Fred Friendly Award 2008: Charles Gibson


Although broadcast news pioneer Fred Friendly left this world 10 years ago, his legacy dominated the stage June 10 when the University presented two awards that bear his name to two professionals inspired by Friendly's dedication to free speech.

Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Floyd Abrams, best known for his role as co-counsel in the often-titled Pentagon Papers case, shared a personal account of the time Friendly persuaded him to participate in a seminar on the First Amendment, even though Abrams was covered with chicken pox.

Friendly influenced First Amendment Award recipient Charles Gibson, anchor of ABC's "World News," early in his career, with his book, "Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control." "I never met him. Nonetheless he was one of my heroes," Gibson said. "As a newly minted intern at channel 7 in Washington, D.C., making the princely sum of $325 a month, Fred Friendly wrote a book telling me that network news was going to hell. I hadn't gotten there yet, and already one of the pillars of the industry was telling me not to bother."

Gibson said the book cautioned him, but did not discourage him from entering a career in broadcast journalism that has spanned four decades. He was the 15th recipient of the award presented annually by the School of Communications at the Metropolitan Club in New York City. Among the colleagues and friends who came to honor the two recipients were Dan Abrams, host of MSNBC's "Verdict with Dan Abrams," and son of Floyd Abrams; and media professionals Alina Cho and Gregory Hunter (CNN), Geraldo Rivera (Fox), Deborah Norville ("Inside Edition"), Andy Rooney ("60 Minutes"), Susan Filan (MSNBC) Betsy Stark and David Muir (both ABC), and ABC executives David Westin, president, and John Banner, executive producer.

Before the awards were presented by Quinnipiac President John L. Lahey and Fred's widow, Ruth, a documentary illustrating Friendly's impact on journalism was screened. Friendly and Edward R. Murrow are remembered for many influential documentaries including "Harvest of Shame," an exposé on the hardships of migrant workers, and their pieces on Sen. Joseph McCarthy's Communist witch hunt.

The documentary on Friendly was produced by Terry Martin, former executive producer and story editor for 34 years at "60 Minutes" and an adjunct professor of journalism at Quinnipiac. He was Friendly's teaching assistant at Columbia University, where Friendly began the public television program that became the Fred Friendly Seminars in 1984.

"Fred was all about accuracy and fairness, and getting people to think. The business has changed considerably," Martin said. "We wanted to do this piece so journalism students at Quinnipiac would know who Fred Friendly was."

In the film, Rooney says Friendly had more influence on TV news than anyone and would accept nothing but the best. "He used the medium of TV to show, not tell," said Lou Adler, Fred Friendly Professor of Broadcast Journalism at Quinnipiac and a former CBS radio anchor.

Gibson said Friendly was known for railing against commercial pressures on news divisions and for his efforts to present quality programs and documentaries, never settling for less than the best from himself and others. When someone would ask Friendly, "Who'd know?" his response was, "I'd know. That's who would know," Gibson explained. "I think that is not only a profound caution and watchword for journalists, it applies to virtually all aspects of life."

Gibson said TV news in recent years has embraced a "cult of personality" in a contest to see who can be the most strident and opinionated. "As we commingle news and opinion, we muddy the distinction and viewers don't know what to believe. It may work short term--it may get a network or a station ratings and 'buzz' temporarily--but it undermines the product and ultimately undermines the public trust."

He prefers to give "World News" viewers the best distillation of the day's news. Would Friendly approve of where we are in network television news right now? Probably not, he said. "The documentary form--of which he was a master--is largely squeezed out of network schedules. I'm pleased to say my network does a number of them at substantial cost to the bottom line."

In a medium where flash is overrated, Ruth Friendly called Gibson "a journalist of substance who pursues his craft with innate sense of good taste." Cho said that to her, Gibson is the gold standard, reassuring and one of the few in the business universally respected and adored.

Many in attendance admired Gibson's dedication to in-depth, quality news reporting. Marlon LeWinter '03 said he respects Gibson because he has experienced so much in his 40 years of reporting the news. Mary Jane Foster JD '95, said she admires his measured, even and fair reporting. "He never has an agenda, and not to bash Barbara Walters, but he has a familiar way of interviewing without being cloying or over the top," she said.

A proud Dan Abrams said that in their home, it was not unusual for him, his dad and other family members, two of whom were federal prosecutors, to debate the issues of the day. His dad has even been a guest on his show.

Floyd Abrams, in remarks after receiving his award, said Friendly raged at people who didn't understand quality programming. "If Fred were here today, he would be raging about some of the recent coverage of the Democratic race for the presidency and might be very upset at some of the coverage of Hillary Clinton, which was sour, mean-spirited and biased, in my view. He might also be upset at journalists who use their position to shill for one party or another, and blogs that made no pretense of accuracy."

Before presenting the award to Abrams, Ruth Friendly said, "Floyd, you push us to analyze the role of a journalist in a free society; the role of the journalist in wartime; and the journalist's responsibility when he/she comes into possession of classified documents. You have been the great defender of the press and a great teacher to us all."

"I can't help but feel Fred's presence. He'd be giving you a big smile and a big hug."

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