Jokes and Worries as Reporters Committee Turns 35

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By: Jesse Oxfeld

Last night’s gala celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press drew about 500 attendees, including some of the biggest names in journalism, and raised some $700,000 for the committee amid grave concerns about the state of press freedom in the United States.

Dan Rather, Brian Williams, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Art Buchwald, and Al Franken were among the speakers who presented lifetime-achievement awards to attorney Floyd Abrams, CBS’s Mike Wallace, columnist and humorist Molly Ivins, and Hodding Carter III, who is retiring this year as president and CEO of the John S. and James D. Knight Foundation. (Carter, who is recovering from surgery, was unable to accept his award.) The awards were presented over a black-tie dinner at Cipriani 42nd Street in New York, a cavernous, marble-pillared event space in a former bank lobby.

The Reporters Committee provides assistance at no charge to any reporter whose First Amedment rights are being violated. It has a 13-person staff, including six attorneys, and it maintains a 24-hour hotline for journalists and media lawyers.

There were some humorous moments in the presentations, but the evening’s least successful joke was delivered by Al Franken, who made the final award presentation, to Ivins. He opened with a funny bit claiming that Dan Rather had told him a great story about Ivins during the cocktail hour that would make a perfect anecdote for his introduction. “Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to confirm it, and there’s just one source, so I can’t use it,” he said to laughter. “Too bad; it’s a good story.”

Then he turned toward The New York Times table in the front of the room, where sat Judith Miller, best known these days for two things: her articles on weapons of mass destruction that didn’t quite pan out and the possibility she will go to jail for not revealing sources in the Valerie Plame case. “Judy,” Franken said, “maybe you can find some WMD in your cell.” Silence. “OK, I shouldn’t have told that joke.”

Earlier, Lucy Dalglish, the committee’s executive director, spoke about the group’s founding, in a Georgetown University library in 1970. Through the 1970s, Dalglish said, the Reporters Committee’s work helped pass shield laws in many states and convince judges to take reporters’ First Amendment right seriously. “But now, to quote the great Yogi Berra, it’s deja vu all over again,” Dalglish said.

“It’s almost as if they’re taking names,” said NBC’s Williams in his welcome speech.

Floyd Abrams’ award was presented by Miller of the Times and Matt Cooper of Time magazine, who are appealing a sentence of 18 months in jail for refusing to reveal a source, and Jim Taricani, the Providence, R.I., television journalist who spent four months in home confinement for refusing to reveal a source. “I would love to say their situation is unique,” said Times Publisher Sulzberger of Miller and Cooper’s pending case when he spoke on behalf of the dinner chairs, “but you know better.”

“If we can’t protect our sources, if we can’t report — in my case — on public corruption, then we can’t do our jobs,” said Taricani in introducing Abrams. Miller’s introduction was more jocular, listing the factors that make Abrams a man from a different era. He’s terrified of flying, she said, and even after two Valium and a stiff scotch, when getting on airplane, “you have the terrified look of a defendant who, well, is about to spend 18 months in jail.”

Matt Cooper was the final Abrams presenter. “You all know him as Mr. First Amendment,” said the amateur standup comic. “In fact, he’s won so many of these awards, after tonight he’s moving on to the Second Amendment. Hello, NRA.”

Abrams spoke seriously about the currently pending threats to journalistic freedoms, citing John Peter Zenger and Benjamin Franklin. He also addressed the recent Newsweek-Koran story. “The idea that we must in the future draft our articles to not offend fundamentalist fanatics seems to me utterly inconsistent with living in free society,” he said.

Ivins accepted her award with a funny, impassioned speech on the difficulty of fighting for press freedoms and civil liberties in the George W. Bush administration. “What you need to do is talk to a Texas liberal,” she told the crowd. “We know what it’s like to be outmanned and outgunned.” Ivins spoke of her work on behalf of First Amendment causes, noting that for the last 15 years she has given one speech a month, for free, on behalf on free-speech issues. She doesn’t give these speechs in places like New York or San Francisco, but in places without a lot of liberals. “You don’t know what courage is,” she said, until you sit in the basement of an Alabama Holiday Inn with “seven local heroes, led by a librarian, fixing to start a chapter of the ACLU.”

Sharing the lessons of being an outgunned Texas liberal, Ivins said, “One of our rules is that things are not getting worse — things were always this bad.” But she acknowledged journalists are in a particularly tough spot right now. “If you’re not scared,” she said,” you should be.” But she encouraged the audience to continue fighting the good fight, and to continue having fun. “In Texas,” she said, “we recommend imagination and beer.”

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