks, fearful of public recrimination, unwilling to endure accusations that it was weak or unpatriotic — failed to challenge unsupported, unsupportable, and false assertions emanating from our government. And, whether or not you believe the Iraq war ultimately was for the better or for the worse — justified or not — off to war we went, with most of the press having failed to do its job.

We cannot allow a regime of intellectual, ideological, or political manipulation to hold sway today, or ever again, in our newsrooms.

All of us are here to remember and honor the freedoms that were so courageously given us in the First Amendment. When we leave this ceremony, we owe the founders and our own community an equal measure of courage.

Courage to pursue and tell the truth.

That requires being accurate and fair and responsible and honorable, of course. But it also means having the guts to lay out the facts — honestly, forthrightly, fearlessly.

If we do not ask the hard questions, who will? And if won’t tell the plain truth, what good are we?

The First Amendment offers the promise that the freedoms granted will be acted upon. It is up to us fulfill that promise.

Thank you, and thank you again for the great honor you have given me today.

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6 thoughts on “Marty Baron warns press against fear and timidity

  1. Linda K. Wertheimer

    Dan,
    This is terrific and as Carey says, inspiring. I consider it a must-read for any journalist, current, student, or aspiring.

    It’s a great reminder of why it’s so important to keep our profession alive and vibrant.

  2. Brad Smith

    That is one of the most clear-eyed explications I’ve ever read of why the First Amendment exists.

    With the rapid dimming of the newspaper business upon us today, it feels like a few fearless journalists may become the monks of the 21st century, preserving what is essential during the coming long, dark age.

  3. Jeff Sanders

    I read every word of this piece, and must say that it is most clearly stated that I have ever had the pleasure of reading as concerned the 1st Amendment and general “freedom of the press”. Everyone, everywhere should read this, and really digest its content. I believe this shall be quoted forever in the future as an explanation of just why we enjoy this special freedom. I don’t think Mr. Baron’s brother and his sister-in-law were subjected to a boring speech, and believe they will cherish this one as an historic oratory! Indeed, I don’t believe I have ever been as touched by a draft of a speech, and am only sorry that I did not hear it in person. Thank you, Mr. Baron.

  4. Pingback: Read The Globe’s Marty Baron on the need for a robust press | WPRI.com Blogs

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