By Allison J. Waldman
The Radio-Television News Directors Association — to officially become known as the Radio Television Digital News Association Oct. 13 — every year presents one of the industry’s most important and valued awards honoring excellence in electronic journalism, the National Edward R. Murrow Award.
This year’s national winners in television, who will be presented with their awards Oct. 12 at the RTNDA’s Edward R. Murrow Awards dinner in New York, represent a diversity of style, a commitment to excellence and an endeavor to emulate in many ways the work of the award’s namesake, Edward R. Murrow.
“This is an award that really counts, it means an awful lot to all of us in our profession. The thing I like about the Murrow award is that the judging is done by our peers,” said Steve Capus, president of NBC News, which earned five Murrow awards this year, including the award for overall excellence. “Some of the best in our industry are the people who weigh in on these awards.”
NBC News’ “American Story With Bob Dotson” earned two Murrows, one for news series and the other for writing. The “American Story” series epitomizes the quality of television feature stories.
This award-winning submission included tales about a 74-year-old street salesman who hawks potato peelers by day and lives in a posh Park Avenue apartment, and the mothers who tend to the graves of their soldier sons who now reside in Section 60 of Arlington cemetery.
“NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams” received three Murrows: overall excellence; breaking news for “Hurricane Gustav”; and continuing coverage for “Tip of the Spear.”
The latter is a series of stories by reporter Richard Engel documenting the work of Viper Company from the front line in Afghanistan.
“Richard is an old school reporter in a young body. He wants to be out there to see, feel, touch and smell what’s going on,” said Capus. “Richard continues to report ‘The Tip of the Spear’ stories even when he’s not out there with them on the front line.”
Capus said Brian Williams’ award-winning coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 affected NBC News’ approach to Gustav.
“We were going to make a substantial commitment to this, not just because of what NBC News learned or Brian Williams learned, but what the country learned,” said Capus. “It wasn’t a bunch of people standing around being blown by hurricane force winds. You don’t pick up an award like a Murrow for the theatrics of coverage. There needs to be some meat on those bones.”
CBS News’ “60 Minutes” received three Murrows, as well as one for “The CBS Evening News With Katie Couric” (best newscast for Nov. 12, 2008). That night’s broadcast covered stories about the government bailout, Mexican drug cartel violence, how Google could track the flu and revisited a classic Charles Kuralt on the road feature.
The three “60 Minutes” pieces were: for hard news, “Exonerated”; for feature reporting, “Rex”; and for investigative reporting, “The Wasteland.”
“We’re in our 42nd season and some of the most powerful stories are the ones about people who were wrongly imprisoned,” said “60 Minutes” executive producer Jeff Fager. “‘Exonerated’ is a great example, and what you see in this story is the impact that technology and science are starting to make in overturning such cases.”
Reporter Lesley Stahl worked with producer Shari Finkelstein on “Rex,” which was a follow-up to a previous “60 Minutes” feature. Five years ago, Stahl met an 8-year-old boy named Rex, a musical savant, who’d been born blind and brain damaged. “Rex” caught up with the young man today, at age 13.
“Lesley and Shari do great work together. This is a story that you never forget. It sticks with you. That’s the mark of excellent journalism,” said Fager. “These are hard stories to tell, harder than I think most people realize because there’s no natural beginning or end, so it’s challenging too. It says a lot about Shari and Lesley’s abilities to tell a story.”
In addition to the Murrow award, “The Wasteland” has won George Polk and Gerald Loeb awards, as well as honors from the Investigative Reporters and Editors and Sigma Delta Chi.
Fager said the people in China who were running the electronic waste-dumping ground exposed in the report jumped CBS News’ Scott Pelley and his crew during production.
“They tried to get the tapes and physically force them off the site. It has all the classic elements of a great ‘60 Minutes’ investigation. This is a story that would have made Edward R. Murrow very proud,” said Fager.
As to other winners, veteran TV reporter Linda Ellerbee was recognized in the category of news documentary for a piece she did for a nontraditional news outlet, her current home base, Nickelodeon’s Nick News. Ellerbee was given a Murrow for the “Nick News With Linda Ellerbee” documentary “Coming Home: When Parents Return From War,” the story of returning soldiers as told from the perspective of their sons and daughters.
ESPN won a Murrow in the category of sports reporting for another military themed story, “Kick for Nick,” about a fallen American soldier, Nick Madaras, in whose memory soccer balls were collected, sent to Iraq and distributed to children in response to his wish to share his love of the game with others.
CNN received a Murrow for its Web site, CNN.com, and CTV News earned one for videography in “Tibetan Horseman.”