First Amendment Fété

by Rene Ryan, Communicator staff

Last night at Washington’s Ritz Carlton, more than 450 guests gathered to celebrate RTNDF’s nineteenth annual First Amendment Awards, honoring those who have demonstrated the highest levels of excellence in journalistic integrity and in embodying the spirit of the First Amendment.
This year's honorees were:
- Susan Grant, vice president of CNN News Services
- The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation


- Cokie Roberts, political commentator for ABC News and senior news analyst for National Public Radio

- Google, Inc.

A few moments before the celebration commenced, Barbara Cochran, who will resign from her post this June—after 12 years as president of RTNDA/RTNDF—mentioned that, even after all her former awards ceremonies, she was a little "nervous."
But there was nothing to be nervous about: The ballroom was packed, the energy palpable and the commentary reminded us all of the importance of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s Hardball, emceed the awards. He kicked off the night by explaining, “[The First Amendment] is what separates us from other democracies,” then used his humor to poke fun at some well known public figures—including himself (“My wife Kathy is my Ambassador to the Human Race—because I need one”). He captured the crowd with several hilarious thoughts on impeached Illinois ex-governor Rod Blagoavich (for Blagojevich, "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth are three different things"), on Rush Limbaugh ("I have to be careful with this one. ... Al Franken once called Rush 'A big fat idiot.' And look where that got him!") and how awards presenter Sam Donaldson drove Jimmy Carter “crazy.”

With the ceremony under way, Jack Womack, senior vice president of domestic news services at CNN, presented the first award to his colleague Susan Grant. His introduction included a witty CNN-esque "breaking news" video parody, chronicling Susan’s life. Next, Barbara Cochran presented Alberto Ibarguen with a service award for the Knight Foundation, highlighting its continuous support of several RTNDA/RTNDF projects, including Sunshine Week, a national initiative to promote open government and freedom of information.

When it came time for Cokie Roberts to receive her award, co-presenters Sam Donaldson and Charlie Gibson delivered a candid introduction, "competing" over who was more important to Cokie. It was reminiscent of a scene from the balcony by Muppets stars Statler and Waldorf.
Cokie stole the show with her thoughtful acceptance remarks, focusing first on her connections with those in the audience and then on today’s current economic crisis and new administration, saying, “These are scary and exciting times, sometimes both. That’s what we’re living through now. And that makes for good stories.” She closed by encouraging all of us not to think about where the arguments lie, but about who has good ideas about solving today's huge problems.

Finally, Judy Woodruff took the podium to introduce Dr. Eric Schmidt of Google, Inc., offering a jam-packed statistical report on how the Internet has changed the way in which we receive our news, and highlighting how Google, specifically, has led the way for self-expression and freedom of speech allowing people all over the world to "be heard."

Perhaps summing up the night perfectly, a very gracious Dr. Schmidt said, “There will never be a perfect solution to combating censorship, but we’re here to do our part.”

Cheers to all those who received awards, and to those who continue to champion the First Amendment every single day.