At Press Freedom Awards, big names and little bits of controversy

At Press Freedom Awards, big names and little bits of controversy
by Alex Weprin and Joe Pompeo
November 26, 2013

In the wake of her recently discredited Benghazi segment, CBS News correspondent Lara Logan dropped out of her hosting gig for the 2013 International Press Freedom Awards at the 11th hour.

But Logan’s colleagues at “60 Minutes” were out in full force Tuesday night at the Waldorf Astoria, where the Committee to Protect Journalists was holding its annual black-tie gala honoring journalists from around the world who risk their lives and liberty in the pursuit of truth.

CBS News anchor Scott Pelley emceed the event in Logan’s place, declaring during his introduction: “There is no democracy without journalism. There are no human rights without journalism.”

A “60 Minutes” crew was there working on a profile of one of the honorees, Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef, widely boilerplated as the country’s Jon Stewart. Youssef’s program was recently pulled off the air in Egypt because of jokes he made about the military.

The crew from the CBS newsmagzine trailed Youssef and his family through the pre-program cocktail reception in the Waldorf’s Jade Room and John Jacob Astor Salon. A couple hours later, “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart presented Youssef with his award as dessert was being served.

“I just want to assure [the “60 Minutes” team] that I am who I say I am,” Stewart quipped, referencing the program’s recent apology and retraction of a story about last year’s attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which was called into question after it was revealed that the report’s main source likely fabricated his account of the ambush.

“Is there a Committee to Protect Comedians?” Stewart added, looking toward Pelley offstage.

Youssef, a former cardiac surgeon who became a comedian after watching “The Daily Show,” recognized the seriousness of the evening, but he couldn’t help injecting some humor.

“It is really amazing that I am getting this award, considering the fact that I am not even a journalist. It seems that you ran out of names,” he joked.

A minute or two later: “Now, you don’t have to be a journalist or a reporter, you just have to be an ordinary citizen with a camera and a YouTube channel. This is how we started, with a camera, and a YouTube channel. I don’t know how this one ends, but at least this is how we started.”

There was another cloud of controversy hanging over the proceedings: The inclusion of Bloomberg LP president and C.E.O. Dan Doctoroff as chair of the $10,000-per-table fundraising dinner.

Bloomberg News has come under scrutiny recently for allegedly killing a hard-hitting China series for fear of its journalists being expelled from the country, and at least one former CPJ honoree called for Doctoroff to step down from his role as chairman.

But midway through the event, Buzzfeed published an article that quoted prominent media figures defending Doctoroff. The executive didn’t let the China imbroglio color his remarks, which some skeptics might have perceived as ironic.

“We must never stop pursuing the hardest stories,” he said.

Arianna Huffington presented an award to the Ecuadorian television reporter Janet Hinostoza, whose resemblance to Katie Couric was hard to miss. Other recipients included Turkish investigative reporter Nedim Sener and Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Van Hai, who received his award in absentia as a result of a 12-year prison sentence he was handed in 2012.

Paul Steiger, the founding editor-in-chief of ProPublica and former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, received a lifetime achievement award that was presented by Norm Pearlstine, who recently resigned from his post as Bloomberg’s chief content officer to take on the same role at Time Inc.

Steiger got a standing ovation.

Media Figures Stand Behind Bloomberg In China Scandal

Buzz Feed, November 26, 2013
by Rosie Gray and Ryan Broderick, BuzzFeed Staff

Leading figures at old and new American news outlets defended Bloomberg LP CEO Dan Doctoroff’s role at a celebration of press freedom on a day when Bloomberg faced intense criticism over reports that it bowed to the Chinese government.

Doctoroff chaired the annual Press Freedom Awards dinner of the Committee to Protect Journalists at Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, where host Scott Pelley denounced “those who censor, those who harm, and those who silence journalists” before introducing Doctoroff, who called on the press to “stand together.”

Bloomberg is “innocent until proven guilty in my book,” said CNBC host Jim Cramer. “Dan Doctoroff is a great guy.”

“I absolutely think it’s appropriate for Bloomberg to chair this event,” said the writer Kati Marton, a member of the group’s board of directors and the widow of the diplomat

Richard Holbrooke, who said of the reports Bloomberg had killed a story about a top Chinese figure: “I wouldn’t call it a scandal.”

A founder of Vice, Suroosh Alvi, also defended Bloomberg. “I don’t have a problem with it,” he said.

Others declined to comment on the story, which was on the front page of Monday’s New York Times.

“I’m sorry I can’t talk about that, I have to practice my speech,” said Huffington Post chief Arianna Huffington.

The situation was, however, the subject of many quiet conversations and the timing was, said Reuters blogger Felix Salmon, “awkward.”

The $10,000-per-table dinner is held to raise money for the organization, and to honor four reporters from Ecuador, Egypt, Turkey, and Vietnam who “face imprisonment or other persecution for exposing realities,” according to CPJ.

Bloomberg is under fire for, according to reports in the New York Times and Financial Times, killing an article that reportedly focused on China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin, “and his financial ties to the families of party leaders.” (Bloomberg News chief Matthew Winkler said the article was delayed only because it wasn’t fully reported.)

Doctoroff, in a brief speech, appeared to refer obliquely to the controversy.

“We face tough choices and second guessing every day,” promising to “listen to different opinions” and to “keep shining that disinfecting light.”

The company reportedly also sought to manage its relationship to China – a massive growth market for its lucrative terminals – with a special code blocking sensitive stories from terminals in China, and by taking another objectionable story off its website for a time.

Doctoroff, according to the New York Times, at one point canvassed other executives to ask, “If Bloomberg were about to run an important article about China and knew for certain it would draw a retaliatory hacking attack, should the article still run?”

“Many senior news people said reflexively that it should, but others were not so sure,” the paper reported, in the broader context of the difficulty – perhaps impossibility – of doing both news and business in China.

A Hong Kong journalist who was honored at the dinner 15 years ago, Ying Chan, also demanded Tuesday that Doctoroff relinquish his role.

The news executive – a former top official in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration and the leader of New York City’s failed Olympics bid – “has no standing to host such a dinner that celebrates and honors fighters for press freedom while Bloomberg practices such egregious self-censorship and suppresses press freedom. The situation cannot be more ironic,” Chan told ChinaFile. A top CPJ official responded by calling the demand “a false linkage.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the date of a New York Times article.

Former Committee to Protect Journalists Honoree Says Bloomberg Chief Should Not Chair Press Freedom Dinner

China File, November 25, 2013
by Emily Brill

A prominent Hong Kong-based journalist has called on Daniel Doctoroff, Chief Executive Officer of Bloomberg L.P., to step down from his role as chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) annual International Press Freedom Awards dinner on Tuesday in New York because his company is engulfed in a press freedom controversy of its own, involving its China reporting team.

Ying Chan, who was an honoree at the same dinner fifteen years ago, called on Doctoroff to relinquish CPJ’s podium in the wake of the suspension of Hong Kong-based Bloomberg reporter Michael Forsythe on November 13. Forsythe was a leading member of the company’s respected China news team. Bloomberg employees told The New York Times that Bloomberg’s Editor-in-Chief Matthew Winkler said the company would not publish the China team’s latest long-term investigations on the financial ties of China’s top leaders to powerful buinsess interests. The employees characterized Winkler’s moves as self-censorship to protect the company’s interests in China, the world’s second-largest economy, which lacks a free press.

Winkler and Michael Bloomberg, the outgoing New York City Mayor who owns the company, have aggressively denied the self-censorship allegations, saying instead that the contested stories are not ready for publication.

“As a former recipient of the [CPJ’s] Press Freedom Award, I think Doctoroff should withdraw from the dinner or he should be disinvited,” Chan, now a Professor of Journalism at Hong Kong University and the founder of its Journalism and Media Studies Center, said in an email.

The CPJ Awards dinner on Tuesday is set to honor four journalists from Ecuador, Egypt, Turkey, and Vietnam who, the New York-based organization’s website says, “face imprisonment or other persecution for exposing realities.” The CPJ 2013 International Press Freedom Awards, is, the site says, “an annual recognition of the courageous reporting that defines free media.”

Forsythe was a part of the team that won Asia Society’s Osborn Elliott Prize and a George Polk Award for “Revolution to Riches,” a series reporting on the secret wealth of China’s leading Communist Party families. On November 13, he was suspended by Bloomberg and escorted from the newsroom in Hong Kong. Forsythe’s dismissal followed a front page New York Times story on November 8 in which four unnamed Bloomberg employees alleged that Winkler, in an October 29 conference call, said the company would not publish their latest investigative story even after editors and the Bloomberg legal team had approved it. The Bloomberg journalists told The Times that their work would not be published because Winkler cited concerns on the call that the company would lose its ability to operate in China. Bloomberg’s website has been blocked by government censors in China since late last year when the investigative team’s “Revolution to Riches” stories first ran.

Forsythe has not commented on his release from Bloomberg, but told ChinaFile that he is “unemployed and looking for a job.”

“I’d like to stay in journalism,” he said.

Chan was honored in 1997, as the citation on CPJ’s website says, for “battling a criminal libel suit by a high-ranking Taiwanese ruling party official over their reporting of an alleged offer of an illegal contribution to the Clinton re-election campaign.”

“[Doctoroff] has no standing to host such a dinner that celebrates and honors fighters for press freedom while Bloomberg practices such egregious self-censorship and suppresses press freedom. The situation cannot be more ironic,” Chan said in a telephone interview. “I don’t want to embarrass CPJ, but we’re journalists. We’re used to dealing with breaking news. So, we should just respond properly,” she added.

When asked about Chan’s comments, Doctoroff declined to comment through a Bloomberg spokesperson.

Sandra Mims Rowe, Chairman of the CPJ Board of Directors, declined to be interviewed, as did CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. Rowe issued the following statement:

“I chair the CPJ board of directors and have heard from several board members that you are trying to draw a connection between Dan Doctoroff chairing the Press Freedom Awards banquet next week and Bloomberg’s handling of the recent China stories. I can speak for CPJ. This is a false linkage. We are pleased to have Dan Doctoroff as chair of the event and we look forward to a successful banquet on Tuesday.”

The CPJ mission statement declares that the organization “ensures the free flow of news and commentary by taking action wherever journalists are attacked, imprisoned, killed, kidnapped, threatened, censored, or harassed.”

Asked about Chan’s statement, CPJ Board member and Columbia Journalism Review Chairman Victor Navasky said: “I have a different understanding of what happened at Bloomberg and disagree that Doctoroff ought to step down at the dinner. It’s inappropriate to call on him to step down.”

CPJ Board member David Schlesinger, the former Chairman of Thomson Reuters China and now a Hong Kong-based business consultant, said, “I think Bloomberg’s support of CPJ is absolutely important.” (Schlesinger is also a contributor to ChinaFile.) Journalist CPJ Board members who declined to comment on Chan’s call for Doctoroff to step down as CPJ’s host include Time Inc.’s Norman Pearlstine (who recently left his post as Bloomberg’s Chief Content Officer), Reuters Editor-in-Chief Stephen Adler, Associated Press Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll, Arianna Huffington, and Geraldine Fabrikant of The New York Times.

Chan, for her part, made a final suggestion about how CPJ should resolve the dinner controversy: “Maybe they should fly him [Forsythe] over there. He should be recognized for his efforts.”