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Frontline producers ponder Murrow legacy

PULLMAN – The Edward R. Murrow Award for “distinguished achievement displaying journalistic integrity and courage” was awarded to the PBS news program Frontline and its executive producer David Fanning at the 33rd Murrow Symposium at Washington State University last night.

In his introduction of Fanning at the symposium, WSU President V. Lane Rawlins told the crowd that as he considered this year’s awards to “Frontline” and Fanning he came to the conclusion that these choices were perfectly aligned with the Murrow legacy and the intent of the symposium.

Established by the Edward R. Murrow School of Communication as a public forum for communication issues of the day, the symposium honors Edward R. Murrow, a WSU graduate who is credited with being a courageous broadcast journalist who set the standard of excellence for broadcast excellence.

Fanning began the development of “Frontline” in 1982 and has been the program’s executive producer since the first season. “Frontline” has won every broadcasting honor including the prestigious Peabody Award and 32 Emmys.

“I am deeply humbled to be here,” Fanning told the crowd. He said he felt as though he was really just a stand-in for the hundreds of journalists who built “Frontline” over its 25 years on television.

Fanning told the crowd that he did not attend journalism school. Raised in South Africa during difficult political times, he said he discovered television news reporting as a foreign exchange student. “I loved reporting – the words, the pictures, the headlines. Mostly I learned the value of ideas and the expression of them.”

“Journalism,” said Fanning to the crowd, “gave me a license to be curious.”

While in his 20s, Fanning did some work for the BBC before he moved to Southern California and began working for no pay at the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). He was eventually put on the payroll and years later was offered a position at WGBH-TV, the PBS station in Boston. Fanning says WGBH is where he discovered a “culture of inquiry.”

“No one in the history of ‘Frontline’ has intervened in editorial content,” he said.

Fanning acknowledged his concern for the future of in-depth, balanced documentary filmmaking. “My dream would be funding from a trust fund, perhaps established from the sale of additional channels created by the conversion to digital broadcasting,” Fanning told the crowd.

At the conclusion of his address Fanning received a standing ovation and was joined for a question and answer session by “Frontline” producer and documentary filmmaker Michael Kirk, a graduate of the University of Idaho.

One student wanted to know about objectivity and how “Frontline” producers maintain it. “I don’t think you can be objective,” Fanning said. “I think you can be fair. Fairness is the test.” (To listen to the presentation streamed, go to http://experience.wsu.edu/NewSite/Index.aspx)

Kirk told the crowd that over the years he has often told interview subjects, especially those who were reluctant to speak to him, that he would watch the broadcast with them and if they didn’t think his work was fair they could punch him in the nose. He said he believes Jack Kevorkian, the so-called “suicide doctor,” might have done him harm had they been in the same room instead of on the phone during the broadcast.

“Objectivity?” Kirk pondered. “I don’t know what that is. I think it means we won’t put our thumb on the scale.”

The tradition of the Murrow Award began in 1997 with the presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Award to ABC news correspondent Sam Donaldson. Other Murrow awardees include Walter Cronkite, Frank Blethen, Keith Jackson, Al Neuharth, Ted Turner, Bernard Shaw, Daniel Schorr, Christiane Amanpour, Sir Howard Stringer, the late Daniel Pearl, the late Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw.

The award ceremony capped a day of workshops in which working communication professionals, many of whom are WSU graduates, met face-to-face with students from various schools including WSU, the University of Idaho and dozens of regional high schools.

The Murrow School announced scholarship winners at a banquet earlier in the evening. Winners of the high school journalism competition were also announced.

For more information:

Presentation streamed online at

* http://experience.wsu.edu/NewSite/Index.aspx

* http://murrow.wsu.edu/

* http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/

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