Dan Rather accepts an award, gives comfort to Occupy Wall Street, laments 'big corporate media'
But the legendary 80-year-old newsman was the star of the Committee to Protect Journalists' 21st Annual International Press Freedom Awards gala last night at the Waldorf Astoria, where he closed the curtain by accepting an honor bestowed in the name of the late CBS News producer and C.P.J. chairman, Burton Benjamin.
The 20 past people honored for "a lifetime of distinguished achievement in the cause of press freedom" include Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Daniel Pearl, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger and George Soros.
Introducing Rather last night, the First Amendement lawyer James C. Goodale defended the 2004 report on George W. Bush's military service that ultimately ended Rather's 44-year career at the Tiffany Network. CBS at the time said it could not authenticate certain documents that formed the basis of Rather's claim that Bush never completed his required service in the Texas Air National Guard.
"All the facts in that particular program were substantially correct," said Goodale. "Dan was correct."
Moments later, Rather walked up to the podium and delivered an acceptance speech that lamented a news industry he characterized as largely driven by profits and punditry rather than public interest.
"But now," he said, in a nod to the Occupy Wall Street protests, "we see our fellow citizens taking to the streets, some of them out of concern for the country. And that, my friends, is our cue to get back to work. As the people of our nation begin rising up, they expect the business of news to be about inquiry and accountability."
Then he took what seemed like a swipe at his former employer.
"Luckily for us, we can still do that. But it will not often be within the confines of big corporate media," he said.
The black-tie affair, hosted in the Waldorf's opulent Grand Ballroom, can seem somewhat incongruous when taken in the context of the mission it serves. As the assembled media luminaries drank wine and picked their way through courses of vegetable tarts, salmon, lentils, asparagus and bread pudding, arresting images of military and police crackdowns in autocratic regimes flashed across the two large television monitors flanking the stage.
"This dinner is alone in offering really graphic violence with your meal," said Brian Williams of NBC News, who assumed hosting duties for the second half of the program. ABC News anchor Christiane Amanpour, wearing multi-orbit hoop earrings and a blinding gold lamé blouse, hosted the first, but had to scurry off before dinner to catch a plane.
These are the types of people who can afford to donate thousands of dollars on the spot to CPJ, whose advocacy helped free 65 imprisoned journalists worldwide this year. The white paper bags passed around following dessert were $76,770 dollars heavier by the end of the event, which raised more than $1 million total.
Bigwigs spotted in the crowd included Today Show co-anchor Ann Curry; New Yorker writer and CNN senior analyst Jeffrey Toobin (who was missing his network's G.O.P. debate in Washington); Carl Bernstein of "Woodward and Bernstein"; New York Times managing editor Dean Baquet; Fairchild Fashion Group editorial director Peter Kaplan; and Newsweek-Daily Beast writer Lloyd Grove.
The keynote address was delivered by Comcast chief executive and chairman Brian Roberts, who said it was the first public appearance he'd agreed to since becoming chairman of the board of directors of NBC Universal, which completed a $30 billion merger with his company earlier this year.
Award presenters included NPR correspondent Anne Garrels; CNN managing editor Mark Whitaker (also missing the debate!); investigative journalist David Rohde; and PBS Newshour senior correspondent Gwen Ifill.
But the evening was really about the recipients. While their bylines are obscure in this country, in the dark corners of the world where they have been beaten, supressed, intimidated and tossed in jail, they are considered heroes by many.
There was Mansoor Al-Jamri, editor of Bahrain's independent Arabic-language daily Al-Wasat, who described how his journalists had been tortured, detained and abused; Natalya Radina, editor of the independent Belarus news website Charter 97, who was forced to flee her country after being prosecuted and imprisoned because of her work; Umar Cheema, a reporter for Pakistan's The News, who thanked "my attackers" for "helping me in discovering the strength of character that I possessed but didn't realize before"; newspaper editor Eynulla Fatullayev, who was there to accept the award he could not in 2009 while locked up in Azerbaijan; and Javier Valdez Cardenas, co-founder of Mexico's weekly Riodice, whose offices were hit with a grenade in 2009 days after the paper published a series on drug-trafficking in Ciudad Juarez.
Cardenas's acceptance speech was the most poetic.
"I have nourished my withered soul with expressions in the streets, embraces and handshakes, and words in which I have taken shelter," he said in his native Spanish tongue. (A translator standing to his left conveyed the message in english.)
"This award is like a lighthouse on the other side of the storm, a safe harbor beyond the tempest," he continued. "At Riodice, we have experienced a macabre solitude because nothing that we publish has reverberations or follow-up. And that desolation makes us more vulnerable. Despite all of this, with all of you, and this award, I can say that I have somewhere to take shelter. And to feel less alone."