First Among Equals

Former and soon-to-be former CBS newsmen got in some of the best lines at the Radio-Television News Directors Foundation First Amendment awards dinner in Washington Thursday night.

CBS Washington Bureau Chief Bob Schieffer, who has announced his retirement, cautioned that while news gathering and disseminating technology is breathtaking, there is "a part of the story I think we are missing. The sophisitication with which information is being managed is changing as rapidly as the techonology, and not always for the better."

He talked of his early days when some legislators in Washington didn’t have press secretaries and "just came out and talked to reporters and told them what the reporters were asking about."

Now, he says, "the most obsucre member of Congress has a press secretary and often a media coach. He consults with public relations specialists." He said they even use technology to conduct polls on where they ought to spend their vacations, adding: "One lessong learned: avoid wind surfing."

Schieffer, who was receiving the Leonard Zeidenberg First Amendment Award–named after the late former senior correspondent for B&C–was hailed as having completed the grand slam of network Washington correspondents, having covered the White House, Congress, State Department, and the Pentagon.

He suggested those who followed him could have a tougher job. "In Washington," he said,"every administration learns from the previous one and the lesson usually produces more secrecy and more layers of bureaucrats between the newsmakers and the reporters trying to report on what they say and do."

Schieffer said he was concerned that officials no longer felt a responsibility to explain their actions."That is what worries me." Schieffer said he was concerned that the constant spinning was causing journalists to "refine and redefine what we accept as truth.

"Why do those on the public payroll have so many secrets that can only be revealed after they leave office and get a book contract?," he asked.

Schieffer said that technology has not changed the purpose of journalism, "which is simply to find the truth…. In an age of breathtaking technological change, finding that truth still depends more on the courage and integrity on the individual journalist," he said. "Democracy as we know it simply cannot exist without a free and robust press and reporters who are willing to go out at any cost and find the story."

It sounded at times like the journalists in the room were working on stories during the speeches as the low rumble of table conversations threatened to drown out some of the First Amendment-praising going on before scattered shushing and clinking of glasses quited the roomful of journalists, policymakers and others.Those included FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

CNN’s John Roberts, who was master of ceremonies for the evening, took the opportunity to get in a gentle shot or two at his former CBS colleagues. 

Citing the news Thursday that Shelley Ross had exited as executive producer of the CBS Early Show, with Rick Kaplan filling in, Roberts said: "Rick Kaplan has decided that he’s the master of the universe now. Not only will he be doing the CBS Evening News, but he will be taking on duties on the Early Show as well. I understand that there are plans at CBS for him to take over some other new programs: CSI: Newsroom, and Without a Trace, subtitled ‘The Shelley Ross Story,’ and of course the latest iteration of that very famous CBS reality series, Survivor: 57th Street."

Shieffer had some fun, too, chiding Lehrer, an old friend, for being, well, old. At one point, Schieffer, who performed a short set after the dinner with his honky-tonk band, said his wife had been working on her own country song: "If I’d shot him when I first thought about it, I’d be out by now."

AP President Tom Curley was honored for his efforts to push for Freedom of Information Act reform as well as for a federal shield law, the first of which has passed and the second has gained more traction that any previous effort. He talked of a time three decades before when his wife, a reporter, was on the witness stand where lawyers for a politician involved in a kickback scandal wanted her notes. She wsa nine months pregnant with his daughter. "The just took one look at her and said: "I know what you want me to do. You want this woman to have her baby in jail. I’m not going to allow that. In fact, if you ever pull a stunt like that in my courtroom I’ll put you in jail…. What’s changed in the last three decades," he said, "is that we’ve lost the judges. The only we are going to get them back is to show them and everybody else that we are doing the people’s business."

Curley said that what has become clear post-9/11 is "how much expediency has trumped safeguards."

Curley was introduced by ABC News President David Westin, who is a member of the AP board.

Former FCC Chairman Dick Wiley was hailed as a defender of the First Amendment and the father of HDTV, although former legal assistant, John Sturm, president of the Newspaper Association of America, joked that "the mother has not yet been identified."

Wiley said that when he first came to the FCC in the early 1970’s he had no communications background, so he visited state broadcast associations and stations, where he found "a widespread industry commitment to local news, public affairs, and, indeed, to the principle of the First Amendment."But he said he also discovered "an unfortunate fear and distrust of the FCC born of decades of outdated and counterproductive regulations."

Wiley said his commission, with the aid of commissioners like Jim Quello and Ben Hooks, "made a determined effort to change that, based on the reality increasingly competitive marketplace, a more enlightened understanding of the public interest and a fundamental belief in the benefits of electronic journalism."

He said his objective was less regulation for those who fulfilled the public trust, but more oversight of those few who didn’t. And, with some deviations, he said, commissions that followed have taken the same basic path.

Paula Madison, executive VP of diversity for NBC Universal, was praised as an ucompromising executive who brought out the best in others. Former Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw said that under Madison, the company spelled diversity q-u-a-l-i-t-y. "She has raised the standards at the entire company, raised out standards, raised the bar, and most of hall, she has raised our consciousnesses," he said.

Madison said that she learned from her first broadcast boss that "under no circumstances must journalists waiver when we are in pursuit of the right thing."

Madison said the industry has made strides in diversifying its work force, but not enough. "We have a lot of work to do," she said.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.