The executive editor of the Washington Post reflected on the values underlying journalism, the threats the profession faces amid a global rise of authoritarianism, and his years leading The Boston Globe in a speech Thursday during Harvard University’s online commencement.
Martin Baron, who was Globe editor from 2001 to 2012 before taking the Post’s top newsroom job, said the coronavirus pandemic that forced Harvard to cancel its traditional commencement ceremonies has helped demonstrate that providing accurate information to the public is absolutely vital.
“Facts and truth are matters of life and death. Misinformation, disinformation, delusions, and deceit can kill,” Baron said. “Here is what can move us forward: Science and medicine. Study and knowledge. Expertise and reason. In other words, fact and truth.”
Baron had been scheduled to receive an honorary degree, but that has been postponed until the university hosts an in-person commencement for the class of 2020 at a date yet to be determined, a Harvard spokesman said.
More than 7,900 undergraduate and graduate students across the Ivy League university’s dozen schools received their degrees virtually from university president Lawrence Bacow during the one-hour ceremony.
Baron reflected at length on the beginnings of the Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the clergy sex abuse scandal in the Boston archdiocese, which led to systemic change in the global Catholic Church.
“A priest had been accused of abusing as many as 80 kids. A lawsuit alleged that the cardinal in Boston at the time knew about the serial abuse, didn’t do anything about it — and repeatedly reassigned this priest from parish to parish, warning no one, over decades,” said Baron, 65, according to a copy of his prepared remarks. “The archdiocese called the accusations baseless and reckless.”
The Globe’s investigation, the subject of the Academy Award-winning film “Spotlight,” revealed a coverup of widespread abuse in the church and held the powerful to account — a central purpose of journalism, Baron said.
After the Globe’s reporting on abuse in the church, the Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, a priest who had sounded an early alarm on abuse by clergy, wrote thanking Baron for the newspaper’s reporting.
“It is momentous, and its good effects will reverberate for decades," Doyle wrote, according to Baron.
Without naming President Trump or any other political figure, Baron criticized those who seek to discredit journalists, saying attacks on the news media are a tool of authoritarians.
“Leaders who crave more power for themselves always move quickly to crush an independent press. Next, they destroy free expression itself,” he said. “Sadly, much of the world is on that worrisome path. And efforts in this country to demonize, delegitimize, and dehumanize the press give license to other governments to do the same — and to do far worse.”
Baron spoke of journalists around the world who have been jailed in Turkey and China or killed for reporting the truth and of such nations as Hungary and the Philippines that censor what their people can read or pressure journalists to report propaganda as fact.
“The Turkish government has shut down more than 100 media outlets and charged many journalists as terrorists. Independent media have been largely extinguished,” he said. “China, of course, imposes some of the world’s tightest censorship on what its citizens can see and hear.”
He said later, “Hungary’s prime minister has exploited the pandemic to grab more power, suppress inconvenient facts, and escalate pressure on news outlets. . . . In the Philippines, the courageous Maria Ressa, who founded the country’s largest online-only news site . . . faces prosecution on bogus charges of violating foreign ownership laws.”
The late Washington Post opinion contributor Jamal Khashoggi, who was critical of the Saudi government, “walked into Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul to get documents he needed to marry” and “was murdered there at the hands of a team sent by highest-level Saudi officials,” Baron said.
He also remembered his late Globe colleague , Elizabeth Neuffer, a reporter who was killed in a car crash in Iraq in 2003.
“Elizabeth was 46, an experienced foreign correspondent, a mentor to others; vivacious and brave,” Baron said, recalling later, “Elizabeth had a record of fearlessness in investigating war crimes and human rights abuses. Her goal: Reveal the world as it is — because someone might then make things better.”
Baron called on Harvard graduates to follow the example of such journalists and seek the truth in their lives after graduation, embracing the university’s motto: “Veritas,” the Latin word for truth.
“Facing the truth can cause extreme discomfort,” Baron said. “But history shows that we as a nation become better for that reckoning. It is in the spirit of the preamble to our Constitution: ‘to form a more perfect union.’ Toward that end, it is an act of patriotism.”
Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.