2006 Awards – Hodding Carter

International Press Freedom Awards

Burton Benjamin Memorial Award
Hodding Carter III


As newspaper editor, television journalist, foundation executive, and teacher, Hodding Carter III has had a distinguished and diverse career spanning more than four decades. Carter started working at his family’s newspaper, the Greenville, Miss.-based daily, Delta Democrat-Times, in 1959 and went on to spend almost 18 years as a reporter, award-winning editorial writer, editor, and associate publisher for the paper. His father, Hodding Carter Jr., founded the paper in 1936 and won a Pulitzer Prize for editorials on racial and religious tolerance in 1946.

A Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 1955-56, Carter worked on the presidential campaigns of Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter. He served as spokesman for the State Department and as assistant secretary of state for public affairs in the Carter administration from 1977 to 1980. He went on to a successful television career as reporter, anchor, and panelist for public affairs television programs, including “This Week with David Brinkley.”

Carter was named Knight professor of public affairs journalism at the University of Maryland in 1994, leaving four years later to become president and chief executive officer of the Knight Foundation. His dynamic tenure at the Knight Foundation included vital support for local journalists in developing countries and for journalists at risk. Carter stepped down in 2005 and joined the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he is university professor of leadership and public policy.

Hodding Carter’s acceptance speech

Let me put it directly. Bud Benjamin was a great journalist and a fine man. The Committee to Protect Journalists does noble work around the world. And so I am warmed, I am not actually humbled but I’m sure flattered by this award.

Just as that happens to be the unadorned truth, so, too, is the fact that the brave people we honor here living and dead make real the words about press freedom we spout so smoothly on ritual occasions in this country when we journalists gather. Their blood, their guts, their endurance, their consistency, fortitude, all of these should free us of the fear of the grand old clichés of our business, because they remind us that those clichés are words and phrases that arise from a hard-won history.

And now I’m going off my text for a minute. I walked around here a couple of times tonight, as we do on these occasions, and I saw a number of old friends, and I talked to Gene Roberts this afternoon, and I was reminded that the history is not that far distant, the days in which terror and blood and guts and consistency were required of the people who went about their business in this country bringing what was our beliefs about truth to a larger audience.

For the record, because I was both terrified and full of ex-Marine machismo, I carried a gun from 1959 to 1964 on my person and in my car and in my office because I was, in fact, terrified. And one of the great realities about American journalism today is that the fear is absolutely gone. There is no such thing that faces us, at all.

That said, it seems to me clear that most things we profess here where we are planted are more real if, in fact, they seem to transmit the message where we are planted rather than to the unchurched who live elsewhere.

Yet when it comes to the here and now, too many in traditional American media seem to have become curiously passive about growing government encroachment on freedom of speech and assembly in our own land.

How many bother to do more than note in passing that an antiwar activist has been hustled out of the public gallery as the president begins to speak, or that lawful assemblies of dissidents are suddenly broken up with massive police force, or that hecklers are clubbed to the ground and given the bum’s rush to make sure they do not interfere with a pretty television shot?

It is a rare day when a news organization connects the dots and offers a comprehensive look at what is happening from county seats to Washington at what has been happening to the constitutional right to assemble peaceably and present grievances. It is even rarer when great news organizations campaign over time against what at least appears to be a premeditated organized rollback of basic rights.

To come closer to the bone, major organizations in the wake of 9/11 stood aside for reasons which some within them have admitted had more to do with their interests in legislation pending about the possibility of further combinations than about the necessity of a free people. Therefore there was no organized sustained protest in the face of the legislation furiously passed under homeland security and patriotism, which cut deeply into the rights that we profess to support.

Just as a reminder, while I spent 47 years as a journalist, I have been in and out of politics and public life for 42 years. So wearing my government hat, let me underscore the obvious. When media reaction ranges from sporadic to tepid as government steadily narrows the public sphere available for the exercise of First Amendment rights, government gets the message: All you care about is yourself. And the public, of course, gets the same message.

And that’s the point. We honor and support the bravery of our colleagues abroad in part because we know that freedom is indivisible. It is no less indivisible here at home. The assault that has been launched on the Bill of Rights is all-out. The time is overdue for an across-the-board counterattack.

Unlike the case of those we honor, such a stand would not cost anyone a life. It might cost you an invitation to a high level discourse in Washington. It would, however, give meaningful life to those great old clichés that brought most of us into this business in the first place. There was a wonderful sign that was carried by the rightists in El Salvador in the middle 1980’s for the visiting press to see; “Journalist tell the truth.” It is still a great sign for us to honor. Thank you.