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The Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards: Honoring Broadcast Media’s Best and Brightest

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On Sunday night, January 31, New York City’s PBS station, Thirteen/WNET, aired Telling the Truth: The Best in Broadcast Journalism, a one-hour special hosted by journalist Maria Hinojosa showing clips (and interviews with the winners) from some of the 14 programs that won the 2010 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards for excellence in broadcast journalism. This was not the usual kind of awards show; evening-dressed reporters and producers were not seen receiving their awards (although this ceremony has been broadcast on PBS for the past 25 years). The (private) ceremony was held at Columbia on January 21 and awarded programs that were aired in the U.S. between July, 2008 and June, 2009.

I’d provide a site link to Telling the Truth…, but neither Thirteen nor PBS have descriptions for this program on their sites, at least not links I could find, despite numerous and different kinds of searches. Which makes this a good time to say that PBS’ Web site is cumbersome to navigate and Thirteen’s is just plain awful – a genuine IT tragedy, considering the fine quality of public television programming and PBS’ recently announced plans to make greater use of their and individual stations’ online extensions. However, for more information about the purpose and history of the awards, visit the Journalism School at Columbia University, where you'll also find complete details on all of this year’s winners.

The annual Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards are always a heartening reminder that regardless of the general mediocrity of the three major 24-hour cable news networks (CNN, MSNBC and FOX, none of which received awards); the ever-decreasing quantity and quality of broadcast network (CBS, NBC, ABC) national/international news; and the banality and sensationalism of most local news nationwide, there is in fact important, high-quality news programming to be found on television – but you have to keep a keen and constant eye out for it.

A lot of the best TV news comes from documentaries, both individual films and documentary film series, like PBS’ Frontline, which won an award this year for the film Pakistan: Children of the Taliban, about the threat to Pakistani society and secular government from the Taliban’s radical Islamic education of 1.5 million Pakistani children and its terrorist conscription of as many of those kids as possible.

HBO, frequently a good source for excellent documentaries, won for The Recruiter, about a zealous American Army recruiter in Louisiana who is successfully wooing record numbers of high school students into volunteering for service in Iraq and Afghanistan. And PBS’ POV won for The Judge and the General, about a conservative Chilean judge who is pursuing and prosecuting human rights violations in Chile during the infamous Pinochet era.

CBS won both of the only network TV awards: Katie Couric’s The Sarah Palin Interviews and CBS Reports for Children of the Recession, a fact-filled, heartbreaking, multi-part portrait of the collapsed economy’s impact on American kids: greater homelessness, hunger, abuse, emotional problems, and declines in educational achievement.

This year’s big surprise was the fact that six local TV stations won awards – the most in more than 20 years. Stations in Texas, Colorado, Vermont, Florida, Tennessee, and Louisiana were rewarded for detailed, often multi-part reports or freestanding specials on such topics as locally-based military discrimination and corruption, inadequate emergency response, improperly prescribed painkillers, the extensive use of illegal migrant farm workers, judicial corruption, and fraud/mismanagement in Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts.

As you no doubt know from watching your own local news, the “if it bleeds, it leads” ethos that has guided local news since the early `70s has become the standard and turned most local news programs into crime reports peppered with sports, weather, scandals, and human interest tidbits. All of this year’s winning local stations saw their stories result in official investigation, judicial prosecution, or legislative/policy reform. Such is the power of top-flight broadcast journalism, which will hopefully encourage all local stations to put greater emphasis on important stories – even though the news departments of most stations have been decimated by the public’s changes in media consumption, as well as The Great Recession.

The duPont-Columbia awards also recognize excellence in radio journalism. American Radio Works won for What Killed Sergeant Gray?, about the remorse and depression suffered by some returned Iraq war vets who had deliberately abused Iraqi detainees while in their custody (Sgt. Gray committed suicide). National Public Radio (NPR) won for The York Project: Race and the 2008 Vote, a series of insightful conversations with residents of York, Pennsylvania, before and after the last presidential election.

This year was the first that the duPont-Columbia awards turned their attention to the Internet, praising journalists who had previously worked in TV and/or print and are now finding new platforms on the Web, as well as the new and growing population of serious-minded citizen journalists who, through blogs and other platforms, are bringing important stories to the attention of the public, as well as the mainstream media. The site MediaStorm won for Intended Consequences, a multimedia presentation about the estimated 20,000 children born to women in Rwanda after they were raped (and often infected with HIV) during the 1994 genocide.

The Alfred I. duPont-Columbia-University Awards, considered the broadcast equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize (given to books, magazines, and newspapers), were established in 1942 by Jessie Ball duPont in memory of her husband, the industrialist, financier, philanthropist, and advocate of freedom of information in the public interest, Alfred I. duPont (1864-1935). The awards have been administered by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism since 1968. Recipients of the award receive a silver baton inscribed with a quote by broadcast journalism pioneer, Edward R. Murrow, from a speech he gave to the Radio and Television News Directors Association in 1958: “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.”

For many years, I’ve been saying that television is magic we use as a toy. Since the early `90s, when the Internet began to significantly take shape, I hoped and prayed it would not suffer a similar fate and simply become another media landscape for sales, marketing, and the most frivolous kind of activity and communication. I still think television is largely misused and it has a good deal of work to do to regain its soul as a provider of important information and world-class entertainment. In my opinion, the Internet is progressing in a more worthwhile manner, but it has more than its share of shortcomings. On both fronts, we can only hope that recognition of the best – such as that provided by the duPont-Columbia awards – will inspire the production of more of the best in the future.

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About Jeanne Browne

  • Jeanne,

    I read this article yesterday, and wanted to write a comment. But then, that pesky old insecurity got in the way.

    I want to thank you lady, for reaching out to me.

    I looked at your bio, and when I discovered you worked in continuing ed, I thought to myself, “Here is a bridge I can’t ever burn!”

    So,I took your advice and wrote, put it away, and then I read it with fresh eyes.

    Here is a wonderful quote that I found last night.

    “How can I know what I mean until I’ve seen what I said?” – E. M. Forster

    :] You, are a gift sent from heaven as far as this little critic is concerned!