Taking the stage following the presentation of an award given to Gulf Coast broadcasters for their coverage of Hurricane Katrina, former president Bill Clinton said Monday he had "had the opportunity to see the truth on a daily basis" of broadcasters' efforts to cover Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath from the eye of the storm. "I am highly grateful to all of you," he said.
But Clinton, who himself received the Samaritan Award from the National Association of Broadcasters Education Foundation at its Service to America awards ceremony in Washington, was there not just to praise broadcasters but to rally them.
"One thing about not being president is that I can say whatever I want," he told the audience. "The tragic thing is that broadcasters don't care what I say anymore." By the extended applause that bracketed his remarks, he appeared to have miscalculated.
In his speech, Clinton pitched the power of individuals, through nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to change the world for the better.
That power, he said, is derived in part from the "pervasiveness of the global media culture, which means that everyone is subject to some public opinion" in combination with the rise of the Internet, he said, which "helps to give people an immediate outlet for what you tell them on the news."
Clinton said the marriage of the traditional news media and the Internet is what allowed money to be raised quickly to aid victims of the tsunami and Katrina. He encouraged broadcasters to help harness that power, and not just when disaster strikes.
"If all the people that you broadcast the news to," he said, "however modest their means, decide as one to cross all the lines that divide them to solve some problem or meet some big challenge, they can change the world."
"And because we have the power to do it," he said, "we have the responsibility to do it. Not only when disaster strikes, but every day." But Clinton had a political as well as a social policy point to make, suggesting that the way to win hearts and minds in an electronically interconnected world is with a helping hand rather than a brandished fist.
Clinton said there was one Muslim country where support for the U.S. has exploded: Indonesia. Before the tsunami, he said, approval of the U.S. stood at 39% of the population; after, 58%. Before the tsunami, positive opinions of Osama Bin Laden were at 58%; after, 28%.
"Why? Bin Laden didn't do anything to them, but he wasn't there for them," he said. "I urge you to understand that what you do [both individually and as broadcasters] has always been important, it's more important than ever."
Clinton put the capper on an evening all about the importance of local broadcasting, with the industry saluting its own for helping the community, with a particular emphasis on providing above-and-beyond service in time of emergencies.
And it was not just broadcasters doing the saluting. What up until two weeks ago would have been all the FCC commissioners--four--was on hand to hand out awards, including the first official public appearance by new commissioner Robert McDowell. Only Deborah Taylor Tate did not make an official appearance, though she was in attendance.
Michael Copps had the best line of the night, at least from a regulator. He shared the stage with Miss America, Jennifer Berry, as a co-presenter. Copps said he had been visiting with former Senator Ernest Hollings when he told Hollings of his good fortune of being able to co-present with Miss America. Hollings response: Ah, Beauty and the Beast.
When it was Kevin Martin's turn, he asked what he had done to NAB that Copps got Miss America and he got NAB co-chairman Bruce Reese.
Robert McDowell said broadcasters had helped make his first week on the commission "interesting," and added that most of the people in the room had probably already been in to see him.