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Nina Totenberg: 2012 First Amendment Awards Dinner Remarks

I really am so honored and pleased to be the person asked to introduce Fred Graham.

Now we all know that Fred is a great journalist, that he was  a star reporter for the New York Times, for CBS news, and that in the early years of cable diversity, he was THE star of Court TV, anchoring coverage of everything from the OJ trial to supreme court confirmation hearings.

But before I talk about his journalism and his relationship with the Reporter's Committee, I thought I really should start out tonight telling you a bit about Fred, some things you may NOT know.

He was, what he refers to as a PK, a preacher's kid, raised in Texarkna, Arkansas, in a loving family with no money in the Depression. He won a scholarship to Yale, where his eyes were opened to a different world. He once told me a story that tells you a lot about this southern boy from rural Arkansas coming to Yale. A classmate invited him home for dinner one weekend, and the meal was a roast beef. Fred said that he was so embarrassed for the family when the roast came out, and the father began to cut it, revealing pink flesh. "Oh my God," Fred thought to himself, "this is just terrible that the meat isn't cooked!"

I guess they did their meet a bit more well done in Arkansas. 

After he graduated, he got a job on the Nashville Tennessean, where he worked with some guys who also would go on to have significant careers — Tom Wicker, David Halberstam, Wallace Westfeld, Dick Harwood, Creed Black and, of course, John Seigenthaler.

Seigenthaler recalls that Fred and David Halberstam roomed together and that one night he went to a big party at their place. Seigenthaler was with his wife, and at the door  they encountered Coleman Harwell, the boss, who fixed Seigentaler with a stare and said, "Stay away from that punch. It will blind you!"

Fred was the youngest guy at the Tennessean, Seigenthaler says, and as all his pals began to leave, he decided to go to law school, graudated from Vanderbuilt, then won a Fulbright at Oxford, briefly practiced law, and eventually landed at The New York Times, on the legal beat. Which of course is where the Reporters Committee comes in.

For those of you not familiar with the history of the Reporters Committee, it is hard to cast your mind back to 1970 and recreate what it felt like. The nation was convulsed by opposition to the Vietnam War and, to some extent, to society as it was then constructed. Groups like the SDS and the Black Panthers were setting off bombs, both figuratively and literally. And the Nixon administration decided to use reporters to get information. The galvanizing event was the subpoena of New York Times reporter Earl Caldwell, who had written about the Panthers and was suppoenaed to tell a federal grand jury what he knew about the organization and who his sources were. 

Fred was among a small group of reporters who organized to fight the supoena and others like it. Indeed, for the first few years of the Reporters Committee's shoestring existence, it operated in essence, out of Fred Graham's desk at the Supreme Court, where all the organizational papers were kept.

Skila Harris, Fred's wife, says that when he talks about this period, she gets a sense of the very real fear among reporters that their independence as journalists was at risk for the first time in their lives. The government wanted to use them as informants, which would of course mean that their value as reporters would be gone. And the reporters were not entirely sure that their institutional bosses would remain free of pressure.

A year later that was palpably true when The New York Times got hold of the Pentagon Papers, the Pentagon's history of the Vietnam War. The Nixon administration first tried to scare the paper into not running their story, and then made it clear they were going to court.

Fred would play a big and largely unknown role in that. Neil Sheehan, who had gotten hold of the top-secret papers, was holed up in a hotel room with other reporters and editors preparing a series of stories that they thought would blow the lid off how the U.S. had blundered into the war. And with the Nixon administration breathing ominously down their necks, they were terrified that Attorney General John Mitchell would confiscate the papers. There were just two copies: one at the Times and the other at Neil's home in Washington. 

So, on the night of June 9th, 1971, Sheehan placed a call to his friend and fellow Timesman Fred Graham in Washington. As Fred would later say, back then a newspaper deadline was long past at midnight, and there was no rational excuse for an editor to wake you up. So when his phone rang at midnight, Fred was not exactly alert.

By the time he shook himself awake, he was being told that the Times was working on this mega-scoop for the following Sunday, four days away. Sheehan wanted to make sure that even if the Times was raided, they would still have a copy of the multi-volume Pentagon Papers. He had one copy at home in Washington, too, but was afraid that if there were a SERIES of FBI raids, they raided his home, and so he wanted Fred to go get the 23 volumes and put them on ice. So Fred did that, literally.

In the dead of night, he drove to Sheehan's home, where Sheehan's wife, Susan, helped Fred load all the material into his trunk. Then, in the early hours of the morning, our Fred put all the stuff into the deep freezer in his garage — a garage that was open in the front, close to the curb and free for everyone to see into. Indeed, for the next week, Sheehan's lawyer would drive by the house and cringe as he watched  the three Graham children riding their bicycles in and out of  garage near a large white freezer full of, not meat to eat, but the journalistic grist of the day.

The whole performance was typically Fred. Courageous, smart, creative, with a touch of sangfroid, and more than a touch of humor.

There is no way that in just a few minutes I can adequately summarize Fred Graham's extraordinary careeer. In addition to being a daily reporter and TV anchor, he's written books, major articles — when he was young, he even worked for the Secretary of Labor and the Senate Judiciary Committee. His life has been a kaleidoscope of achievement. And, most of all, he is a mensch.

Skila kindly smuggled me a letter that Fred wrote to an aspiring young reporter who had asked Fred whether to go to graduate school to learn journalism. Basically, Fred said "no." But the letter is such a wonderful summary of the profession we all practice, and that Fred has practiced in such a spectacular way, that I thought I would end by reading a brief section.

"There is no ticket to being a jounalist," he wrote. "You become one when you're working at the trade, doing it…. The key to being a GOOD journalist is loving to do it — to dig up a story, develop it, and make it public. It's something you created, which would never have existed in quite that form if you had not done it. This zest for being a journalist is what marks the best ones — and for that reason, fellow members of the craft have their highest regard for other jounalists who are straining at the bit, every day, to get out there and do what they love to do!"

I can think of no better summary of Fred Graham's life as a journalist, which is just one of the reasons the Reporters Committee created an award in his name and made him the first winner.