Martin Baron gave a commencement speech today. Talked about tough decisions as an editor.


Graduates from Lehigh University gather at the 2014 commencement ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Lehigh University Communications + Public Affairs)

Earlier today, Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron gave the commencement speech at Lehigh University, while receiving an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. In his speech, Baron talked about how this year’s graduates will be “asked to make unimagined decisions” and how they “will be tested — on what you stand for, whether you stand for anything at all.” Baron then shared three times in his career when he had to turn to his values to make tough decisions as an editor: The Miami Herald’s recount of the 2000 presidential election, The Boston Globe’s investigation of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and The Washington Post’s coverage of the NSA surveillance program.

His full speech is pasted below:

Many thanks for inviting me to be here, and congratulations to today’s graduates. You attended a wonderful university.

I am very grateful to Lehigh. It has given me many friends, a superb education, and the only college degrees I have.

I can’t help but recall that not every college did me such favors. One rejected me with this reassuring line: “We do know you are qualified for further education.”

So, thank you, Lehigh, for taking me in.

Much of my time here was spent in the basement of the University Center, where the school’s newspaper, The Brown and White, was then located. I considered then how I might succeed in my chosen profession.

What I did not contemplate were the decisions that many years later I would have to make.

Today I can tell you this: Your lives will go in unexpected directions. You will be asked to make unimagined decisions. And no matter how well Lehigh has done its job, nothing in your coursework will fully prepare you.

You will be tested — on what you stand for, whether you stand for anything at all.

I’ll tell you three stories of my own, and how I had to define what I stand for and how I see the role of journalism. And how you might consider your own roles as citizens.

A little warning: Some of it involves uncomfortable, controversial stuff. That is the world I inhabit.

*              *              *              *

Story No. 1: In the year 2000, I was in Florida as the top editor of The Miami Herald. By November, the unimaginable happened in a presidential election. No one was sure who had won. George W. Bush? Or Al Gore?

Florida would decide. And the official state count had the difference between the two candidates at only hundreds of votes – with charges of improper counting, confusing ballots, voter suppression.

A constitutional crisis was in the works, the presidency in play, the country angrily divided. The Gore campaign sought a recount. The Florida Supreme Court said OK — to a recount of limited scope. And then the case landed in the U.S. Supreme Court, which said no to a recount, by a vote of 5-4, with Justice John Paul Stevens declaring this in his dissent: “We may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s Presidential election.”

Authorities then certified George W. Bush as the winner.

My newspaper decided that would not be the final word on the vote. Under Florida’s public records law, we asserted a right to examine for ourselves every ballot cast in the state. We inspected them one by one, with a major accounting firm.

When our intention to do this became known, we were condemned by Republicans. We were accused of seeking to cast doubt on the legitimacy of a Bush presidency.

We were seeking something else entirely. It was the truth: Who had really won? We felt Americans should know.

As it happens, our recount determined that Bush really did win, by a small but solidly documented margin. Many Democrats have never accepted that conclusion. I am satisfied that we arrived at the truth.

And it leads me to this point: There are truths in this world. They can be determined. And if they cannot always be ascertained with 100% certainty, we can come awfully close.

Truth knows no party or ideology. Truth must be honestly pursued. And honesty demands we acknowledge the truth, no matter our loyalties or preconceptions or preferences. This requires you to be open to ideas and evidence and facts. Progress depends on it, as does our democracy.

*              *              *              *

Story No. 2: By 2001, I was editor of The Boston Globe.

A Boston priest had been accused of molesting 80 children. The Archdiocese of Boston was in a court fight with victims, and the plaintiffs’ lawyer alleged that the cardinal himself knew of this priest’s shocking history of abuse — and yet reassigned him from one parish to the next.

We decided to get at the truth.

Beyond this one case, we needed to know whether the Church had repeatedly failed to disclose abuse, reassigning priests who had been credibly accused.

The Church was the most powerful institution in Boston.

And yet we went ahead with an investigation. And we went to court. We argued that the law and public interest demanded that documents kept secret by the Church be made public. Thankfully, we prevailed.

Church files that had been locked away would be made public by court order. And, with independent reporting, we documented a pattern of cover-up lasting half a century.

That did not win us universal acclaim.  In 2002, a future ambassador to the Vatican declared — quote — “awarding the Pulitzer Prize to the Boston Globe would be like giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Osama bin Laden.”

Well, we were later awarded that prize. More important, the public won the truth. Truth changed the way the Church — and other major institutions – now deal with sexual abuse.

Victims were given a voice – and the hearing they’d long been denied. And one of the world’s most powerful institutions was held accountable.

No one should be immune from responsibility, least of all the powerful. No one should be denied a hearing, least of all the powerless. We owe them a duty to listen and help.

*              *              *              *

There is nothing more powerful in our society than the federal government. It has the power to tax. To wage war. To investigate and prosecute and imprison. Those who founded this country were wary of that power, fearful that it might subvert our civil liberties.

They sought limits, writing them into the Constitution.

This power of government came to occupy me shortly after I became executive editor of The Washington Post. So, story No. 3, my final one.

*              *              *              *

A year ago, an unidentified individual sent a journalist named Bart Gellman an encryption key and instructions to create an account on an anonymous computer server.

The two began an almost daily encrypted conversation. And then the source claimed to possess information about secret programs at the National Security Agency, programs he viewed as deeply troubling.

The source was Edward Snowden, now a fugitive in Moscow. Over time Snowden would transmit documents containing the government’s most closely held secrets.

Gellman would propose stories based on these documents to The Washington Post. Publishing those stories would involve huge risks – reputational and legal – to each journalist involved and to our company, as well as potential consequences for national security.

The Director of National Intelligence and a leading congressman later suggested, chillingly, that journalists who revealed the contents of those documents were Snowden’s “accomplices.” When The Washington Post and the Guardian newspaper last month won Pulitzer Prizes for this coverage, a member of the House Homeland Security Committee said we should have been prosecuted instead.

We published because we felt it served the public interest. Silence is, at times, an unacceptable option.

What would be revealed went far beyond particular intelligence sources and methods –secrets the press had traditionally withheld from publication.

They revealed a sweeping national policy – one that dramatically expanded surveillance and sharply eroded individual privacy.

This policy raised important questions: Do American citizens get to determine how much privacy they’re entitled to? Or does government decide all that for us — in secret — as long as it can assert national security as its rationale?

The documents would reveal that the National Security Agency was conducting surveillance of breathtaking scope. All of Americans’ phone call data was swept into a searchable repository. The NSA gained access to vast Internet communications. And it was breaking into the main links that connect data centers worldwide.

Major technology companies ultimately wrote the President to say the following: “We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens. But … The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual – rights that are enshrined in our Constitution.”

Today, we are now having a public debate that was never allowed to take place — about the proper balance between national security and individual privacy.

Many in this country argue that our decision to publish carried unacceptable risks to a nation under persistent threat. And yet many others are grateful that we exposed government activities they would never have approved and that in the wrong hands could be horribly abused.

To me, holding power to account is what the press exists to do and what, often, only the press can or will do. And it is what our Constitution anticipates in the First Amendment. Accountability is what sets this country apart from authoritarian regimes, where crushing an independent press is step one toward absolute control.

Securing our constitutional rights, however, requires more than a vibrant press. It requires vigilant citizens. These rights are a fragile gift. They are yours to safeguard.

*              *              *              *

As I participated in these decisions, I had only one place to turn: to my values. For you, the hard decisions will be different. But you will turn in the same direction to make them: To your values.

What you do will matter. Principles will matter. And those of you who stand for something can make a difference, even if at first you stand alone.

*                      *                      *                      *

I can only hope I have made decisions with a measure of wisdom. That is something you will need, too.

Wisdom does not mean doing what is easiest — or convenient or popular. It can mean the opposite. It does mean doing what is right – for the long run.

Wisdom will not come with the degree you pick up today. Acquiring it will depend on what you learn from this day forward, as you are called upon to make decisions you could never have foreseen.

Thank you again. Congratulations. And good luck.

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WashPostPR · May 19, 2014