Washington Post executive editor speaks on ‘unearthing facts,’ the importance of journalism

Martin Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post, delivers the 176th Landon Lecture on Thursday. (Payton Heinze | The Collegian)

The Washington Post is not at war. They are at work.

Martin Baron, who manages over 700 journalists as executive editor of the Washington Post, delivered the 176th Landon Lecture on Thursday.

Baron has led newsrooms to earn a total of 11 Pulitzer Prizes at the Boston Globe, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald. While he was at the Boston Globe, the newspaper earned a Pulitzer for the investigation of the scandal of the Catholic Church’s coverup of child sex abuse by the clergy that inspired the 2015 movie “Spotlight.”

“In February, the president declared that people like me were the enemy of the American people,” Baron said. “Not just me, of course, but the major mainstream media overall, or the ‘fake news media’ as he likes to call us.”

Journalists have endured many months of discouragement, Baron said.

“We were called scum, disgusting, garbage, the most dishonest human beings on earth, the lowest form of humanity and because that wasn’t enough, the lowest form of life,” Baron said. “Those denunciations of the press provoked thousands of people to send nasty, bigoted, misogynistic and threatening emails and tweets to journalists, some of whom then required extra security.”

But this should not stop journalists, Baron said. Rather, this is why the job of a reporter is all the more important.

Kaycee Renshaw, senior at Salina High School South and head editor of their student newspaper, said it was reassuring and valuable to hear Baron speak about the importance of telling the truth, even if it angers people.

“People aren’t always going to be happy with you because you’re never going to have the same opinion as everyone, and you just have to be OK with that,” Renshaw said.

Baron remembered journalists who risked their lives and others who lost their lives while uncovering the truth, particularly overseas.

“They remind us of our mission as journalists,” Baron said. “And American democracy is nothing without them. For all the burdens they bear, the risks they take and for all the difficulties they face overseas, they give us in return the ingredients that sustain a free society.”

“Their coffins may not be draped in the American flag, but they are draped in America’s highest ideals,” Baron continued. “We owe it to ourselves as journalists … to state clearly and without fear of boasting, that such work … gathering information with determination and honesty and empathy, the hard and often unpopular business of truth-telling is not just a job, but a vital and virtuous enterprise.”

Journalists like himself have an obligation to speak up on their colleagues’ behalf because nothing is more important than separating truth from falsehood, he said.

“One thing that particularly troubles me these days is the picture that’s been painted of who the mainstream press is,” Baron said. “We’re portrayed as an out-of-touch elite, disconnected from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans.”

“These people who work for us are not elitists — no matter which multimillionaire or multibillionaire currently in government would like to stick them with that label.”
— Martin Baron

A diverse newsroom

But the Washington Post newsroom is diverse, Baron said. The newsroom has a culture filled with people from many different walks of life, including their deputy national editor who was raised on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania, a political reporter from California who was born to immigrant farmhands from Mexico and their Pentagon reporter who was deployed to Afghanistan twice as a Marine and whose best friend died in combat.

“These people who work for us are not elitists — no matter which multimillionaire or multibillionaire currently in government would like to stick them with that label,” Baron said. “They bring the lessons of their lives to our newsroom, where they find meaning in the work.”

Baron said he is proud of his diverse newsroom, but knows newspapers must do even better at including more diversity, using a quote from Gwen Iffi, an American Peabody Award-winning journalist, to emphasize his point: “We have stories to tell, but many in our audience have stopped listening because they can tell that we’re not talking about them.”

“This is true of too many people: African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, middle Americans, working-class Americans,” Baron said. “We have a diverse and complex country. It is a challenge to reflect the perspectives of all its people. But we who run newsrooms have an obligation to work at it.”

“Truth and falsehood are neither conservative nor liberal, neither Republican nor Democrat.”
— Martin Baron

‘An independent monitor’

And it does not stop there, he said; journalists must continue to check the potential abuse of power.

“Our independence from the administration is not a hostile act. It’s a moral duty and a realization of what the nation’s founders envisioned when they wrote the First Amendment,” Baron said. “It’s easy to appreciate why the administration would like to position the press as its political opponent.”

Quoting journalist John Cassidy from the New Yorker:

“The aim is to portray the media as a political adversary rather than an independent monitor, so that when damaging stories appear the administration can dismiss them.”

The biggest conflict with the presidential administration — the reason journalists are called “enemies of the people” — boils down to basic facts, Baron said.

“Truth and falsehood are neither conservative nor liberal, neither Republican nor Democrat,” Baron said. “In polarization between right and left, the great casualty has been the distinction between true and false.”

Savannah Rattanavong, junior in journalism and mass communications, said she values the truth even more after hearing Baron’s lecture.

“It was reaffirming to hear his thoughts on the truth is the truth,” Rattanavong said. “The climate for journalists today has been hostile, so it really affirmed to me what I’m doing.”

Baron said journalists must continue to tell the truth despite all the “name-calling,” as it does not matter if journalists are labeled as fake news, the opposition party, garbage, bad people or if the president threatens to sue or exclude them.

“But when we as journalists are confronted with a torrent of falsehoods, we have an absolute obligation to point them out and call them what they are no matter how creative the administration is in the name-calling it directs at us,” Baron said. “We should not be intimidated. The fundamental task of journalism is to tell the facts as they really are, no matter what.”

“We believe there is such a thing as fact. We believe there is such a thing as truth. And we don’t take well to being lied to.”
— Martin Baron

A journalist’s beliefs

This can be done, Baron said, because of the beliefs that unite all journalists, many of which are seeded in conflict with politicians.

The beliefs Baron mentioned include free expression, civil rights, acceptance and respect of all people and the societal obligation to help the least fortunate. Baron said journalists also believe in holding those in power accountable, exposing wrongdoings and the abuse of power, and having a free, vigorous and independent press.

“We believe evidence and expertise and experience should be highly valued, not ignored or dismissed or denied,” Baron said. “We believe there is such a thing as fact. We believe there is such a thing as truth. And we don’t take well to being lied to.”

And journalists also believe in the importance of citizens debating how to interpret events.

“But how does democracy survive when people cannot agree on a core set of facts, when we cannot agree on what happened even yesterday?” Baron asked. “Contrary to how the press is so often portrayed — with ‘fake news’ being the latest favorite epithet — unearthing facts is what quality journalists have done for decades. And that has served the public interest.”

Unearthing facts, Baron said, is the primary purpose of a journalist. He cited times when unearthing facts led to justice and positive results, including when the Washington Post exposed the mistreatment of wounded veterans at Walter Reed Hospital, which led to public outrage and reforms. Justice also followed when The Boston Globe exposed the practice of concealing clerical sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, which lead to reforms and the voices of sex-abuse survivors being heard.

“Who would have done this work but for journalists?” Baron asked. “Enemies of the American people? I don’t think so.”

Hi, I'm Kaitlyn Alanis, former news editor for the Collegian and a May 2017 graduate in agricultural communications and journalism. I have never tried a hamburger and I hate the taste of coffee, but I love writing stories and sharing what I learn with our readers. By writing for the Collegian, I can now not only sing along when the K-State Band plays "The Band is Hot," but I also know that most agriculture students did not grow up on a farm, how to use an AED to save someone's life and why there is a bust of MLK Jr. outside of Ahearn Field House. Thanks for reading!