Dinner to Celebrate Fight for Freedom

Mar 7, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The Radio and Television News Directors Foundation will again turn its spotlight on the fight for journalists’ First Amendment rights March 10 at its 15th annual First Amendment Awards Dinner at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Washington.

There, the educational arm of the Radio-Television News Directors Association will recognize correspondent Ed Bradley of CBS’s “60 Minutes,” senior executive producer Wendy Walker Whitworth of CNN’s “Larry King Live” and Liberty Corp. President Jim Keelor for their work in furthering press freedom.

The foundation chooses three people each year for the awards: an on-air talent, a behind-the-scenes journalist and a business or government leader.

While awards in journalism aren’t in short supply, the RTNDF has a unique place because it honors the commitment to one of the most fundamental tenets of the profession.

“What makes this stand out is these are individual awards specifically focusing on people who have worked to represent and further the First Amendment,” said Dave Busiek, news director at Hearst-Argyle-owned CBS station KCCI-TV in Des Moines, Iowa, and a past chairman of the RTNDF.

The dinner kicks off Sunshine Week, which runs March 13-19, in which several journalism groups, including the RTNDA, urge print and electronic journalists to call attention to First Amendment issues through stories, editorials, town meetings and public service announcements.

The events come at a particularly crucial time in the history of press freedom, RTNDA President Barbara Cochran said.

“The dinner comes at a time when the First Amendment is really under siege,” Ms. Cochran said. “We have the prosecution of journalists for trying to preserve the confidentiality of their sources. The Freedom of Information Act is being compromised in a number of ways because of the homeland security provisions. Lots of information that had been public is now secret. … The whole point is to make the public aware of the things that we journalists are very much aware of the increasing restrictions.”

Most recently, reporter Jim Taricani of NBC-owned WJAR-TV in Providence, R.I., was sentenced to six months of home confinement for refusing to reveal the identity of a source. Similarly, a New York Times reporter and a Time magazine reporter are attempting to stay out of jail for refusing to disclose sources who leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame. In response, several organizations supporting press freedom are urging passage of a federal shield law.

“It’s a very alarming trend that judges and prosecutors feel it’s open season on journalists,” said Bob Salsberg, broadcast editor in Boston for the Associated Press and chairman of the board of trustees of the RTNDF.

Expanded Mission

The RTNDF was founded by the late Col. Barney Oldfield in 1972 as a scholarship fund. Col. Oldfield had a long career as a public affairs officer in the military and also worked as a Hollywood press agent. In the early days of the RTNDF, Mr. Oldfield raised money in an old-fashioned way: by passing a bucket at conventions and luncheons.

In the early ’90s, the board of the RTNDF expanded its mission beyond scholarships to include professional education. The first batch of training programs included workshops on environmental reporting, Ms. Cochran said. The organization has branched out and includes programs that bring professors into newsrooms to learn real-world skills they can bring back to the classroom and programs for the development of broadcast journalism education in high school.

Professional training for journalists covers topics such as leadership skills, ethical decision-making, the relationship between news and sales, and terrorism. In fact, the RTNDF introduced a terrorism training program about a year ago and is conducting workshops this year in 10 markets.

The foundation also develops written training material and plans to release a book on leadership skills in the newsroom at its convention at the upcoming National Association of Broadcasters Convention in Las Vegas. As well, the RTNDF has developed guidelines for the use of graphic video, coverage of school shootings and the use of video news releases.

While the business of journalism operates at a frenetic pace, it’s still critical to find the time for training, Mr. Salsberg said.

“One of the most difficult things news directors face is to call a timeout and get that training for your staff,” he said. “I have never met a news director who doesn’t think it’s important. It’s tough to find the time and the budget. [But] it’s just a question of trying to fit it in with everything else you do and make it important.”