It’s fitting that we should be gathered here at a moment when the media has made some accountability happen. Without the press, it’s easy to imagine that the mistreatment suffered by Ebenezer Azamati would have been overlooked or brushed aside.
Well, that didn’t happen.
I suspect that Mr. Azamati and his supporters now have a greater sense of trust in the mainstream media. His experience was exposed by the Oxford Student and then brought to a wider audience by the Times and the Guardian and others.
Outrage ensued. Now change is underway.
We are here to examine the case of those who promote mistrust in the mainstream media. For the most part they are politicians who seek to benefit from a distracted and uncertain electorate. These politicians strive to cast themselves as the sole source of truth.
You can’t trust the media, they say. Trust me, they offer instead. Trust only me.
If we accept tonight’s proposition, if we convince ourselves that journalists cannot be trusted, then we submit to forces and individuals who are acting primarily in their own self-interest. They may also have in mind a more peaceful world or an improved economy or some other redeeming policy objective. I grant them that.
But it is not their professed goals that should concern us this evening. Richard Nixon, speaking in disgrace on the eve of resigning the U.S. presidency in 1974, said even his wrong judgments had been made in what he had believed to be the best interests of the nation. In fact, he had acted in the pursuit of a narrow self-interest: his own re-election. Nixon was fond of calling the press “the enemy.” As he told one adviser: “You must keep up the attack on the media. You’ve got to keep destroying their credibility.”
The current attack is also a political tactic. It damages our public discourse, our communities, our democracies.
Mainstream media is a broad label, media broader still. My focus is on organizations whose goal is journalistic – those that rely on fact and that seek to tell the true story of our times. When I began my career, the mainstream media meant a very few big broadcasters and big newspapers. Dominant narratives stifled inconvenient facts and uncomfortable opinion. The mainstream was pretty main.
What we have now is much better. Everyone in this room can be a fact finder and a digital publisher of those facts. We can incorporate video and documents and other kinds of evidence to make our work more compelling, more convincing, more widely consumed. The story of how Mr. Azamati was treated here last month – just over there – would have had far less impact without the video.
Where the media once tended toward monopoly and monotony, now there is opportunity and diversity and creativity. We have marvelous new tools for exposing problems, for holding power to account, for building relationships with our readers and viewers and listeners.
The advent of digital media has been liberating and democratizing. The mainstream is not so main – all to the good. The negative corollary is that this new media universe is also an exploitable cacophony.
Powerful forces have stepped in to undermine independent journalism.
A healthy media universe encompasses bloggers and podcasters; non-profits and for-profits; ideologically driven organizations as well as institutions that strive for neutrality, that make the discovery and revelation of fact, no matter the degree of official opposition, their central goal. I stand here as a proponent of such institutions.
As you are no doubt aware, the U.S. House of Representatives is holding hearings this week to consider the impeachment of President Trump. You will also be aware of the central allegations against him – that he sought to leverage the power of his office to compel Ukraine to conduct investigations that could have embarrassed one of his rivals.
You may be less aware that the White House was intent on suppressing these allegations – made by a government official – until a news organization brought them into the open, initiating an explosion of public debate. That news organization was The Washington Post.
This is a role we have often played in the 142 years of our history. Sometimes in competition with other news organizations, sometimes on our own, we have surfaced difficult and disturbing facts, often about our president. Nixon’s resignation was brought to pass by our coverage of the political scandal known as Watergate. We illuminated the links between Mr. Trump’s campaign and administration and Russia, prompting the resignation of his national security adviser and ultimately an exhaustive official investigation of those ties.
Our purview is broader than the presidency. Along with the Guardian, we exposed the extent of U.S. surveillance of the Internet, relying on documents provided by Edward Snowden. We were the first to tell Americans how many people are killed each year by police officers, and we are in the fourth year of that effort.
The Post is hardly alone. Think of what the Miami Herald has done to expose Jeffrey Epstein’s evasion of justice, revelations that are reverberating today in Britain. Or what the Boston Globe has done to reveal the systematic cover-up of the sexual abuse of children within the Catholic Church. Or the meticulous reporting of The New York Times and the New Yorker magazine, which effectively created the MeToo movement.
In many of these instances, the mainstream media amplified and built upon the work of others – leading to broad awareness and loud demands for change.
It takes institutions to undertake high-risk, high-impact journalism. It takes reporters willing to invest years in developing expertise and cultivating sources. It takes correspondents brave enough to cover conflict, and columnists with the courage to confront authoritarian regimes. It takes fastidious copy editors and relentless researchers and resolute lawyers and enterprising publishers and owners who are willing to defy the power structure.
It takes a clarity of purpose. Our mission was codified in 1935, in the words of Eugene Meyer, who had bought The Post at a bankruptcy sale two years earlier: “The first mission of a newspaper,” he wrote, “is to tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained.”
In early 2017 we adopted a more succinct motto – Democracy Dies in Darkness. That’s not a tagline, that’s a fact. We did that at the urging of Jeff Bezos, who has owned The Post since 2013.
My own clarity of purpose comes from my years as a reporter and correspondent. I have seen and exposed what those with power can do. They want to make secret deals. They want to kill with impunity. And they want the public to acquiesce.
A healthy media universe in the digital age incorporates – I would say, celebrates – a wide variety of voices, approaches and platforms. But that universe must include organizations that have the resources and determination to discover the most elusive facts and the institutional standing to compel the attention of prosecutors, legislators, corporate boards – those who have the power and responsibility to act on our findings.
We have always had a job to do – to ascertain the truth and tell it in a riveting manner. This obligation is all the more pressing today, when we are vilified by politicians who say that factual reporting is fake news, that critical stories are fiction, that sources cultivated over many years are nonexistent.
We cannot allow ourselves to be deceived by this rhetoric. But dismantling it is not just a matter of exposing its duplicity. We need to remind people that independent journalists are the foundation of a free society, not its enemy.
In response to the dangerous and misguided assertion embedded in tonight’s proposition, we will do our jobs. We will keep uncovering new facts that are relevant to the public debate, and we will publish them, even if powerful individuals are intent on keeping them secret.
The charge that the mainstream media cannot be trusted tells us nothing about the accuracy and validity of the work done by major news organizations. It tells us everything about the intent of those making the accusation.
They want to neutralize critical reporting and undermine independent scrutiny of their conduct. They pervert the very idea of truth.