Longtime CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker said journalists must remain free to "hear the dispossessed, free to challenge the status quo," and "free to present truth to the powerful."
Whitaker was speaking at the Radio Television Digital News Foundation dinner this week, where he was given the Leonard Zeidenberg First Amendment Award, named after the former B&C senior correspondent.
Whitaker said his favorite First Amendment freedom was speech but focused initially on the freedom of assembly and how it had shaped his future as a journalist.
He said his father had been a waiter at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem in the 1930s, a club for whites only. "My father could work there, but he couldn't come in the front door," Whitaker said. He said his father had come from tobacco country in North Carolina wanting to be a journalist. But as a black man in the 1930s he couldn't make much of a living as a journalist, so when he married he became a welder.
He said his father was a welder and a news junkie. The evening news was like church in his household, with the kids required to keep quiet. The times were momentous and the news important, said Whitaker. It was the time of the Civil Rights movement, and Whitaker's dad went to the March on Washington.
He fast-forwarded to now, saying, as a journalist, he was living the life his father could only have dreamed of. "The reason I am able to stand here tonight is because Americans, like my father, stood up, raised their voices, seized their First Amendment right to assemble, to be heard, and demand on the streets that the country change, and it did. And that movement for change was laid out before us all by the press, a press free to hear the dispossessed, free to challenge the status quo, free to present truth to the powerful."
He said now the times are no less momentous, the news no less important, and maybe moreso.
Whitaker talked about the need for fearless investigative journalism given that the media are being "bombarded from on high with claims of fake news or alternate facts," a reference to the drumbeat of criticism and disparagement of the news media by the Trump Administration.
He told his audience of journalists at the Washington event that they "cannot be deterred."
He said that Harriet Tubman, as she led slaves to freedom, kept her eye on the North Star. "I know at 60 Minutes, at CBS News, at all the institutions represented here tonight, our North Star is the truth, and we must never lose sight of it."
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