Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron delivered a commencement address today to the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism at The Times Center in New York City. In his speech, Baron highlighted eight lessons the journalism profession can learn based on the coverage of the 2016 presidential election. A transcript of the address is below.
Thank you for inviting me to be here on this special day. Congratulations to all of you.
The skills you’ve acquired will be essential to your success. But the lives you’ve led allow you to contribute something unique to our profession.
You will bring your distinct experience, your singular observations, your background. Each of you also, I hope, will bring your particular voice. Because our profession needs to hear from you. And this is very much a profession where one person can make a profound difference.
We can be better and smarter and wiser – and the public can be more informed — by what you’ve witnessed over a lifetime and what you now see and hear.
You will have the opportunity and the power to transport people into a world they otherwise would never have known. Journalism can do that.
Your dean has given me roughly 10 minutes to have my say. So I’d better get started.
Given that we’ve just gone through a presidential election unlike any we’ve ever seen before, I’d like to talk about what we can learn from it.
I emerge from this election enormously proud of the journalism of The Washington Post. It was penetrating and perceptive. Our journalists were resourceful and often brave.
Still, there is always good reason to find lessons we as a profession can learn. Because we should strive to constantly improve. And this is a moment to reflect. We should not hesitate to do so.
So here are my thoughts in the immediate aftermath:
No. 1.: We in the press are bad forecasters. As knowledgeable as we are, we can’t predict the future. Too often we tried. But no one could have predicted how this election played out.
Our journalistic experience gives us the tools to analyze what is happening. It does not enable us to accurately forecast what will happen. The variables are too many, and often elusive.
So we need to be careful about slipping from analysis to prediction. No matter how smart we think we are, we’re not that smart.
No. 2: Elections are a reminder that swagger makes us look good but it has to be earned. And earned with a quality that is quite different. That quality is modesty.
You know, journalists love swagger. The public can find it appealing, too. Our owner at The Post, Jeff Bezos, has spoken admiringly of swagger as part of the culture of The Post. And we like that. You can be sure. And it happens to be true.
So why would I mention “modesty”? And what do I mean by that word?
Because modesty recognizes that we always have a lot to learn and that we are not without flaws. The best journalists are more impressed with what they don’t know than with what they do know.
A mind filled with questions is essential to doing our jobs. We can never have too many. We can only have too few.
If mistakes were made in this election, it was that the profession overall made too many assumptions – about who would prevail, about what voters would most value in candidates, about the issues that would determine the outcome, about statements that presumably would be fatal. Many of those assumptions turned out to be incorrect.
Reporting is the proper antidote to our assumptions. Getting out of the office, talking to people in our communities and around the country, seeking to understand them, doing our homework. That can cure us of mistaken preconceptions.
When we’ve done our reporting, we can arrive at sound conclusions. And then we’ll have earned our swagger. The swagger of achievement, not entitlement.
Jeff Bezos has called Post journalists “professional swashbucklers.” Doing hard, revelatory reporting is the “professional” part.
No. 3: We need to be better listeners.
There has been a lot of argument about whether the press is somehow “responsible” for the election outcome.
First, let me point out that we have a democracy, and the decision belongs to the voters. It is the same democracy, by the way, that allows the press to report with treasured freedom.
Our job is to give the public the information it needs and deserves to know. The voters make their choice, weighing everything according to their judgment. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Still, the press stands accused of not taking Donald Trump seriously enough, early enough, during the primaries; and, at the same time, of giving him too much coverage; or failing to vet him thoroughly early on. Still others say we were too harsh.
On the whole, I don’t think much of that stands up to scrutiny. And we have to be careful not to generalize about “the media,” which covers a lot of territory. There were some lapses, no question. For one, cable networks should not give any candidate hours upon hours of live coverage for virtually every rally held. That is not journalism.
The most worrisome concern, however, is something else. It is that we as journalists – before Donald Trump became a candidate — largely failed to focus on the depth of anxiety and grievance in America: The severe hurt felt by those who had seen opportunities vanish for themselves and their families. The boiling resentment harbored against those perceived as gaining at their expense.
It is our job to hear all people. And to listen closely. And to give the people of America insights into each other. We will have to work harder at that.
No. 4: We need newsrooms filled with people from different backgrounds.
The face of America is changing, and that means that the faces in our newsrooms should change, too. If we hope to reflect the lives of all Americans, our newsrooms need to draw from every corner of this country.
It was evident during this election, as it had been for years before, that many in our society do not see themselves represented adequately, or even honestly, in American media.
As Gwen Ifill, the gracious and accomplished journalist who died just over a month ago, once said: “We have stories to tell, but many in our audience have stopped listening because they can tell that we’re not talking about them.”
Race and ethnicity are a big part of that. As a profession, we have made progress on that front, achieving more diversity through hiring. We need to do more.
I believe we also need to think more broadly about the composition of our newsrooms. It’s fair to ask some questions:
How many of our newsroom colleagues come from working-class families? How in touch are we with families where, when one thing goes wrong – a lost job, a car that gives out – then an entire household falls into crisis for lack of a financial cushion?
How many in our newsrooms have served in the military?
When there was a draft, there were more. But the military draft ended in 1973. When our country has been in so many wars, when so many of our fellow citizens are returning from the brutality of battle, we must ask ourselves whether we are missing something essential to understanding America.
No. 5: We need to think hard about what it means to be “fair.”
This is especially important during an election season when we in the press are subjected to incessant partisan attack.
Yes, we must be fair to the people we cover. That means being honest, honorable, and accurate in our reporting. We need to listen openly to what candidates have to say. We need to put hypotheses to the test. We should acknowledge when our premise is incorrect, or when too much remains unverified.
But when we’ve done all the research — when we’ve done our job thoroughly — we have a duty to tell people what we’ve learned. And to tell it to them forthrightly. Without masking our findings or muddling them.
That’s just being straight– and being fair — with the public.
If we don’t do that, we’re certainly not being respectful of the truth.
No. 6: Let’s remember that there is such a thing as truth. And we as journalists must be resolved to find it — and to tell it.
That is an urgent mission in an era when many ideologically-driven media outlets publish purported facts that are, in actuality, malicious falsehoods and baseless conspiracy theories.
Certain sites have propagated the notion that someone other than Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda was responsible for the attacks of 9/11 – perhaps the U.S. government or Jews.
They still maintain that the president was not born in the United States. These media outlets spread the false notion that last year’s military training exercise, Operation Jade Helm, was an administration plan to crack down on civil liberties and prelude to a military takeover.
One radio host, also the operator of a popular Internet site, has asserted that some mass shootings – Sandy Hook, San Bernardino — were hoaxes to advance the cause of gun control.
Some politicians cynically repeat those lies. Others, taking the cowardly path, just choose not to challenge them.
The result? People believe a lot that is plainly, demonstrably untrue. Many people. And many people, faced with conflicting information, have no idea what to believe. The easiest course, then, is to believe whatever you’d like.
All of this is having a corrosive effect.
How can we have a strong civil society when we can’t agree on basic facts, when people accept lies as truth?
It is why we as journalists must stay faithful to our central purpose. Someone must still tell things as they really are.
No. 7: When individuals seek to hold the top position in the most powerful country on earth, we have an obligation to find out everything we can — about their records and about their character.
That means digging. It means investigative reporting. It means we must cover more than what politicians and policymakers say. It is more important to cover what they do.
Inevitably, it means we are going to be targets of persistent, often venomous attack.
We will be accused of bias. Access to a candidate may be cut off. Subscribers may cancel. And at times, as happened in this latest campaign, our journalists will be subjected to vile insult and threatened with personal harm.
But as Anthony Lewis, the late New York Times columnist, wrote: “The American press has been given extraordinary freedom by the Supreme Court’s interpretations of the First Amendment. In return, it owes society courage.”
And, so, no matter how nasty things get, we must keep doing our jobs. Whoever aspires to be president deserves intense scrutiny. We must provide it.
Finally, No. 8. This is a particularly worrisome lesson for me.
Freedom of the press in this country is more fragile than any of us might have imagined. It is now under assault. You, I, all of us in this profession – and the public — will have to defend it.
Every presidential election brings the press into conflict with candidates. That’s only natural. And this year neither major candidate had warm feelings toward the press. That’s OK.
Hillary Clinton was notoriously inaccessible throughout much of her campaign. She ducked hard questions that deserved to be asked. Her longstanding suspicion of the press and hostility toward it were fully evident.
But our President-elect went further. Animosity toward the media was a centerpiece of his campaign.
He described the press as “disgusting,” “scum,” the “lowest form of humanity,” even “the lowest form of life.” As election day approached, he called us “the enemies.”
He said he wanted to “open up” libel laws. And he promised to harass unfriendly media outlets by suing them, for the sole vindictive purpose of driving up their legal costs.
With respect to The Washington Post, for months Donald Trump ordered our press credentials revoked because our coverage didn’t meet with his approval. Even before we were blacklisted, he openly hinted that, if he became president, he would seek retribution against our owner.
Let’s think about what makes our country truly exceptional and a beacon for people around the world who seek freedom: The First Amendment. Free expression. And, beyond that, a set of democratic norms that allow anyone to scrutinize and criticize our elected officials. As well as a sane and humane political culture that allows people to speak their minds without fear of government reprisal.
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, in 1927, wrote this: “freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth . . .
Sadly, we cannot always count on our nation’s institutions to safeguard our freedoms.
At times in 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 during World War I, or the McCarthy Era that reminds us of the grave damage that comes from a reckless search for enemies.
In 1940, another great jurist, Judge Learned Hand, called upon America’s citizens to see themselves as the ultimate guarantors of our freedoms. “Liberty,” he said, “lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it.”
The right to free expression belongs to all of us. The fight to protect it falls to all of us as well.
My hope is that no one will fight harder than all of you.
You have inherited this incredible gift. You leave here with an obligation to make sure it is never stolen from us.
Thank you for listening. Good luck to all of you.