Roses and Thorns

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The Radio-Television News Directors Foundation First Amendment Awards dinner in Washington last week served as one of those reminders that it takes smart and dedicated men and women to make the news business work both as a business and as an essential part of the democratic process.

On this night, the “big media” were equally applauded and chastised for their journalism. Those major media groups deserve the roses and the thorns for how and what they cover, and what they don’t.

Since retiring, honoree and former NBC News executive Bill Wheatley has been thinking about media’s big issues: “One of those challenges, of course, is protecting the First Amendment,” he told the crowd. “You all know about the government’s increasing interference with those rights: prosecutors hounding reporters, government agencies refusing to provide information to which the press and public are entitled, and, most worrisome, justices sending reporters to jail for just doing their jobs.”

But Wheatley said that journalists need to do more stories that show they recognize the responsibility that is the other side of the coin.

That means doing stories that may be unpleasant. But, he said, increasingly, “important subjects aren’t covered because they aren’t considered to be audience-friendly. Poverty and race are good examples.” Or bad examples, to put it another way.

His message: More E.R. Murrow, less P.T. Barnum. It is not new advice. Wheatley could easily have ended his speech by signing off, “Good night, and good luck.”

But it was a night not simply to bury big business. The awards dinner also praised it. Companies often slammed for their size were given their due for being there with deep pockets when Hurricane Katrina hit last August. From flying in food to finding shelter to dropping the competitive gloves, Entercom, Clear Channel, Tribune, Belo, Hearst-Argyle and Raycom rose to the occasion. That was possible only by companies with wallets large enough to do right. But it was more than size; the federal government is huge. It was commitment, too.

This week is Sunshine Week, when journalists shine a spotlight on the threats to freedom of information and the rights of every citizen to that information. The awards dinner was a fitting prelude. At their best, print and broadcast journalists perform essential, even heroic roles in society.

Journalists were deeded the protections of the First Amendment by the Constitution, but the only way to build on that hard-won ground is with efforts like the Katrina coverage and with hard-nosed reporting on topics that may rankle official Washington, from wiretapping to the war in Iraq to the national debt. That is a legacy worth celebrating.

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