At CPJ Gala, Dan Rather Criticizes Corporate Media, While Comcast CEO Brian Roberts Promises Journalistic Independence For NBC News

By Alex Weprin 

Last night the Committee to Protect Journalists held its annual gala at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City. The bulk of the event was to honor journalists who risked their lives to cover the news, and along the way a few well-known faces showed up. In addition to the international award recipients, Mansoor al-Jamri of Bahrain, Javier Valdez Cardenas of Mexico, Umar Cheema of Pakistan and Natalya Radina of Belarus, former “CBS Evening News” anchor Dan Rather accepted a lifetime achievement award, while Comcast CEO Brian Roberts accepted his first public award since his cable company acquired NBCUniversal.

In his speech, Rather set his sights squarely on corporate media–of which Roberts is clearly a part– and sent a message to journalists to not forget their heritage. He was introduced by First Amendment lawyer James Goodale, who began by defending Rather’s report on former President George W. Bush‘s military service. “All the facts in that particular program were substantially correct,” Goodale said. “He was correct.”

Questions surrounding that report led to Rather’s departure from CBS News.


“As you know, we are living in an age when big money owns everything…including the news,” Rather said. “That cash bought a lot of silence for a long time. Enough time for unchecked power to get this country tangled into messes all around the world. We all know that money talks. But, so do the people…

Tonight, if I can convince you of anything, it is to buck the current system,” Rather added. “Remember anew that you are a public servant and your business is protecting the public from harm. Even if those doing harm also pay your salary.”

Roberts, for his part, heaped praise upon the sacrifices made by reporters, and promised that Comcast was committed to maintaining a robust news organization at a time when it is needed most. Roberts recalled calling NBC News president Steve Capus in January of 2010 to inquire about the election results in the special election in Massachusetts. Capus went on to say that while the election was important, he was much m0re proud of the work his team was doing covering the earthquake in Haiti.

“For me, that is when the light bulb went off, this is what it means when newsmen like Steve Capus talk about the sacred duty of their profession,” Roberts said. “It means camping out on the tarmac, in desperate times and countries, it means using all your skill and passion to get the story and bring it home so that the American public will know what is going on. It is unglamorous, dirty, hard work.

It is without a doubt the most important thing that NBC does. NBC News is our heart and soul, our sweat and tears, and sometimes, yes, our blood,” he added.

“NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams and “This Week” anchor Christiane Amanpour served as co-hosts of the evening, with Williams taking the opportunity to crack a joke at the expense of a certain event that was airing on CNN at the time.

“By the way, by being here you are all missing the latest GOP debate tonight,” Williams said, drawing applause from the attendees. “We are about 29 minutes away from the start of the next one.”

Two CNNers that chose to skip the debate were legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin and executive VP Mark Whitaker, both of whom were in attendance at the gala. Whitaker would present the award to Valdez.

TVNewser also spotted NBCU CEO Steve Burke, Capus, “Today” co-anchor Ann Curry, “Rock Center” contributor Harry Smith and correspondent Andrea Mitchell. PBS host Gwen Ifill was in attendance, and at the Fox News table we spotted anchors Bill Hemmer and Jon Scott.

The CPJ Award Winners