“I am proud to have joined you in ambitious, high-impact work so essential to democracy. You stood up against vilification and vile threats. You stood firm against cynical, nerve-wracking assaults on objective fact.”
So said Marty Baron in a letter to the Washington Post staff announcing his retirement as of Feb. 28, 2021 after eight years as executive editor of one of nation’s best and often most controversial newspapers. In his heartfelt letter, he wrote that “working at the Washington Post allows each of us to serve a purpose bigger than ourselves.”
While I understand that many friends on the Eastern Shore consider the Post a “liberal rag” and “mouthpiece for the Democratic Party,” I disagree. It offers first-rate coverage of international, national and local news, particularly when it reports on the fractious, dysfunctional operation of presidential and congressional actions (or non-actions) and decisions (good, bad and downright nonsensical).
I would concede that its opinions often reflect a left to center-left perspective, with balance provided by conservative writers like George Will.
I also realize, given the personal investment of a healthy dose of capital from Amazon founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, this newspaper has a firm financial foundation, unlike smaller, struggling newspapers throughout the country.
The difference between The Star Democrat and the Washington Post is comparable to a rowboat versus a yacht. Yet both are providing the first draft of history and hopefully holding public officials accountable; the former’s journalistic DNA, however, does not lend itself to tough, investigative reporting.
When I think about the Post during the past eight years under Baron’s steady, passionate leadership, I commend its relentless coverage and, yes, criticism of a White House leased for four horrible, deceitful years by a president intent on destroying the basic tenets of democracy.
The assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 after irresponsibly inflammatory remarks by the president symbolizes, literally and figuratively, Trump’s onerous disregard for democracy. He and his crazed followers wanted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and the legitimate votes of Americans living in Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
Where would our country stand in retaining the precious right to vote were it not for our judicial system and a free, unfettered press?
I’ve observed many instances when party politics and professional loyalties interfered, if not stymied investigations into unsavory and often illegal, public behavior. Journalism, as practiced by those willing to view themselves as serving a cause (democracy), is often the dogged, relentless watchdog willing to withstand scorn and condemnation to hold public officials accountable.
At the risk of possibly retelling a story, as the editor of the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer, 1979-1981, I learned that a local politician was wont to serve alcohol to voters standing in line to vote. It was a quaint, little custom. It also was illegal. I reported on this low-level stunt. The practice was discontinued. The public official, well-regarded and well-liked, never spoke to me again. His anger was understandable. I felt nonplussed by his shunning.
When I think about Marty Baron, featured as editor of the Boston Globe in the film, “Spotlight,” which described the controversy over the sexual predatory practices of Roman Catholic priests in Boston and the shrewd cover-up by the church hierarchy. I lean toward the word, “gutsiness.”
“Spotlight” watchers learned that battling the ultra-powerful Catholic diocese was risky business. The ethic in the media and the legal community was governed by a stern reluctance, if not outright refusal, to challenge or criticize the church. Cardinal Bernard Law was powerful, unquestioned by religious and secular leaders, as well as by frightened parishioners.
A poignant scene occurred in the movie when Cardinal Law gives the character playing Marty Baron, a Jew, a book about catechism, a summary of Christian beliefs and principles. The “gift” represented a slyly patronizing way to warn Baron that he was on foreign turf that he should navigate carefully.
Even a newspaper as large and influential as the Washington Post is always treading on thin ice when it confronts powerful, ruthless political leaders operating at the top echelon of U.S. government.
The journalistic journey is rife with threats, bombast and ostracism. Access to key figures and vital information become closed. Phone calls go unanswered. Scoops are given to rival reporters.
As an avid reader of the Post. I applaud Baron and his steadfast commitment to responsible journalism and democracy. A free press is not an “enemy of the people.” It does not traffic in “fake news.” It’s often a window to unexamined corruption.
It shines a light when some would want to extinguish it.
Baron wrote in his farewell note, “We must listen generously to others. We owe the public rigorous, thorough and honorable reporting, and then an honest, unflinching account of what we discover.”
Our democracy, though soiled and stained during the past four years, is strong and lasting. Responsible, tough-minded journalism is an inexorable contributor to a country that thrives on uninhibited, reasoned dialogue.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.