CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer Thursday night talked about protecting the First Amendment and the power of CNN as a force for change around the world.
Blitzer was among the honorees at a Radio-Television Digital News Foundation First Amendment awards banquet in Washington. But he also took the opportunity to exercise someof his own free speech to chide a former colleague.
Talking about his trip to Korea in December, Blitzer told a story, which he said was not made up, about how much Koreans love CNN International but also how they had missed, literally, one former CNN star.
“At one point, [a Korean official] took me aside and said to me in English: ‘Whatever happened to Christiane Amanpour,’” Blitzer said as the crowd of journalists broke into sustained laughs. Blitzer said of his former colleague and friend: “well, she went to ABC News to host a Sunday morning talk show [This Week]. This North Korean official looked at me and said, in all seriousness: ‘Why would she do that,’” and then added, said Blitzer: “Does anyone watch that?”
Blitzer said that when he met with the North Korean nuclear negotiator, the negotiator said: “Mr. Wolf, I know you areequally as powerful as President Obama…. Only the two of you have situation rooms (the name of Blitzer’s CNN show).”
“Yes, he was joking,” said Blitzer, “and I was flattered.” But Blitzer said his Situation Room, and all journalist’ssituation rooms, do play an important role. “We send out powerful words and images that truly have a profound impact around the world,” he said.
Blitzer, like Amanpour befor him, was the recipient of the Radio-Television Digital News Foundation’s Leonard ZeidenbergFirst Amendment Award, which is named after the former B&C chief correspondent.
So, amid the jokes about the competition and why it had take so long to give him the award, he had a serious message about the price of that First Amendment freedom.
“Journalists have suffered and continue to suffer greatly. Some of our colleagues have been the victims of violent assaults and beatings. Others have been detained by desperate regimes and others have been tortured, including over the past couple of days.”
(Three journalists were detained and tortured in Libya, while the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that seven journalists in the country were currently unaccounted for.)
“It is paramount to believe in our brothers and sisters on the front line as they try to keep our collective conscience going as we go about our daily reporting here in Washington and around the country,” said Blitzer.
Blitzer said noone appreciates the freedom of the press more than journalists, and no journalist appreciates it more than when they lose it, or think they are about to lose it.
He said his six days in North Korea in December–amid the face-off between North and South Korea with U.S. troops somewhere in the middle–demonstrated that fact. “While there, I literally had no First Amendment rights and I knew it. I had North Korean officials with me all of the time telling me where I could go, what I could and couldn’t do, who Icould talk to and who I couldn’t talk to. That is not exactly the way we American journalists like to operate,” he said, understating the case.
But he did have CNN International in his hotel room, he said. Blitzer said he was very nervous when he woke up early onemorning and saw nothing but snow on all the channels. “I assumed that was the North Korean way of telling me hostilities were about to begin by cutting off information from the outside world.” Turns out the show on the TV was due to actual snow on the hotel’s satellite dishes, “hence no picture or sound” he said.