The 28th annual RTDNF First Amendment Awards was an evening full words of wisdom, inspiration, caution & encouragement from the night’s distinguished honorees and press freedom defenders March 8 in Washington.
The evening began with a note of thanks from RTDNA/RTDNF Executive Director Dan Shelley for “one night in our nation’s capital during which we can find safe haven from cries of ‘fake news’ and ‘enemy of the American people’ to celebrate the very first of our constitutionally-enshrined Bill of Rights.”
As 2018 First Amendment Service Award recipient and CBS News President David Rhodes summed up while accepting his award, “The First Amendment is a pretty thin read, just four words in a subordinate clause: ‘or of the press,’ give us constitutional protection.”
The increasing challenges and threats to the First Amendment were a common theme throughout the evening, with Shelley citing the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, of which RTDNF is a founding partner, and its chilling statistics of attacks on journalists, saying, “Never in our nation’s modern history has it been more dangerous to be a journalist.”
The need to protect journalists was on display with the first award of the evening, presented by Foundation Chair Vince Duffy to California Congressman Eric Swalwell for his introduction of the Journalist Protection Act. Swalwell, in accepting the First Amendment Defender Award, noted that the bill would ensure that if crimes against journalists were “not prosecuted locally because there is no courage or a lack of will or because of politics, that in every corner of America, there’s a federal protection – a federal jurisdiction.”
Despite an increasingly threatening environment, as Rhodes went on to say, the First Amendment is “Thin, but not fragile. You were granted these freedoms. Use them!”
Certainly all of the evening’s honorees have done just that.
Joe Scarborough & Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” accepting the 2018 Leonard Zeidenberg First Amendment Award for “defending the First Amendment well before most have their morning coffee,” cited their journalist role models and aim to persevere in the face of threats against the press.
First Amendment Leadership Award recipient Gretchen Carlson courageously used her First Amendment freedoms to speak up when few others were. She said, “When one woman speaks up, others feel empowered to follow. It’s like a chain of inspiration.” Carlson also thanked journalists for their role in the cultural tipping point surrounding equality and harassment. She concluded with the powerful call: “We will stand up together, and we will use our voices, and we will show our courage.”
Robin Roberts, honored with the RTDNF Lifetime Acheivement Award, has also used her voice to help others throughout her reporting career as a journalist and personally by raising public awareness surrounding her own health battles. She, too, called attention to the importance of journalism, saying, “Early on in my career I was taught that responsible journalism mattered, from the very beginning.”
Though threatened, the work of the evening’s honorees, examples of RTDNA’s recent Murrow Award winners, and the words of Michigan Assistant Attorney General Angela Poviaitis, prosecutor in the Larry Nassar case, quoted by Shelley, ring true: “We as a society need investigative journalists more than ever.”
That sentiment has driven “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd, who, accepting the First Amendment Award on behalf of the long-running Sunday morning show, admitted he’s always taken press freedom for granted, saying, “We’re simply a voice of truth.”
He called on journalists to hold not only public officials but also each other accountable, calling on journalists to “show our work…Because I believe in the 21st century transparency is the new objectivity.” Reminding the room of the mission of RTDNF and its parent Association, Todd concluded, “the First Amendment must not only be defended but championed.”
As RTDNF and RTDNA promote and protect First Amendment Freedoms, the honorees reminded the journalists in the room that they too can be press freedom champions by responding to threats with more and better journalism.
Said Todd, “Let's prove to the world what we all know in this room, which is there some tremendous journalism happening and taking place right now. Let's let it flourish. Let’s support it. Let's let it thrive. And let’s keep protecting that First Amendment.”
Find out more about how to support RTDNF and see photos and videos from the evening at firstamendmentawards.org.