Fred Friendly Award 2011: David Fanning


David Fanning, executive producer of "FRONTLINE," is advocating for a new way to fund public television to ensure it pursues its mission to produce quality, investigative journalism.

It's the type of journalism Fanning has dedicated his life to creating in documentaries and one reason Fanning received the 18th annual Fred Friendly First Amendment Award from Quinnipiac's School of Communications at a June14 luncheon at the Metropolitan Club in New York City.

In his acceptance speech, Fanning recommended creating a public journalism fund-supported by foundations, individuals, major donors and public money-that would alleviate the pressure to find money, which he says has influenced the content of reporting. He also said it was time for public television to reinvent itself and bring in "a new generation of young reporters who are used to the daily demands, the drumbeat of reporting in the digital world."

Charles Gibson, former anchor for "World News with Charles Gibson" and 2008 Fred Friendly Award recipient, shared Fanning's concerns.

"'FRONTLINE' is an excellent broadcast and David has been the leader of it and a good shepherd for it," Gisbson said. "Public television and programs like 'FRONTLINE' need to be protected from political whim...They need to have money they can count on."

Gibson was among about 100 journalism colleagues and friends who attended the event to celebrate Fanning. Other guests included Betsy Stark, former ABC News reporter; Susan Filan, a 1991 Quinnipiac School of Law graduate and senior legal analyst for MSNBC; Jodi Applegate, anchor for WPIX News 11; Chuck Scarborough, anchor of NBC News Channel 4; and author Gay Talese.

The award is named in honor of the late broadcast journalist who had a lifelong commitment to freedom of speech. The award acknowledges one of the most basic constitutional rights and honors those who have shown courage and forthrightness in preserving it.

"[Friendly] had a sense that journalism mattered and good journalism is essential to a country that cares about doing the right thing and having an informed public," said Floyd Abrams, renowned First Amendment lawyer and recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Fred Friendly luncheon in 2008.

Abrams recalled the challenges Fanning faced trying to broadcast his documentary, "Death of a Princess," which reported the public execution of a Saudi princess for committing adultery. Despite pressure from sponsors and U.S. and Saudi government officials, PBS aired the controversial documentary.

"You can say it was a victory for the First Amendment," said Friendly's widow, Ruth Friendly. She and Lee Kamlet, the new dean of the School of Communications, presented the award. She put Fanning in the company of her late husband as one of the "great giants" of television programming.

"He's a creative, gutsy, imaginative guy who knows how to use storytelling in the best way: making a documentary," she said.

Colleagues praised Fanning and his work for raising the bar in journalism.

"David Fanning is one of the greatest in the industry and a real visionary," said Betsy Stark, former ABC News reporter. "'FRONTLINE' does some of the most serious, in-depth, "not afraid to take-on any subject" documentary journalism that is increasingly difficult to do. David can get the resources because of who he is and his track record. I think he does not only great journalism, but also great public service."

Richard Hanley, assistant professor and director of the graduate journalism program at Quinnipiac, called "FRONTLINE's" influential documentaries "factual information that's visually stimulating."

"I think it's terrific that a documentary series as important to public affairs as 'FRONTLINE' is being honored through the executive producer, David Fanning," said Hanley. "Under his direction, 'FRONTLINE' has revealed information that is important and vital for our democracy."

Yet Fanning, a native of South Africa, grew up in a country without freedom of expression and without television. Still, he made his first documentaries about the challenges his country endured involving issues such as race and religion. He eventually joined PBS affiliate WGBH in Boston and, with Fred Friendly's help, secured funding to start the documentary series "WORLD." It later became "FRONTLINE."

In his speech, Fanning said Fred Friendly would not be happy about the state of public television today. He recalled when his mentor testified before a Senate subcommittee in 1967 and said, "...public television should not have to stand the test of political popularity at any point in time. Its most precious right will be the right to rock the boat."

Fanning noted shrinking budgets have had a chilling effect on strong journalism. "The problem is that with all the concentration on fundraising, and without any secure and sustained funding sources, stations are scrambling," Fanning said. "Journalism is far from their minds. And 'rocking the boat,' as Fred expected, is the last thing they want."

Fanning called for change to preserve people's trust in public television to provide fair and well-reported journalism. He criticized the growing use of online "sponsorships" that are essentially commercials on public broadcasting websites that circumvent FCC provisions and will chip away at the public's trust.

"I'm told that in surveys, the public doesn't notice the ads online, and is not offended," he said. "I'm not surprised - we all swim in a sea of commercialism - but that's precisely why we need to keep ourselves clean of it."

Fanning said securing funding for public television will be the best hope that "'FRONTLINE' will be there in the future, a part of something bigger and proof that this sort of journalism still matters."

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