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Meek School Magazine: The Power of Free Speech

The Newseum Institute, The Freedom Forum and the University of South Dakota recently awarded Martin Baron, Executive Editor of The Washington Post, the Al Neuharth Award, which recognizes excellence in media and a commitment to free expression and a free press. Here is Baron’s Acceptance Speech:

Courtesy of The Washington Post

Walter Cronkite was the first recipient of this award, in 1989. It is an incalculable honor to be in his company and that of the other 29 distinguished recipients, including Judy Woodruff, John Seigenthaler and Peter Prichard, who are here tonight.
Cronkite was not just a revered eminence in our profession. All of us of a certain age remember the dignity of his presence, the resonance of his voice, the authority he brought to the news.
He was also a man of deep com- mitment to the principles of the profession. At this moment in our history, it’s worth reminding ourselves and the public of what Cronkite called upon journalists to do: Report the facts as we see them – quote – “without regard for the consequences or controversy that may ensue.”
That principled position is one that can serve us well today, when we in the press are subjected to endless words of condemnation and when we are persistently targeted for intimidation.
We have a job to do. And we need to do it, no matter what.
We as a profession will need a strong set of values – the sort of values that are enshrined in this very building. I like to call that our soul.
We as journalists will also need a strong spine. If we abandon our mission out of fear or out of weakness, a central pillar of America’s democracy will collapse. The public will not forgive us, nor in my view should they.
I want to express my appreciation to the sponsors of this award – the Freedom Forum, the Newseum Institute, and the University of South Dakota, which Al Neuharth, a South Dakota native, attended – his first step toward a spectacular career as a journalism pioneer, innovator, disrupter, and champion.
The Newseum is testament to Al Neuharth’s reverence for the First Amendment and his recognition that the rights it guaranteed are what, above all, make this country exceptional.
It is only appropriate that the building stand on Pennsylvania Avenue between Congress and the Supreme Court on one side and the White House on the other – a position that speaks to the obligation of the press to keep watch over every branch of government.
When in 1991, Al Neuharth changed the name of the Gannett Foundation to the Freedom Forum, he meant to send a message – about the important mission of free speech, a free press and, he added, a “free spirit.”
Not just in this country, by the way, but around the world.
Here at the Newseum, the inspiration of Al Neuharth, all of us who work as journalists today can remind ourselves of the courage of those who came before us. Our predecessors in this profession fought to ensure that the First Amendment became more than words and that free expression became a way of life — became central to what it means to be a citizen of the United States.
“We must do our jobs as they’re supposed to be done, drawing inspiration from James Madison’s argument for the First Amendment: that the press should have the ‘right of freely examining public characters and measures.’”
– Martin Baron

Al Neuharth and I received our early education as journalists at the same place, The Miami Herald.
In 1954, the year I was born, he went there from South Dakota to become a reporter, earning $95 per week. Twenty-two years later, I started my full-time career at The Herald, earning $200 a week – first working out of a two-man bureau in the town of Stuart, then with a population of 12,000, the county seat in Martin County, population 50,000.
More than two decades after that, thanks to Alberto Ibargüen’s brave decision to hire me as the Herald’s editor, I returned to Miami.
The Herald’s newsroom has been a place that vibrates with all that makes journalism such an exciting and fulfilling profession. When big news breaks – and in Miami, that’s pretty much all the time — the Herald is a machine.
And in Al Neuharth’s time, in my two tenures there, and still today, the Herald’s news staff has been as dogged as they come, determined to root out malfeasance, never content with facile answers, always searching for the truth.
When I was editor there, I faced my rst big test on a national scale.
It was the year 2000. November. And the unimaginable happened in a presidential election. No one was sure who had won. Florida would decide whether it was George W. Bush or Al Gore.
With an of cial vote difference in the hundreds – and with charges of improper counting, confusing ballots, and voter suppression – a constitutional crisis was in the making. When the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Gore campaign’s request for an of cial recount by a vote of 5-4, the Herald decided to do its own recount.
Under Florida’s public records law, the Herald asserted a right to examine for ourselves every ballot cast in the state. We inspected them one by one, along with a major accounting firm.
When our plan to conduct a recount became known, we were condemned by Republicans, who accused us of seeking to delegitimize a Bush presidency.
But we just wanted to get at the truth. We felt Americans were entitled to know who really won. And in the end, we concluded that Bush had almost certainly won, by a small but solidly documented margin.
We were doing exactly what Walter Cronkite advised: Getting the facts and reporting them “without regard for the consequences or controversy that may ensue.”
In 2001, I became editor of The Boston Globe. And there was a case that immediately caught my interest.
A Boston priest had been accused of molesting as many as 80 children. The plaintiffs’ lawyer accused the cardinal himself of knowing the priest’s shocking history of abuse and yet reassigning him from one parish to the next. Lawyers for the archdiocese called those accusations irresponsible and baseless.
It was not enough to report competing accounts of the truth. As a news organization, when there is evidence of wrongdoing, we need to nd the truth for ourselves – and for a public that needs and deserves to know.
And so the Boston Globe went about that work. The work went beyond this one horrible case. We needed to know whether the Church had repeatedly failed to disclose clergy abuse, repeatedly reassigned priests who had been credibly accused of abuse from one parish to the next – without notifying parents, or other priests, or the public at large. Were they putting additional children at risk of harm, again and again?
We went ahead with an investigation. And the Globe went to court, where 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, along with vigorous independent reporting, we documented a pattern of cover-up lasting half a century.
Victims were given a voice – and the hearing they’d long been denied. One of the world’s most powerful institutions was held accountable. Children were made more safe. And the public won the truth. The truth changed the way the Church and other major institutions now deal with sexual abuse.
The lesson, of course, is that no one should be immune from responsibility, least of all the powerful. No one should be denied a hearing, least of all the powerless.
There may be nothing more powerful in our society than the federal government. And that was something I had to think about shortly after I became executive editor of The Washington Post in 2013, after an unidentified individual sent former Post staffer Bart Gellman an encryption key and instructions to create an account on an anonymous computer server.
The source, of course, was Edward Snowden. And Bart would propose to The Post stories based on highly classified documents Snowden had obtained.
We published because we felt the public interest would be served, because what would be revealed went far beyond particular intelligence sources and methods – secrets the press had traditionally withheld from publication.
The documents 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.
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.”
Our work and that of other publications, most notably The Guardian, led to a public debate that had never been allowed to take place — about the proper balance between national security and individual privacy.
Many in this country argued 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.
At the center of our mission as journalists is holding powerful institutions and powerful individuals accountable.
I hope the current U.S. president understands that. It’s not evident yet that he does.
His language about journalists during the campaign was bad enough. He called us scum, low-lifes, disgusting, the lowest form of humanity, and — when that wasn’t enough — the lowest form of life.
When he took office, we became “enemy of the American people.” And the latest evidence suggests he has been eager to put journalists in jail for leaks.
Whatever the language, whatever the threats, we must do our jobs as they’re supposed to be done, drawing inspiration from James Madison’s argument for the First Amendment: that the press should have the “right of freely examining public characters and measures.”
Our industry faces many challenges. There are financial challenges. There are technological challenges. There is the challenge of our credibility with the public.
I firmly believe we can meet these challenges. But first and foremost we must know who we are and what we stand for. And we cannot waver in our commitment to a mission that has been with us since this country acquired a Bill of Rights.
There’s a quote from our owner, Jeff Bezos, on one of the glass partitions in our still-new D.C. offices. It goes like this:
“I strongly believe that missionaries make better products. They care more. For a missionary, it’s not just about the business. There has to be a business, and the business has to make sense, but that’s not why you do it. You do it because you have something meaningful that motivates you.”
We as journalists have something meaningful that motivates us. And today, despite all that confronts our profession, that sense of purpose feels stronger than ever. It is an exhausting time to be a journalist. But it is also an exhilarating time. It is a time when we are tested. It is a tense time.
It is also a time when a free and independent press feels indispensable. It is indispensable, and the sense of purpose in our profession is stronger than ever.
I chose journalism as a career 41 years ago. Today, I know this: I could not have made a better choice.

Allen Harold “Al” Neuharth was an American businessman, author, and columnist born in Eureka, South Dakota. He was the founder of “USA Today,” The Freedom Forum, and its Newseum. The Freedom Forum, based in Washington, D.C., is a nonpartisan foundation that champions the First Amendment as a cornerstone of democracy, and is the principal funder of the Newseum and Newseum Institute.

The Meek School Magazine is a collaborative effort of journalism and Integrated Marketing Communications students with the faculty of Meek School of Journalism and New Media. Every week, for the next few weeks, HottyToddy.com will feature an article from Meek Magazine, Issue 5 (2017-2018).

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