Screen grab: Martin Baron with Sarah Ellison of Vanity Fair.
Martin Baron, the editor of the Washington Post who is possibly better known as the editor who pushed the Catholic Church abuse investigation depicted in the movie "Spotlight," accepted an award Monday that is named for the late journalist Christopher Hitchens. In his speech, Baron talks about Donald Trump's year of ugly threats and vile verbal attacks on the Post and on all reporters who cover him, and says the best response journalists can make is to keep telling the truth.
Sounds like Marty, a former colleague at the Los Angeles Times, expects a rough four or eight years. As a privileged child of wealth and an obsessed seeker of approval, Trump has never accepted the right of the press to tell the truth about him and his business practices. Now as a politician he will have more power to go even uglier in his dishonest crusade to weaken the media oversight of his administration. His assault on the core American value of a free press is, for me, the most threatening and anti-American inner demon of Donald Trump. By running for president, he signed up for 24/7/365 coverage. His words and actions since the election have only proven he needs more scrutiny than any previous incoming president. I'm with Baron: good honest truthful journalism and journalists are needed in the face of Trump's war on the tradition of a strong, independent press.
Here's the part of his speech that is about the media and Trump. Read the entire speech at Vanity Fair.
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.
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.