Journalism continues to play an indispensable role in the functioning democracy even as the industry transitions to an online format, Marty Baron, former executive editor of The Washington Post, said at an event.
The virtual Zoom event, titled “The Role of the Fourth Estate,” took place March 3, just three days after Baron officially retired from his role at The Washington Post. The event was jointly hosted by the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service and the journalism program. In the conversation, moderated by GU Politics Executive Director Mo Elleithee (SFS ’94), Baron reflected on his own career, the role of the press in a democracy and the future of journalism.
Baron has earned a reputation as a fierce advocate for a free and independent press. Over a 45-year career, Baron spent the last eight as executive editor at The Washington Post and previously served as executive editor at The Boston Globe and the Miami Herald.
The fourth estate, a term that refers to the press’ nongovernmental watchdog role, continues to have a crucial responsibility in upholding democracy as the medium through which news is interpreted and disseminated, according to Baron.
“There is a reason our job is called journalism and not stenography,” Baron said at the event. “Stenography is recording what people say and disseminating it. We have to say who was behind these decisions, what kind of influence was brought to bear and who may be affected.”
In recent years, the phrase “fake news” has become a familiar term in the political lexicon as public trust in the media has slowly eroded. The phrase, originally used to describe misleading news stories spread on social media, was co-opted by former President Donald Trump to call out news outlets and articles he did not like. Trump used the phrase roughly 900 times on Twitter before his account was permanently banned. The share of U.S. adults who found the nine leading media outlets credible dropped to a record low 51.2% in April 2020, according to a poll conducted by the Morning Consult.
Truth has become so devalued that even elected officials are no longer held to a standard of knowing basic U.S. history, according to Baron, who referenced Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-Ala.) misidentification of the three branches of government as the House, the Senate and the executive branch.
“I do think that we, in this country at least, need to restore civic education in our schools, because it’s atrophied, no question about it,” Baron said. “People don’t even understand how the government works.”
Baron said the nature of politics over the course of the last few years has made it difficult for journalists to report the objective truth because of the increase in misinformation being circulated.
“I believe in journalistic independence. I believe there are such things as facts. There is such a thing as objective truth,” Baron said. “One of the big problems we have now is that people can’t — it’s not just that they don’t agree on the facts, it’s that they can’t even agree on what constitutes a fact.”
The shift from print to digital and social media-based journalism has also contributed to the spread of misinformation, making it difficult for legitimate reporting to stand out, according to Baron.
“When you’re posting on social media there’s no editor, there’s no intermediary,” Baron said. “That means that people should edit themselves, and sometimes people don’t. And it causes all sorts of problems for us as an institution.”
Despite the increased potential for spreading misinformation, Baron also highlighted the positive effects of online journalism and the rise of smartphones.
“It resulted in a dramatic loss in revenue for our business, which led to significant cuts in the staff, but it also meant that we could reach people we wouldn’t otherwise reach,” Baron said. “People could see us on their phones, which they now had for the first time.”
As the American public turns to social media to voice their critiques of popular media outlets, however, top newspapers have moved to address the diversity of their own newsrooms and coverage.
At an internal town hall during the peak of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, Baron apologized for failing to properly address inequity in the newsroom. The Washington Post’s union responded with its own email criticizing management for its lack of diversity.
There is immense journalistic value in having writers and editors who have different lived experiences, according to Baron, who said it is important to embrace the changing demographics of the industry.
“We have to have people who come from very different backgrounds so that people can point things out to us that we don’t know,” Baron said.
Although the media landscape is continuously evolving, journalists will continue to serve in their essential roles as arbiters of truth in a democracy, according to Baron.
“I do say to journalists and aspiring journalists: We should be more impressed with what we don’t know than with what we think we know,” Baron said. “The reality is that there’s more that we don’t know than we actually do know, and that if you continue to ask questions, you learn new things.”