Bill Whitaker Accepts ICFJ Founders Award for Excellence in Journalism

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Good evening. First, congratulations to Anne Applebaum on her ICFJ Excellence in International Reporting Award. Every reporter among us is covering a world under authoritarian threat that Anne has been warning about for decades.

I have been a broadcast journalist for almost 40 years, just about all that time with CBS News. I’ve been reporting almost as long as Wolf Blitzer – not quite. Thank you, Wolf, for your generous words tonight about this cub reporter.

My job has taken me all over the world. I’ve been to 59 countries. I’ve been to every continent but Antarctica, and I still hope to get there. I’ve been to 49 of the 50 U.S. states. If there are any North Dakotans with us tonight...it’s nothing personal.

I’ve interviewed presidents, scientists, athletes, artists, movie stars. I’ve met the Pope. I saw the Space Shuttle Challenger explode just after liftoff. I watched the People’s Liberation Army crush the student pro-democracy movement that had sprung up in Tiananmen Square. I was there when Nelson Mandela took the oath of office as the first black president of South Africa, and almost twenty years later, I covered his funeral. I witnessed the tremendous devastation of Hurricane Katrina along the U.S. Gulf Coast, the earthquake in Haiti, the tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan.
 
I’ve seen a lot. But I’ve never seen a time quite like this. The worst pandemic in 100 years has taken nearly five million lives around the world. Liberal democracies around the globe are under assault from forces many of us thought had been laid to rest – though not Anne Applebaum. Disinformation - a tactic I saw the Chinese government employ powerfully as it cracked down on the Tiananmen protests - has made its way to the halls of American power, fueling a siege of the U.S. Capitol. Journalists are in the crosshairs in Mexico, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, the Philippines, and beyond. This past spring, the autocratic president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, scrambled MiGs to force an Irish commercial jet to land so he could arrest one passenger: Roman Protasevich, a journalist who had reported on the mass demonstrations against Lukashenko over what was truly a fraudulent election.
 
These are unsettling times. But I’m hopeful: because of reporters like Maria Ressa, a past ICFJ Knight International Journalism awardee. I went to the Philippines for 60 MINUTES and interviewed Maria. She runs an internet news site called Rappler, which turned a spotlight on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal “war on drugs.” The president has jailed his critics and leveled death threats at reporters. Maria Ressa is one of his main targets, arrested numerous times. Rappler has faced repeated criminal charges, which threaten to close the site down. But Maria refuses to be silenced. I asked her what is the source of her courage. She told me she has truth on her side. It’s her sword and her shield in the midst of threats and chaos.
 

I’m hopeful because of this year’s Knight International Journalism awardees, Natália Leal, who pioneered using the internet to combat disinformation about covid in Brazil, and Pavla Holcová, whose intrepid investigative reporting from the Czech Republic has exposed criminals in governments across borders. Like Maria, they refuse to be silenced.
 
Why did Belarusian President Lukashenko commit a state-sponsored skyjacking to remove a journalist from a plane? Because good journalists provide honest, factual information, and truth is like kryptonite to autocrats and criminals cloaked in power. The truth is far mightier than any MiG. And when I see so many journalists who can’t be bullied, won’t bow, and fearlessly keep delivering the truth to the public, I am resolutely hopeful.
 
It’s an honor to share a profession with the corps of the International Center for Journalists, let alone to receive the Founders Award. Thank you to ICFJ – and to all of you. 

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