The name Gene Mater may not be top-of-mind for today’s generation of broadcast journalists, but I can give you my personal assurance that Gene’s work on behalf of the Radio Television Digital News Foundation had, and is still having, a positive impact on their careers.
Anyone who has received an RTDNF scholarship or fellowship, anyone who has benefited directly or indirectly from RTDNF’s training and education programs, and anyone who has been honored at or has attended one of our annual First Amendment Dinners has Gene Mater to thank.
Gene – a longtime RTDNF treasurer and trustee, a veteran thought leader at the Freedom Forum and its Newseum, and former senior executive at CBS News, among other distinguished positions in a long, storied career – died Sunday, September 20, in Pennsylvania at the age of 93. His family attributed his death to COVID-19. Funeral arrangements are pending.
I had the privilege of working with Gene when I served as RTDNF chairman-elect and then chairman from 2005 to 2007. I remember him as a quiet lion, if you will, someone whose modesty camouflaged his renowned contributions to broadcast journalism and press freedom but who never hesitated to pounce fiercely (but in a cordial way) whenever he felt it necessary to help protect and advocate for the Foundation’s mission.
Gene Mater at a National Archives Cold War Symposium (undated). Photo by Bruce Guthrie.
Along with George Glazer and other RTDNF pioneers, Gene helped found our annual First Amendment Dinner, which remains today the centerpiece of the Foundation’s efforts to recognize top tier journalists for their contributions to press freedom while raising money to pay for the Foundation’s operations.
Former RTDNF President Barbara Cochran worked closely with Gene and stayed connected with him after he left the Board of Trustees in 2007:
He had great business sense and wonderful contacts in the corporate world and with international journalists. But at heart he was a journalist through and through. He began his career launching a free press in post-World War II Germany and in retirement he explained the value of the First Amendment to scores of international visitors to the Newseum. He was a mentor and a wonderful friend. He will be missed, but his contributions to RTDNA/F and to global press freedom will long be remembered.
“Gene's heart was in the Foundation. He did everything he could to help make it a success. He never said no,” said current RTDNA treasurer and longtime RTDNF vice chair and trustee Loren Tobia. “He was a giant who will be missed.”
“Gene Mater spent his career and his retirement as a champion for free speech and intellectual freedom,” said former RTDNF Chairwoman Marci Burdick, who served with Gene on the Board of Trustees. “He had his opinions but valued those of others. He helped focus contentious, serious discussions to the ‘meat’ of what needed to be done and then championed the cause,” she added.
Another former RTDNF chair and trustee, Jeff Marks, remembers Gene “as a smart contributor to the cause, always thinking about what was good for journalism and how we could provide things of benefit to our members.”
In addition to his work for CBS News, the Freedom Forum and Newseum, and as RTDNF treasurer, Gene’s career included time as director of Radio Free Europe. In the 1980s he was asked by then-Chief Justice Warren Burger to plan and manage observances of the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution.
In a March 2000 Newseum forum televised on C-SPAN, Gene himself said, “If you look at the First Amendment … one big point to bear in mind is that the concept of a free press in this country … [is that] it was written to protect the people – not the press – protect the people from the government.”
While many of today’s broadcast journalists may not remember Gene Mater’s name, they are most certainly helping to carry on his legacy. They do so as they inform the public about issues critical to the communities they serve, their work often serving as catalysts for positive change.
As that work continues, the quiet lion is finally resting in peace.