“We Don’t Make Up the News, and We Are Not the Enemies of the American People”

PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff delivered this powerful line when accepting her Lifetime Achievement Award at the Newseum’s Free Expression Awards. I hosted the event last week, which recognizes “courageous acts of and contributions to free and fearless expression.” Judy’s speech rebuked #FakeNews, reminded us of threats against journalists, and recommended ways we can all be better news consumers. Her words hit home for me, so I’m sharing them with you below. Thanks, Judy, and congrats on your award!

Bernie [Shaw], thank you so much.  You were my work husband for 8 years at CNN before you abandoned me to pursue your next career.  You taught me so many things by your example, chief among them, patience: whenever you start to feel overwhelmed by a huge new story, or when the news is coming at you too fast, take a deep breath.  Boy, has that come in handy the past few years.

And congratulations to each of tonight’s remarkable award winners. I’m honored to be here with you.

Now, let’s be honest: a Lifetime Achievement Award can be a dubious distinction; “she’s over the hill.” But I can live with that: it’s true I’ve seen a lot in my lifetime, but I’ve forgotten most of it, and it won’t be long before I’ll forget this too.

Besides, I’ve reassured myself with a pitch I plan to make to PBS, to become the first 95 year old anchor of the NewsHour. People are living longer, we need to be able to identify with our audience.

Seriously, thank you to the Newseum and the Freedom Forum Institute for this:  Two organizations I’ve worked with and watched up close for decades, as you’ve stood up time and again for a free press and for the First Amendment.

I stand here tonight, a lucky woman with a very full heart.

I marvel at the women who are making waves in the news business now compared to when I started out. Just look at the women in this room and being recognized tonight. My heart overflows with thanks to all the people who’ve made it possible for me to have a career I never dreamed I’d have.

Starting at NBC, the late Jack Chancellor, Les Crystal and Tom Brokaw gave a young, green reporter opportunities.

At the NewsHour, Jim Lehrer and Robin MacNeil – who broke the mold by creating an hour of thoughtful television news and giving me a chance to be part of it and to learn from the very best.

Tom Johnson and Ted Turner at CNN, who put 24/7 news on the map and proved the skeptics wrong by doing it smartly and professionally and responsibly and all around the globe.

Sharon Rockefeller for both my tours at PBS and the NewsHour: holding the banner high for public media and having all of our backs, through good times and challenging ones.

Gwen Ifill, for her big heart, for welcoming me back to the NewsHour family a dozen years ago, for being the supernova that she was while she was with us: the brilliant, consummate pro, born to do great journalism and to break through ceilings. I have a bigger heart because of her.

How grateful I am, because the challenges we face today as journalists are greater than at any time in the almost half century I’ve been a reporter.

The number of newspapers in the United States that have downsized or completely shut down. The hundreds and hundreds of reporters laid off in the past decade. A business model for television as well as print under assault. The volume of news may be greater than ever thanks to today’s amazing digital technology, to social media – but we have to be on guard as more Americans say they’re having a harder time distinguishing fact from opinion.

No one knows how this will evolve.

Meanwhile, around the world, journalists are under more threat than at any point in the past decade. 300 journalists have been murdered in that time, in more than 40 countries, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Of course including those at the Capitol Gazette and Jamal Khashoggi. In 2017 alone, another 326 journalists were imprisoned for their work, a substantial jump from the year before.  More than half were behind bars in Turkey, China and Egypt, often on charges of opposing the state. One more reason I’m so proud of the work of the IWMF, the International Women’s Media Foundation, which is dedicated to supporting and defending women journalists around the globe. Women like Zehra Dogan of Turkey, imprisoned last year for a news report her government called “terrorist propaganda.”

Here, and around the world, journalists are increasingly accused of producing “fake news,” news that is made up. Increasingly, authoritarian leaders in Turkey, China and Egypt, in Eastern Europe, in the Philippines, are demonizing reporters as enemies of the state when they produce stories they don’t like or wish to suppress.  Turkey has overseen the imprisonment of more than 230 journalists in the past few years. A newspaper that had been in print in Hungary for over 80 years was closed down last year: In fact, dozens of media outlets critical of Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban have changed hands in the past four years. In Russia, the foreign office even has a fake news division.

Few of us in this room are perfect; we really try to get it right. Sometimes we make mistakes. When we do, we should correct them right away. But no one here practices fake news: the charge is insidious and undermines the value of a free press. We DON’T make up the news and we are NOT the enemies of the American people.

Having said that, it does us no good, it does the American people no good, for us to get into a contest with the political leaders who criticize us. Our job is to dig up the facts, follow the trails, wherever they lead, let the facts speak for themselves, and be prepared to defend freedom of the press.

If I ever took press freedom for granted, I don’t any longer, and none of us can.  Now more than ever, we are called on to do the kind of reporting that we got into journalism for in the first place.  That’s what we owe the American people, that’s what will keep our democracy strong and that’s what will best stand up against any moves to undermine us and our work.

Finally, my biggest thank you goes to the extraordinary PBS NewsHour team I’m so lucky to work with every day: led by executive producer Sara Just, and a team of correspondents, producers, editors, videographers, technicians, digital and social media whizzes; I could go on and on. They are simply the best; I could not lift a finger without them.

And of course, to PBS, for believing in us and allowing us to report the news straight, just as we find it.

Last, my wonderful family: my husband Al Hunt, who has had his own remarkable career in journalism, our children Ben and Hemi, who are here, and Jeffrey, who couldn’t be here tonight. You’ve put up with a lot, I love you all.

Thank you!