Fred Friendly was a friend of mine.
He was also my teacher at Columbia University, and later my professional mentor.
He launched my career in television and media.
So it was with a great deal of interest that I watched as Scott Pelley, anchor of the CBS Evening News, accepted the Fred Friendly First Amendment Award.
Scott Pelley (CBS) accepts the Fred Friendly Journalism Award
As Scott gave his speech, it became increasingly clear to me that he had no idea of what it was that Fred stood for... unfortunately.
I have embedded the speech above. You can see it for yourself.
Let me put aside the cheap shots at bad grammar ("spend some time with she and Fred," 12:27), and get down to the core of the problem.
Mr. Pelley says "our house is on fire." That would be the 'house of journalism' that Fred, A.O. Sulzberger and others built.
Our house is on fire because "we are getting the big stories wrong."
And why are we getting the big stories wrong? Because we are now awash in "bad information" from the Internet. 15:27: "Never before in human history has more information been available to more people."
17:15: "Twitter, Facebook and Reddit, that's not journalism. That's gossip. Journalism was invented as an antidote to gossip."
Journalism was not "invented as an antidote to gossip." Quite the contrary, actually.
And Scott Pelley would do well to read one of Fred Friendly's books, The Minnesota Rag.
This is one of the best books that Fred ever wrote (and he wrote a lot of them). It is the story of Near v. Minnesota, a landmark Supreme Court decision that became one of the foundations of the free press that Scott seems to love so much. It was, in fact, later the basis of the Court's decision in NY Times v. United States (1971) in which the Court upheld the right of the New York Times to continue to publish the Pentagon Papers.
The problem here is that Jay Near was, in the words of Scott Pelley, publishing "gossip." Near's Minnesota newspaper, The Saturday Press, was (and here let me just copy from Wikipedia to speed things up):
The State Supreme Court wrote that a scandalous publication "annoys, injures and endangers the comfort and repose of a considerable number of persons," and so constituted a nuisance just as surely as "places where intoxicating liquor is illegally sold," "houses of prostitution," "dogs," "malicious fences" "itinerant carnivals," "lotteries," and "noxious weeds." The court considered that a newspaper may also endanger safety, because "scandalous material" tended to disturb the peace and provoke assaults.
Well, Jay Near was, among other things, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, racist, and anti-labor. Makes Twitter look pretty good!
As Justice Charles Evans Hughes wrote in the majority decision:
Hughes (Ct): "...the fact that liberty of press may be abused does not make any less necessary the immunity of the press from prior restraint...a more serious evil would result if officials could determine which stories can be published..."
Scott then goes on to note that 15:46: "Our nation was attacked by terrorist. When our country is under attack."
How does Mr. Pelley know that "our nation" was attacked "by terrorists"? That's some pretty inflammatory stuff there. Maybe they were just two very messed up people who built homemade bombs on their own. No better and no worse than someone who shoots up a movie theater or a school. Maybe. "Our nation was under attack?" Really? The Boston Marathon was "attacked." Our nation was attacked when the Japanese Navy and Air Force attacked Pearl Harbor. I may just stick to Facebook in light of this kind of "journalism."
Further in the speech, Mr. Pelley notes that the FBI and the president were telling the networks how to report the news and what not to say. This, Mr. Pelley, seems fine with, although a bit earlier he praised the Sulzbergers, who famously told LBJ to "get stuffed" when Johnson asked Punch Sulzberger to remove David Halberstam from reporting in Vietnam. Sulzberger actually extended Halberstam's tour for another year. Sulzberger also always regretted listening to JFK when he was asked not to write about the pending Bay of Pigs invasion.
Finally, Scott Pelley talks about the thousand-year-old traditions of journalism. 22:08: "The principles by which we gather the news and write the news have not changed in 1,000 years." Really? And just what principles of journalism were being practiced in Medieval Europe in the year 1013? The printing press wasn't even invented until 1452 and the first newspapers didn't appear until the 17th century.