Walter Cronkite Award / remarks by Judy Woodruff

Hartford, CT
Thursday, April 7, 2022

Thank you, Mark Contreras. And thank you to Connecticut Public for all that you do to hold the banner high in this state for public broadcasting!  We in the public media family appreciate your leadership and the great job your team is doing.

What an honor to be invited here by this organization, the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government, which does such important work defending freedom of information, the First Amendment, open government as well as civic education – teaching high school students about government and the Constitution. Congratulations, as you just recently celebrated your 30th anniversary.

Then, to receive this award named after Walter Cronkite — the icon of icons in my world, someone I had the great good fortune to meet, to get to know a little — I interviewed him a few times.  And since then, it’s been given to journalists I so admire and respect, Jim Lehrer, my mentor, and others including Bob Woodward and Lou Boccardi.

And finally, to be here at the home of Mark Twain, the writer who embodied the best of the American spirit. It’s a three-fer!

Thank you!

So, I’m here speaking to you on what is literally the first occasion I’ve left Washington, to speak to a large group, in more than two years. I’m not sure I know how to act around people.  And like all of you, I’m still on Covid watch: I attended a big dinner in Washington Saturday night where a group of journalists host other journalists, administration officials, members of Congress..all in the belief the pandemic was sufficiently at bay to allow us to hold an event we hadn’t held in 3 years.

Now, 5 days later, 2 Cabinet members, a few members of Congress, and well over a dozen reporters and family members have tested positive.  I was still negative when I left D.C. earlier today, but this is a reminder, as Dr. Fauci and others have so often said, we may be through with Covid, but it’s not through with us.  And now we know the CDC and others are making plans to deal with a possible next wave this fall.

I’ll share one light moment with you from that dinner, sponsored by the Gridiron Club: the Republican Governor of New Hampshire, Chris Sununu, one of the speakers, had a lot to say about former President Trump.  I can’t repeat everything he said at a distinguished forum like this, but one I will share, because it’s already been reported: he said “I’m not proposing Donald Trump be put in an insane asylum, but if he is, they’ll never let him out.”

Of course, the pandemic has already turned our world upside down: it has kept all of us isolated: for me, that meant anchoring from my home for the first year of it..then back to the studio for the past year, but with 98% of my colleagues still working from home…everyone but the folks who are essential to getting the program transmitted from our studio to the broadcast airwaves on PBS.

It’s been a strange and humbling experience. If you had told me before March of 2020 that the PBS NewsHour could function as we have, almost everyone from home, I would have said you were crazy. But thanks to supercomputers, smartphones, smart cameras, the internet and so much more I don’t understand, somehow we have –and I couldn’t be more proud of the work my colleagues have done, the work they’ve made possible over this historically challenging time.

We’ve covered wave after wave of Covid and the terrible toll it’s taken on our country; we’re about to pass one million dead…and at the same time, we’ve covered a presidential election like no other in American history; and its polarized aftermath, with Washington as the epicenter; we’ve covered a racial reckoning across the nation in the wake of the murder of George Floyd;  a reckoning that continues to this day; and now we’re very focused on covering a horrible war in Europe, with a dictator reminding us that – even in what we want to believe is an enlightened time for humanity – one evil man and the people who enable him, can wreak death, grief and pain upon millions of others.

Thank God for the brave Ukrainian people, who have, against all odds, stood up to Vladimir Putin: They are an inspiration to freedom-loving people everywhere.

And after reporting for so many months on the disruption and suffering around Covid…. And not expecting Russia would actually invade Ukraine, I couldn’t imagine the press had the bandwidth to cover a bloody war, but it turns out, the news media not only can, but today, tonight, there are scores of intrepid journalists doing stunningly brave and important work.  Some have given their lives to do it.  In one news organization after another, they’ve ventured out to the front lines, put themselves in danger, as shells have rained down and Russian snipers have fired at will.

For the NewsHour Nick Schifrin and Jane Ferguson,  along with Jack Hewson and a team of producers and videographers, including Volodymyr Solohub and Simon Ostrovsky, who are in Ukraine right now for us.

If there was ever a time to celebrate journalism, this time is it. Reporters, photographers, videographers, have from Day One, documented the war and its atrocities.

..and their work will, we hope, hold the worst violators of human rights, accountable. But we know that won’t be easy.  The Russian disinformation machine works non-stop spreading lies that are believed not only by much of its own population but are also apparently accepted by over a billion Chinese, while major countries like India, with its own population of over a billion, remain neutral.

I do think it’s worth noting the Biden administration and the intelligence community have shrewdly put out information in advance about what the Russians are planning.  Democracies can no longer afford to be passive in the information wars.

And there are other countries where reporters are under threat, from Venezuela and Nicaragua to the Philippines and Turkey. Which today announced it is transferring the trial of men accused in the brutal murder of Wash Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in 2018, to Saudi Arabia. Whose leader has been implicated in the murder, raising questions about whether we’ll ever hear about the trial again.  Another illustration that authoritarianism isn’t ebbing.

The war in Ukraine has been a sobering reminder that so much of the world doesn’t enjoy a free press. Meantime, we in the United States have had our own reminder over the past six-plus years, as we’ve grappled with a political leader who called the American news media “enemies of the American people” – which of course couldn’t  be further from the truth.  And who has labeled most of the solid reporting being done every day in this country as “fake news.”    Yes, sure, we all make mistakes, and we should correct them as soon as we make them.

And yes, there’s more opinion today in American journalism than there’s been in my lifetime.  But to suggest that we in the mainstream news media are acting in a wholesale way, to “make it up,” has done enormous damage to the public’s trust in the press…

So much damage that a majority of the American people now say they don’t trust news reporters or most of the news they see or read.  And to see that culminate with a hard fought presidential election in 2020, that ended with the losing candidate claiming massive fraud, and inspiring his followers to do everything in their power to overturn the results, including to storm the United States Capitol – (just as members of the House and Senate were doing their job, according to the Constitution, and certifying the election results) – a riot that led to the deaths of half a dozen people, and the arrests & jailing of hundreds….has shocked and tested us all.  The lies continue to this day – 15 months later – and most members of his party defend him.

All this has presented the press with a challenge like none we’ve confronted before: elected officials stating as fact, things that are not fact.  It’s been tempting for many in the news media to jump into the fray and take on former President Trump.  My view has been it’s not in our interest to get into a fight with the President, certainly not our interest at the NewsHour, the news organization founded by Robin MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, who believed a reporter’s role is to fiercely cover the story but stay out of the story ourselves.   We believe we best serve the public when we report deeply on a subject, when we are able to bring light and not heat, when we don’t jump to conclusions, and when we don’t favor one side over another. We have to be open to hearing all the arguments, to the possibility that both parties have something to contribute…as long as they don’t distort the truth.

All this is happening at a time when the country is more politically polarized than at any time since I started working as a reporter covering the Georgia state legislature in the early 1970’s. Republicans and Democrats have often disagreed on the issues …Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Al Gore; Barack Obama and John McCain…. they’ve had great debates; they haven’t always played fair, they’ve used every tool in the toolbox to try to make sure their side wins.

But at the end of the day, they’ve accepted the election results.  Today, it’s different.  Election apparatuses everywhere across the United States are being challenged.  We in the press have to double down in our efforts to cover these moves wherever they’re happening, to shine a light into dark corners.  The mid term elections take place in less than 7 months and if we want to ensure not only that every vote is counted, but that all those eligible to vote, were able to vote, we have to pay attention, because the things we’ve taken for granted are now under assault in a number of states.

As horrific as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been and continues to be, I hope it does one thing, and that is, remind us of the power of a lie. As long as Vladimir Putin succeeds in lying to his own people, and intimidates others into accepting those lies, by virtue of Russia’s economic and strategic position, he has massive influence.  The same in our own country; as long as a lie keeps spreading and being repeated by people, many of whom know better, our democracy is undermined.

I welcome, we all should welcome, vigorous debates in our politics – about health care, taxes, infrastructure, immigration, climate change, education, and so much more. But these debates have to be grounded in facts, in real information.

I want to thank you, the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government,  Connecticut Public, for the work you do, day in and day out, to strengthen and celebrate the values of open information and records, of honesty, of transparency, of sunshine, and of accountability.   Our democracy depends on it, the world depends on it. We are stronger because we air our differences in public. May we never take our First Amendment freedoms for granted;

Thank you.