On Tuesday night, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press held its annual Freedom of the Press Awards dinner at The Pierre in New York City to recognize four leaders in journalism and media law who have dedicated their lives to practicing and protecting the rights embodied in the First Amendment.
The 2018 Freedom of the Press Award winners included New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet, Florentine Films Documentary Filmmaker Lynn Novick, former NPR “All Things Considered” Senior Host Robert Siegel, and BuzzFeed Vice President of Legal and Associate General Counsel Nabiha Syed.
“We’re here to recognize the hard work, the dedication to tell the story,” Muir said. “Ensuring journalists can do their jobs to inform the public free from interference from the government — it’s at the core of our democracy. The free press transcends partisan politics. It’s a value that no matter who is in office, we fight vigorously to defend.”
Reporters Committee Board Chair David Boardman welcomed attendees and spoke to the important role journalists themselves play in protecting and building public support for press freedom.
“The best way to protect your rights is to exercise them vigorously,” Boardman said. “The best way to persuade the public that the work we do matters is to do work that truly does matter.”
Syed received the Reporters Committee’s inaugural Rising Star Award for her significant contributions to journalism and media law, including co-founding Yale Law School’s Media Freedom and Information Access legal clinic and her current role serving as chief newsroom counsel for BuzzFeed’s U.S. bureau and handling publication, privacy, and access matters across the globe. Syed addressed some of the year’s most high-profile stories and the need for media lawyers to continue protecting the rights of journalists to tell them.
“As a media lawyer, I fight to make sure that choices, big and small, are not marred by unnecessary fear. I work so reporters can tell the stories, including the stories that confront power, even when they are uncomfortable or inconvenient,” Syed said.
Reporters Committee Executive Director Bruce Brown highlighted recent cases where the Reporters Committee’s growing court access and public records litigation victories enabled journalists to report on important events and issues affecting their communities.
“In the past year, stories have been published about our win right here in New York City against the Trump Organization, which revealed for the first time that the president paid almost $1.4 million to settle a class action lawsuit involving the construction of Trump Tower…our efforts in Charlottesville, where we secured release of the state police’s operation plan for last summer’s ‘Unite the Right’ rally, and in Oklahoma, where after a three-and-a-half year pursuit into the troubling details about the state’s lethal injection program, many new details have finally come to light through a victory last month,” Brown said.
Florentine Films’ Lynn Novick is the first documentary filmmaker to receive a Freedom of the Press Award. In her remarks, she thanked journalists for recording history because doing so helps her and other filmmakers tell stories that inform and hold the powerful accountable.
“I have had the privilege of working in public television, where we have the time and space to tell complicated, nuanced, authentic stories — true stories — about what actually happened, based on facts that we scrupulously check and double check,” said Novick. “Even though we are neither journalists nor historians, we do try to hold ourselves to the highest standards of journalistic ethics, which is why it’s an especially great honor for our work to be recognized by the Reporter’s Committee and the community of journalists that set such a high bar for professional integrity.”
Siegel, in his remarks, told the story of a Chinese journalist repeatedly jailed for his reporting. He warned of the dangers that verbal attacks on journalists in the U.S. can pose for reporters abroad and called upon attendees to protect the role of the U.S. as a beacon for press freedom.
“When we in this country exercise and defend our freedoms to report and to broadcast and to publish, we set an example for courageous people around the world whose governments are accustomed to silencing people like Huang Qi,” Siegel said. “When our leaders belittle those freedoms or when our public belittles those freedoms, they risk setting an example for those who would do the silencing. So, may our efforts on behalf of freedom of the press succeed at home and may they continue to inspire abroad, and may we see an end to the jailing of any people whose crime was to commit journalism.”
To close the evening, Baquet addressed public officials’ verbal attacks on the press and spoke to the need for journalists to remain focused on pursuing reporting that informs.
“We move ahead, protecting the principle that inquiry and reporting are what matter most to us,” Baquet said. “In an age where certainty and snark sometimes pass for journalism, absolutely nothing is more important to us than the joyful and serious pursuit of the deepest knowledge and understanding.”
The dinner was chaired by Burson Cohn & Wolf Global Chairman Donald A. Baer, PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger, Lincoln International Senior Advisor John A Herrmann, Jr., and New York Times Company Chairman Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.
The event also included a silent auction of 14 original works donated by leading cartoonists, including The Washington Post’s Tom Toles and The New Yorker’s Liza Donnelly.