‘Truth isn’t dead’: My John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award speech

Josh and Yoli hold the Press Freedom Award.

On Wednesday, Dec. 7, Yoli and I attended a gala at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. where I was given the domestic John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award. It was my privilege to accept the award and speak briefly about my experience.

Since then, several people have asked for the text of my remarks, so I’m publishing a transcript here for posterity. Below I have also included a video excerpt of me at the event.

I encourage you to also make time to watch the story of persecuted journalist Rana Ayyub, the other John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award winner.

The video

The speech

Thank you so much to the National Press Club for this honor. Thank you so much for spotlighting my work and the governor’s reaction to it.

Being here tonight and hearing the stories of the past and Rana’s story … This was a difficult experience for my family, but I know that so many previous recipients of this award and other journalists have suffered far worse than I did. At least my story had somewhat of a happy ending. Some journalists have even given their lives. So it’s humbling and sobering for me to be here before you tonight.

I’d like to offer some thanks and share a few reflections.

I especially want to thank former Post-Dispatch editors Gilbert Bailon and Marcia Koenig as well as publisher Ian Caso who stood behind me and my work through this difficult time.

And I’m so thankful for my colleagues at the Post-Dispatch — and at other news outlets across the state and across the country — for their friendship and their unwavering support. When they saw how much smoke the governor of Missouri was making, they went looking for the fire, because that’s what journalists do. So I am thankful for their dogged reporting in response to this attack on press freedom.

I’m thankful for my wife Yoli, who is here tonight, and for my kids, Ludi, Josie, and Joseph, who suffered alongside me during this time of uncertainty. And I’d like to take a minute to remember my oldest daughter, Jadzia, who died the summer before this happened. So you can understand that it was a really hard time for us to go through. She would have been a senior in high school this year. Jadzia was diagnosed with Marfan Syndrome when she was very small, and in a way, I’m glad that she didn’t have to go through this hard time with us. But I know if she had been alive, that she would have been my most passionate defender — and the governor would have had to watch out for her. She believed in my work as a journalist.

And I’d like to thank the many, many people who sent me encouragement, or lifted me up in prayer. I know those prayers were effective, and helped strengthen my faith and my resolve in the face of ugly lies.

When I reflect on all that has happened, there are certainly reasons to be discouraged. For six years, I’ve watched politicians foment hatred and mistrust of the press, demonizing us with the label “enemy of the people.” The stream of lies and disinformation has become a flood. And now our democracy has reached a new low, with a former U.S. president this week calling for the termination of the Constitution.

This torrent of undemocratic words and deeds has swept others along with it, emboldening them to persecute the press in unprecedented ways. That’s why I’m standing before you tonight.

When the governor of Missouri learned of my discovery that a state website was publicly exposing the private information of hundreds of thousands of teachers, he had a choice how to respond. He could have owned up to the state’s failures, taken responsibility, and pledged to fix the state’s web infrastructure. He could have apologized unequivocally to Missouri’s teachers. And if he was feeling generous, maybe he could have thrown in a thank-you to the Post-Dispatch for our ethical and entirely lawful handling of this discovery.

But that doesn’t happen anymore. We live in an era of bombasity, because there’s no political upside to acting with humility.

And so the governor was persuaded to attack me, to falsely accuse me of committing crimes. He ordered the state Highway Patrol to investigate me, and then he repeated his false accusations again and again in interviews, in letters sent to teachers across the state, and even in a bizarre internet attack ad. And I have to say, as a page designer for most of my career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I never dreamed that I would be the target of an attack ad, as if I was running against him.

Our political climate gave him room to act this way, and insulated him from any consequences. In fact, Missourians learned recently that the governor is rewarding the deputy counsel who advised him to attack me. He’s promoting him to attorney general.

So, yes, it’s discouraging. And I worry that there may be worse to come.

Yet, I’m encouraged, too. In my situation, I saw glimmers of hope. The governor wanted to deflect attention from the state’s failures. Instead he drew attention — and scrutiny. Teachers were not fooled. They understood that I had done them a service. That my work was helpful and good, within both the spirit and the letter of the law. People of all kinds across Missouri, the nation, and the world, saw through this smokescreen and spoke in my defense. Even some Republican state legislators, in a state where the legislature is controlled by Republicans, gently chastised the governor publicly.

And that tells me that truth isn’t dead. People can still recognize the truth among a torrent of lies. Our work, the important work of journalism, still matters.

Six years ago, I never would have dreamed I would one day get caught up in all this. At that time, most of my shifts were spent toiling behind the scenes with the night desk, designing the front page of the Post-Dispatch. It was highly visible work, seen by thousands of people each day, and yet it was anonymous. Designers don’t get bylines.

At that time, like many of you, I recognized dangerous trends in the presidential campaign. I wanted my friends and family at that moment to understand the importance of a free press. And I wanted to remind them that they had at least one journalist in their lives — me. And so I wrote an essay — because that’s what you do on Facebook, right? “What can men do against such reckless hate?” I asked, borrowing a question from The Lord of the Rings. My answer? Pray. Show love. Open your ears to hear other people. We don’t do that in our country.

That’s the way I’ve tried to live, and I believe that living that way helped me come through this experience unscathed.

So, again, thank you so much for this award, and thank you for supporting journalists like me and for promoting the freedom of the press.

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