Martin Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, delivered the School of Media and Communication at Temple University commencement address. A transcript of his speech is below.
I was deeply honored when your dean and my friend, David Boardman, extended the invitation for me to speak here today.
In that invitation, David spoke with genuine pride of Temple’s School of Media and Communication. He cited its “storied commitment to public service.” He admiringly described students who were “fearless in the face of the challenges” in their fields.
He pointed with appreciation to the school’s diversity and its large percentage of first-generation college students.
This is, as David noted, a “remarkable place.”
You have enjoyed its gifts, preparing yourselves for the rest of your lives. Congratulations to you all.
Now you will be called upon to do remarkable things.
Because the world of communications is very much in need of your help. With the skills you’ve learned here – and, more importantly, the values – I believe you can help.
As a journalist at a major news organization, I am typically asked to speak about the future of media.
Today I’d like to talk about the future of communication. Media is part of that, of course. But communication encompasses far more.
Media is in a state of upheaval. Communication—people to people—is in a state of breakdown. You are the ones to repair it, if you are willing.
Today we are not so much communicating as miscommunicating. Or failing to communicate. Or choosing to communicate only with those who think as we do. Or communicating in a manner that is wholly detached from reality.
Too often we look only for affirmation of our own ideas rather than opening ourselves to the ideas of others.
Too often we are inclined only to talk. Too rarely are we inclined to listen — when listening is the superior route to learning and understanding. Listening has become a lost art.
And as we all talk, we have raised the volume — to a level where we can scarcely hear each other. A lower volume would allow us to hear better, and then to really listen.
In so many ways – with protests, with lawsuits, with threats of various sorts — we have sought to cut off speech rather than to encourage more of it. As if belligerence rather than debate led to a better world.
We have been quick to slap labels on others. The objective is to pigeonhole. Or to discredit, when in fact most people are more complex than any label can convey.
And now civility is evaporating from public discourse. The Internet is overrun with snark and sarcasm and cynicism. Perceived opponents are demonized. They are not opponents; they are enemies.
And the goal is not to win an argument but to annihilate those on the other side.
On your school’s website, Dean Boardman reminds us that Philadelphia “is the place where the United States Constitution, with its protection for personal liberty and expression, was crafted.” And he offers assurance that the school is “dedicated to keeping the patriot founders’ dream alive.”
That assurance is nothing without a commitment by each of you. You will be responsible for how we communicate with each other.
A couple of months ago, I was struck by a gesture of civility and reason. It seemed so extraordinary in this time that I feel obliged to mention it.
It came from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She issued a statement about Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court justice who had died six weeks earlier.
On the court, Ginsburg had argued with Scalia, often furiously, on the biggest issues of our era.
You might have thought they would be mortal enemies. But they became friends, in a relationship built on respect.
When a law school was named after Scalia – a move that inevitably would draw heated controversy — Ginsburg had this to say about her court opponent:
“As a colleague who held him in highest esteem and great affection, I miss his bright company and the stimulus he provided, his opinions ever challenging me to meet his best efforts with my own.”
How many of us can say the same when we think of those who hold opinions with which we disagree? Are they objects of our derision and disdain? Or do we see them as people who challenge us to do more solid research, form stronger arguments, and express ourselves more eloquently?
Civility will go a long way toward addressing the ills of today’s communications. But there are problems that go deeper and are cause for more profound concern.
We are living in a time when people can choose where they get their information. Choice is good. Yet people are turning to media outlets that are cynically propagating falsehoods to advance an ideological agenda.
To an astonishing degree, people believe these falsehoods. They are drawn to them because they reinforce their pre-existing worldview.
The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan liked to say, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
There was a time, not long ago, when we would differ on the interpretation of the facts. We would differ on the analysis. We would differ on prescriptions for our problems. But fundamentally we agreed on the facts.
That was then. Today, many feel entitled to their own facts when, in actuality, they are lies.
Many believe the president was not born in the United States. The evidence shows he was.
Many believe last year’s military training exercise, Operation Jade Helm, was preparation by the Obama administration for a military takeover of the country. Of course, it wasn’t.
Many buy into the preposterous and nasty assertions of a popular radio host and Internet entrepreneur who has claimed that some of the mass shootings – Newtown in 2012, San Bernardino in 2015 – were hoaxes, merely ruses to manipulate the public into embracing gun control and confiscation.
You might think the percentage of Americans who believe these things has to be small. It is not.
What has taken hold is an alternate reality, a virtual reality, where lies are accepted as truth and where conspiracy theories take root in the fertile soil of falsehoods.
Fact-checking by mainstream media organizations has no effect. We are objects of suspicion, accused of hiding facts. Seeing opportunity, politicians exploit these fabrications for their own ends, repeating them — or staying silent when they know full well they are untrue.
The late astronomer Carl Sagan used to say that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” If you encounter extraordinary claims, ask for extraordinary evidence. There may be no evidence whatsoever.
Columnist Anne Applebaum of The Washington Post recently issued an ominous warning about this:
“If different versions of the truth appear in different online versions; if no one can agree upon what actually happened yesterday; if fake, manipulated or mendacious news websites are backed up by mobs of Internet trolls; then conspiracy theories, whether of the far left or the far right, will soon have the same weight as reality.”
It is now possible, Applebaum noted, to “live in a virtual reality” where lies “are acclaimed as the hidden truth.”
We must ask ourselves: How can we have a functioning democracy when we cannot agree on the most basic facts?
Every day when I walk into our newsroom, the first thing I see are the principles laid down for The Washington Post in the 1930s by a new owner. They begin like this: “The first mission of a newspaper is to tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained.”
This recognizes that truth can be elusive. But it also demands that we be strivers. It calls upon us all to strive to find the truth – and then to tell the truth.
Notably, it also recognizes that there is a truth. It is not solely a matter of opinion. It is not a matter of ideology. It does not necessarily conform to what we want to believe. It does not necessarily make us comfortable. It may, in fact, cause extreme discomfort.
* * *
Since November of last year, with the release of the Oscar-winning movie “Spotlight,” I – along with former colleagues at The Boston Globe – have come to be more widely known for an investigation of the Catholic Church that revealed a decades-long cover-up of sex abuse by priests within the Boston Archdiocese.
The scandal ultimately took on worldwide dimensions. Fourteen years later, the Catholic Church continues to answer for how it concealed grave wrongdoing on a massive scale and for the adequacy of its reforms.
That investigation began with the case of one priest who was accused of abusing as many as 80 children. The lawyer for the plaintiffs – the survivors of the priest’s abuse – said the cardinal and his lieutenants knew of his serial abuse and yet reassigned him from parish to parish without notifying anyone – not the parishioners, not the parish priest, not anyone in the community. The Church’s lawyers called those assertions irresponsible and baseless.
One of The Boston Globe’s columnists noted all that. And then she added that the truth might never be known because internal Church documents that could reveal it were under court seal, hidden from the public.
Our investigation began because we would not – could not — settle for the truth never being known. We sought to unearth the truth. And the result was a public good. An institution was held accountable. Children were made more safe.
Well after our first story was published in January, 2002, I received a letter from Father Thomas P. Doyle, who had waged a long and lonely battle within the Church on behalf of abuse victims.
He wrote this: “This nightmare would have gone and on were it not for you and the Globe staff. As one who has been deeply involved in fighting for justice for the victims and survivors for many years, I thank you with every part of my being.”
“I assure you,” he wrote, “that what you and the Globe have done for the victims, the church and society cannot be adequately measured. It is momentous and its good effects will reverberate for decades.”
There is a lesson in Father Doyle’s letter: The truth is not meant to be hidden. It is not meant to be suppressed. It is not meant to be ignored. It is not meant to be disguised. It is not meant to be manipulated. It is not meant to be falsified. Otherwise, evil will prevail, wrongdoing will persist.
On matters of public interest, truth needs to be revealed. And it needs to be respected.
With good reason, one of our columnists, George Will, was motivated by today’s political environment to quote the poet James Russell Lowell. Lowell wrote this in 1845:
“Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide, In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side.”
The strife of truth with falsehood continues to this day. And the decision is yours: the good or evil side?
* * *
At the heart of the struggle between truth and falsehood is the First Amendment and the shield it provides for free expression. Our vibrant political system would wither without it. It protects the press, of course, but also movies and music and advertising and what you post on social media and your everyday conversations with friends, family, and colleagues.
The First Amendment can be used for good, or it can be used for ill. The freedom it provides can allow falsehoods to be spread. But without it, truth can be forever suppressed.
As a statement of principle, the First Amendment enjoys overwhelming support among the American public, including students on college campuses. But when the principle is put to the test, and the circumstances become less abstract, support often weakens.
A Gallup survey this year on behalf of the Knight Foundation and the Newseum in Washington found that, when it comes to campus protests, nearly half of students say the following are reasons to curtail coverage by the press: People at the protest believe reporters will be biased; people at the protest have a right to be left alone; people at the protest want to tell their own story on the Internet and social media.
The First Amendment will mean nothing if it is endorsed in principle but abandoned in practice. It means nothing if you want its rights for yourselves but would deny them to others.
* * *
All of us who embark on careers find, sooner or later, that we must make difficult decisions that put our values to the test.
If you do not have core values, you will be lost. A set of principles, however, will provide a moral compass.
As you leave this remarkable place, I hope you will commit yourself to these principles:
Belief in free expression, not just for yourself but for all. Reverence for the truth, knowing that at times it may challenge the views you hold. Civility, even at moments of sharp disagreement.
And, finally, a willingness to listen to others, even those with whom you differ most.
If you do all that, you will earn more than the congratulations that deservedly come with your degree today.
You will earn our gratitude – for elevating the field of communications and for restoring discourse to a point that honors and strengthens our democracy.
This is your opportunity. More important, this is your responsibility.
Thank you very much, and good luck to you all.