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.