I always look forward to the International Press Freedom Awards dinner held by the Committee to Protect Journalists. The black-tie fundraiser — which has for years taken place the Tuesday before Thanksgiving at the Waldorf-Astoria — honors journalists from around the world who risk their lives to report from war zones and in defiance of brutal regimes. It also raises money for CPJ’s activities: denouncing anti-press violations, providing assistance to targeted journalists, and advocating for press freedom worldwide.
Every year, dinner guests learn about journalists who have been threatened, beaten, bombed, jailed, killed while reporting from a danger zone, or deliberately assassinated. It’s enormously upsetting to see what these people endure, yet there’s a feeling of hopefulness: We know CPJ is helping journalists stay safe while fighting for free speech in countries where there’s nothing like our First Amendment.
This year’s awardees were:
- Óscar Martínez of El Salvador. El Salvador is the country with the highest murder rate in the world. Martínez has been threatened because of his coverage of gang violence and extrajudicial killings.
- Can Dündar, the editor-in-chief of the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet. He is appealing a prison sentence of more than five years on charges of revealing state secrets.
- Malini Subramaniam, is a freelance reporter from India. Because of her stories on human rights abuses, she has been harassed and threatened to the point where she needed to leave her home state this year.
- The freelance photographer known as Shawkan — real name Mahmoud Abou Zeid — who has been in an Egyptian prison since his August 2013 arrest while covering a protest in Cairo.
I never dreamed I would ever go to this event, as I did this November, knowing that our own press freedom — here, in the U.S. — was under attack, as it is now by Donald Trump and his cronies.
Adding to my unease was the fact that the dinner came the day after television-network executives and news anchors had an off-the-record meeting with Trump, even though the president-elect hadn’t held a press conference since July. (Trump started that press conference by criticizing Hillary Clinton for not holding press conferences. During the Q&A, he lied many times, including about his relationship with Putin. He then openly invited Russia to interfere with U.S. politics. His exact words: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”)
The dinner chairman, CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker, was one of the executives who attended the off-the-record meeting. Awkward, but that’s far from the worst of his interactions with Trump. (He was not working at CNN when I was employed there in the 1990s.) In fact, it was Zucker who helped turn Trump into a reality-TV star by putting him and The Apprentice on the air when Zucker was the head of NBC Entertainment. “Ten years later, it was Zucker, now the head of CNN, who gave Trump astonishing amounts of free exposure in the Republican presidential primary on the cable network, continually blasting out his speeches and rallies — often unfiltered and without critical fact-checking,” wrote Margaret Sullivan in the Washington Post this October. Zucker even hired former Donald Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski — who couldn’t have had a more obvious agenda, especially because he was still being paid by Trump — as an on-air commentator. Zucker described the effect on CNN’s ratings in glowing terms in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter in October:
“This is the best year in the history of cable news … for everybody. We’ve all benefited. Within that best year ever, I think CNN has outshined everybody by taking a significant share of the audience. In terms of demos, CNN is closer to Fox than we’ve been at any point in 15 years, and we have a bigger lead over MSNBC than we’ve had in the last 13 years. It gives you a real sense of what a fantastic year it’s been.”
It’s a good thing that Zucker was so thrilled with his ratings, because he can’t expect any gratitude from Trump. The New York Post claimed that Trump used the meeting with the TV bigwigs to call the media “dishonest.” One of the networks he singled out by name? CNN, according to the the Post and Politico.
When Zucker took the stage the following evening to give his short CPJ speech, I was reminded of a scene in Gone With the Wind. It’s the one where Rhett Butler yanks Scarlett out of bed, forces her into her most outrageous dress, and sends her alone to a birthday party for Ashley Wilkes — a party where every guest knows that Scarlett and Ashley had been caught in a scandalous embrace.
Knowing them as I do, I’m sure the organizers of the CPJ fundraiser were every bit as gracious to Zucker as Melanie Wilkes was to Scarlett in the movie. (Treacherous Scarlett, of course, actually did have designs on Melanie’s husband.) At the press freedom awards, there was a little bit of laughter during Zucker’s remarks, which included “I want to use this occasion to reiterate what I said directly to the president elect yesterday. As the new leader of the free world, we expect that he will preserve longstanding traditions that ensure coverage of his presidency.” (Not long after the CPJ event, Harvard-graduate Zucker was heckled at the Harvard’s Institute of Politics’ Campaign Managers Conference. Todd Harris, a top adviser for Republican presidential contender Marco Rubio, shouted, “You showed hours upon hours of unfiltered, unscrutinized coverage of Trump!”)
Fortunately, the best of CNN was also represented at the press freedom awards: Christiane Amanpour, chief international correspondent and anchor, received the Burton Benjamin Memorial Award for “extraordinary and sustained achievement in the cause of press freedom.” As CPJ’s website notes, “Amanpour has consistently defended the rights of journalists all over the world.” (MrB received this award two years ago.) She immediately addressed the elephant in the room by saying:
“I never in a million years thought I would be standing up here on stage, after all the times I participated in this ceremony, appealing, really, for the freedom and safety of American journalists at home.”
She pointed out the behavior common to authoritarians all over the world:
“And as all the international journalists in this room who we honor tonight know only too well, and who we honor every single year: first the media is accused of inciting, then sympathizing, then associating–and then suddenly they find themselves accused of being full-fledged terrorists and subversives. And then, they end up in handcuffs, in cages, in kangaroo courts, in prisons–and then who knows what?”
Amanpour urged her colleagues in the press to pursue the truth, not an untruthful “balance.” She said:
“I learned a long, long time ago, when I was covering genocide and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, never to equate victim and aggressor, never to create a false moral or factual equivalence, because then, if you do, particularly in situations like that, you are party and accomplice to the most unspeakable crimes and consequences, so I believe in being truthful, not neutral.”
David Remnick of the New Yorker was the host for the evening. (His story on Trump’s behavior to the press came out the same day.) He paid tribute to the esteemed political journalist Gwen Ifill, who died of cancer just a week before she was due to serve as host herself.
Between the loss of Ifill and the potential loss of freedom, I initially felt less than enthused for my usual “What Wendy Wore” portion of a CPJ post. Then I re-read Amanpour’s prepared remarks and cheered up. I love this part:
“And let me hit back at this elitist backlash we’re all bending over backwards to accommodate.
Since when were American values elitist values? They are not left or right values. They are not rich or poor values, not the forgotten-man values.
Like many foreigners I have learned they are universal. They are the values of every American from the humblest to the most exalted. They form the very fundamental foundation of the United States and are the basis of America’s global leadership. They are brand America. They are America’s greatest export and gift to the world.”
So here goes! The butt bow on this vintage Guy Laroche was a recurring theme when I first started blogging in 2007. To this day, longtime readers message me when they find a good butt-bow dress! I had worn it to the Vanity Fair Oscar party earlier in 2007.
I hadn’t worn this dress since that night, so I was determined to take it for a spin around the block. My gorgeous friend Stacy somehow stuffed me into the corset top and all I had to do after that was not breathe the whole night! Comfy!
Here’s the front view.
What Wendy Wore
Butt-bow dress: Vintage Guy Laroche (acquired in 2007 from Decades)
Bow clutch: Susan Farber (probably pre-2007 and pre-blog)
I can’t remember what shoes I was wearing under all that polka-dotted tulle. I think they were the Prada shoes I got in 2010 that I wear frequently. I did try to do a more ambitious shoe but when I attempted to bend over to put it on … I couldn’t bend. I had to go with a shoe I could slide into. I generally don’t recommend uncomfortable fashion, but sometimes the right butt bow demands it.