Journalists, Associated Press Honored at 2014 RTDNF First Amendment Awards

By Dustin Wlodkowski, Emerson College

About 400 of electronic media’s finest faces and their families, from inside the Beltway and beyond, attended RTDNF’s 2014 First Amendment Awards Dinner at the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C. The year’s event, the 24th in RTDNA’s history, was dominated by a very vocal sense of pride in press freedom and television news.
 
RTDNA/F Executive Director,  Mike Cavender kicked off the proceedings by welcoming the crowd and announcing a record number of submissions had been placed for the Edward R. Murrow Awards this Fall. He was followed by RTDNF Chairman, Vincent Duffy, who introduced two recipients of RTDNF scholarships. Funds raised at the event go toward scholarship and fellowships for aspiring journalists. Duffy then provided the first allusion to a recurring theme of the evening saying, “It’s been a busy year for defenders of freedom of the press.” He recounted several instances throughout the year when press freedom and government clashed. Throughout the evening, hosts, presenters and speakers expressed concern about the White House, the FCC, the Department of Justice and other government agencies, for the increased pressure they put on newsrooms over the past year.
 
Fittingly, the Associated Press received the night’s first award for their work leading the response to the NSA’s seizure of reporter phone records. After a brief introductory video narrated by CBS’ Bob Schieffer, AP CEO Gary Pruitt went up to receive the award on AP’s behalf. Pruitt said the press protecting rules AP had fought for would help future generations of reporters and touted the accomplishment of the DOJ’s promise to “never prosecute journalists for doing his or her job.” Ending on a light note, he added, “Tonight, we should all drink to that.”
 
AP was followed by the honoring of another key First Amendment advocate, ABC Washington Bureau Chief Robin Sproul. She was introduced by ABC correspondent Martha Raddatz  who said, in reference to Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, “Sproul was leaning in before it was trending.” Her praise of her boss was echoed in ABC’s tribute video for Sproul  hosted by Cokie Roberts and  featuring ABC News President Ben Sherwood, USA Today’s Susan Page and former “World News Tonight” anchor Charlie Gibson.  Sproul’s  following remarks highlighted the critical state of the 1st Amendment, summarizing the various fights news media is having with press access and itself over digital content.  She concluded, “these fights are good to have.”
 
The evening's next honoree received a red carpet treatment. Veteran CBS White House correspondent, Bill Plante received the second-ever RTDNF Lifetime Achievement Award, the first to be given to a living correspondent. He received congratuations from President Obama via video tape. After an anecdote-filled introduction by CBS News senior producer Susan Zirinsky reviewing Plante’s defense of the First Amendment in “tight quarters” at the White House,  Plante’s tribute video began. It contained everything from Plante’s  original CBS News application reel to a bungee-jumping  trip and hot air balloon ride all book-ending a video message from President Obama, telling Plante to never stop pressing him for answers. When Plante got up to receive his award, he said, “Words fail me….almost.” He used his time to thank the many producers and technicians he’s worked with in his 50 years at CBS.
 
Although it was tough to follow that presentation, Lester Holt and NBC Senior Executive David Corvo proved a fitting next at bat. Corvo’s introduction of Holt made the crowd think about the weekends Holt spends when he anchors Dateline Friday night, pulls double duty on “TODAY” and “Evening News” as well as his required reporting Mondays and Tuesdays. Holt’s tribute video included appearances from NBC’s Matt Lauer and Erica Hill. It was impossible to miss that everyone, even the presenters who followed Holt, all called him “the hardest working man in news.” For Lauer, Holt was a perfect choice to receive the Zeidenberg Award. The TODAY co-host said in his video message, “You should’ve gotten it long ago.”  Holt was modest in his remarks and focused the difficulties facing young people entering the journalism field. He said, “I want you to know when I was coming up, Bill Plante was coming up, we didn’t have to deal with YouTube, Facebook. We reconnect to your success. It’s a different environment but we need you to succeed.”
 
The final award recipient of the night was Gannett’s David Lougee with NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams making an appearance in his tribute video. Lougee’s acceptance speech brought the event back to its focus on the First Amendment, reminding the audience of the importance of local news in preserving democracy in local communities  and stressing that fact  that, “97% of the country doesn’t live in the Beltway.”

Emcee Chris Wallace wrapped up the show thanking the audience, inviting them to the 25th annual First Amendment Awards next March in Washington.