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The Holy Grail of Broadcasting

Jan 9, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The Holy Grail of Broadcasting

When “Dateline” correspondent John Larson was a local news reporter in the late ’80s and early ’90s with KOMO-TV, a Fisher Broadcasting-owned ABC affiliate in Seattle, he cut out a picture of the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University award and hung it in his closet.

“I would put my shirt on and say, `Somewhere, someone is doing excellent work and how can I be one of them?”‘ he said. He also wrote to the duPont winners each year and asked them to send him tapes so he could familiarize himself with award-worthy work.

Mr. Larson has now been with “Dateline” for 10 years and just collected his second duPont Award this year, for a 14-month investigation into racial profiling in 16 cities across the country.

“For broadcast journalism, it’s the Pulitzer Prize,” Mr. Larson said.

The award is given by Columbia University, the same institution that bestows Pulitzers for written works of journalism.

The duPont started as a radio award. In 1942 Jessie Ball duPont established the “Alfred I. duPont Awards for Excellence In Public Affairs Radio Programming” to memorialize her late husband.

Alfred duPont was best known for changing the duPont company from a gunpowder concern to the chemical company it is today. But his wife knew how important journalism was to her husband, said Jonnet Abeles, director of the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards.

That’s because Mr. duPont also owned seven small-town weekly papers in Delaware. He used those papers to bring about liberal reforms in Delaware, including a revision of existing Delaware tax laws that had long favored the rich and deprived the general public of adequate education and other needed social services, according to Joseph Frazier Wall, the author of “Alfred I. duPont: The Man and His Family,” who also wrote a brief history of the awards for Columbia.

“He was a crusader and believed in investigative journalism,” Ms. Abeles said. “He believed in the power of newspapers to make a difference.”

Since the Pulitzers already existed, Ms. duPont decided to honor excellence in electronic communication, even though her late husband was deaf and never heard the radio.

The awards were expanded to include television in 1950 and moved to Columbia in 1967, after having been overseen by Washington and Lee University. The awards originally were given to a station or to a commentator and did not reflect a specific story. When they came to Columbia, the awards were modified to honor specific reporting in a story, series or documentary, for instance.

The awards are not broken down into categories, such as hard news, magazine show or best script. Instead, the duPont awards recognize overall excellence. “We categorize them by looking at groups of entries by market size, so a small-market station is judged against other small markets,” Ms. Abeles said. “We don’t have any quotas for how many we have to give.”

The number of awards dispensed each year averages 12 to 14, she said. Most of those are Silver Batons. Every few years the university awards a Gold Baton for a collection of work, she said. PBS’s “Frontline” received a gold baton a few years ago for seven documentaries it made on terrorism and al Qaeda. “It was such a consistent pattern of excellence,” she said.

A jury of nine, each member of which can serve for three three-year terms, selects the winners from about 600 entries each year. Ms. Abeles said about 500 entries come from TV stations and 75 to 100 from radio stations.

The jury selected 11 television winners this year from a pool of 588 TV and radio submissions. “We’ve been astonished this year at the strong number of … international stories,” she said. Two of the TV winning stories are about Africa, one is about Colombia and one is about Iraq. “People say there is no tolerance in American audiences for coverage of these issues and that content, but these are so compelling,” she said.

“Frontline” was honored twice this year and is almost a perennial winner since it carries the mantle of long-form, hard-hitting journalism. “The duPont is about as important an award as we can have,” said David Fanning, creator and executive producer of the show.

The winning pieces “reveal the world in surprising ways,” he said. “Sometime it’s a story people think they know is revealed to be more complicated and intriguing, more surprising than they expected.”

That’s the kind of work that this year’s winner “Ghosts of Rwanda” is, he said. “Once it begins you can’t help but watch. It is so powerful in its narrative and the way in which it’s revealed and in the explications of it and the turns of the story and the characters and the heroism and the horror of it,” Mr. Fanning said. “You feel as if you have to pay witness.”