“Marty” Baron is an American journalist who has been editor of The Washington Post since December 31, 2012, after having been editor of The Boston Globe since 2001. He retired on February 28, 2021, after eight years in the position. Here are excerpts from Marty Baron’s address to the Harvard University graduating class of 2020.
“There is so much now we can no longer take for granted. The air we breathe is first among them. So, those of us who are healthy have ample reason to be grateful.
I am also grateful to Harvard and to President Bacow for inviting me to be with you. To the Harvard Class of 2020, congratulations.
For me, this is an opportunity — an opportunity to speak about subjects that I believe are of real urgency. Especially now during a worldwide health emergency. I would like to discuss with you the need for a commitment to facts and to truth.
Only a few months ago, I would have settled for emphasizing that our democracy depends on facts and truth. And it surely does. But now, as we can plainly see, it is more elemental than that. Facts and truth are matters of life and death. Misinformation, disinformation, delusions, and deceit can kill. Here is what can move us forward: Science and medicine. Study and knowledge. Expertise and reason. In other words, fact and truth.
I want to tell you why free expression by all of us and an independent press, imperfect though we may be, is essential to getting at the truth. And why we must hold government to account. And hold other powerful interests to account as well.
It was in Boston, where the first newspaper of the American colonies was founded. Its first edition was published September 25, 1690. The very next day, the governor and council of Massachusetts shut it down.
So, the press of this country has long known what it means to face a government that aims to silence it.
Fortunately, there has been progress. With the First Amendment, James Madison championed the right of “freely examining public characters and measures.” Harvard’s commencement speaker two years ago, civil rights pioneer John Lewis, once said this:
“When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.”
We as journalists have the capacity — along with the constitutional right — to say and do something. We also have the obligation. And we must have the will. So, must you. Every one of you has a stake in this idea of free expression.
You want to be free to express your views. You should be free to hear the views of others, the same or different. You want to be free to watch any movie. To read any book. To listen to any lyrics. You should be free to say what you know is true without threat of government reprisal.
And you should acknowledge this if you value these freedoms that come with democracy: Democracy cannot exist without a free and independent press. It never has. But by the end of last year, a near-record 250 journalists worldwide were sitting in prison. Thirty of them faced accusations of “false news,” a charge virtually unheard-of only seven years earlier.
I think also of the risks that American journalists have taken to inform the public. Among them are colleagues I can never forget. And now I think constantly of reporters, photographers, and videographers who risk their own well-being to be with heroic frontline health workers — frontline workers of every sort — to share their stories.
To determine what is factual and true, we rely on certain building blocks. Start with education. Then there is expertise. And experience. And, above all, we rely on evidence. In any democracy, we want vigorous debate about our challenges and the correct policies. But what becomes of democracy if we cannot agree on a common set of facts, if we can’t agree on what even constitutes a fact?
One hundred years ago — in 1920 — a renowned journalist and leading thinker, Walter Lippmann, harbored similar worries. Lippmann, once a writer for the Harvard Crimson, warned of a society where people “cease to respond to truths, and respond simply to opinions . . . what somebody asserts, not what actually is.”
Lippmann wrote those words because of concerns about the press itself. He saw our defects and hoped we might fix them, thus improving how information got to the public. Ours is a profession that still has many flaws. We make mistakes of fact, and we make mistakes of judgment. We are at times overly impressed with what we know when much remains for us to learn.
In making mistakes, we are like people in every other profession. And we, too, must be held accountable.
At this university, you answer that question with your motto — “Veritas.” You seek the truth — with scholarship, teaching and dialogue — knowing that it really matters.
My profession shares with you that mission — the always arduous, often tortuous and yet essential pursuit of truth. It is the demand that democracy makes upon us. It is the work we must do.”