Alfred Friendly Press Partners Award Ceremony | Friday, Sept. 8, 2017 | National Press Club | Washington, DC
It is indeed an honor for Debbie and me to be here tonight and to support Alfred Friendly Press Partners. We are delighted to join you for this special evening and to being your partners in the future on this journey forward.
We are especially proud of Smitha Rajan, who is the first Frank Islam and Debbie Driesman Fellowship with the Friendly program. Smitha is a fearless fighter, a foe of the power structure and a friend to the disadvantaged. She is an assistant editor with DNA Divya Bhaskar in Gujarat, India. In her current position, she leads a team of 10 journalists.
Smitha focuses on the environment. She has reported stories not normally covered by the mainstream media including air pollution, swine flu outbreak, poaching, lion translocation, and the plight of the Dalits, the lowest in the Hindu caste system. When we reviewed her application, we concluded that Smitha had strong leadership qualities and the capability to be a journalistic change agent.
Debbie and I decided to join Alfred Friendly Press Partners in supporting this fellowship for a simple reason: In a free society, the free press matters. It really matters.
The free press has been a cornerstone of American Democracy. Our constitution enshrines freedom of press. It is also an essential contributor to the American belief in government confined by a system of checks and balances. Freedom of the press requires constant vigilance and care. It’s a precious gift given to us by the founders in the Constitution. The United States remains a vibrant democracy, in large part because of the resilience of its questioning press.
Thomas Jefferson said this about press freedom: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should say I would not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
You might have missed it, but as you entered the National Press Club there is another quote that is engraved. They are words from Walter Williams. He was the founder of the Missouri School of Journalism, the world’s oldest journalism school.
Walter Williams’ quote is: “I believe in the profession of journalism…I believe that suppression of the news, for any consideration other than the welfare of society, is indefensible.”
The Friendly program’s home is at the University of Missouri and it’s where the Fellows receive their training before joining newsrooms across the United States.
The legacy of all this thinking is with us tonight, right now, in this room. You see, when Al Friendly became editor of The Washington Post, it was not the great newspaper we know it as today. In fact, Katherine Graham wrote in her autobiography that it had fallen on hard times.
Throughout Graham’s book, she references the energy and drive of Friendly to push for excellence in reporting, especially coverage of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Fifty years ago on this very night, Al was hard at work covering the after effects of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. It was this coverage that won Al the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting, which was the Post’s first Pulitzer in this category. It truly was a shining moment for press freedom.
A few years later, in 1975, a new reporter walked into The Post newsroom. Her name: Karen DeYoung. The Post was fresh off its Watergate coverage—a time when the press was truly tested. And, here we are, 42 years later, and Karen’s work is continuing to expose the reality of the current Administration. It doesn’t like it—in fact, officials today refer to the truth as “fake news.” But, because of Karen we know how the National Security Council is operating and how our government is dealing with Russia, Syria and Iran.
What I hope you can see is there a line here from Jefferson, to Walter Williams, to Al Friendly, to Karen DeYoung and to all the Friendly Fellows we are celebrating tonight.
We have come tonight to praise the free press, not to bury it. There are others who want to do the opposite. Please don’t stop asking the hard questions and writing the tough stories. We need you now more than ever, in every part of the world. The overriding responsibility of the media is to separate facts from fiction and is to hold governments and leaders, including the President, to the same standards