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Roger Ailes Reminds the RTNDA that the First Amendment, Like Freedom, Isn't Free

Written By mista sense on Thursday, March 8, 2007 | 8:05 PM

The annual award dinner of the Radio Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) is normally a high-minded but staid affair, full of self-congratulation, that gets duller and drowzier as the evening wears on.

But not on Thursday, according to Cable Game sources who were there at the black-tie ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Washington DC's West End section. Tonight, there was also emotion and passion--people kept awake, because Roger Ailes woke 'em up.

Yes, there was some self-congratulation, in the form of an award to Phil Balboni, the founder of New England Cable News Network. He seemed like a nice enough guy, and for those who wanted to know where he went to college, the names of his children, and what he had for breakfast that day. Balboni was King for a Day, or at least Honoree for the Evening, and he and his minions, including NECN alumnae Martha Raddatz and Julianne Malveaux, made the most of it for him at the podium. Happily, the resume-reading award to Balboni filled up the evening's quota of self-congratulation.

Next for the evening was emotion, in the form of Kimberly Dozier of CBS and Bob Woodruff of ABC, both of whom were terribly wounded in Iraq, and both of whom have made remarkable recoveries. The two are brave journalists, and they deserved the warm intros they received from Bob Schieffer and George Stephanopoulos, respectively, as well as repeated standing ovations they received from the 1000 or so media machers in the audience. Dozier's legs were badly banged up, which probably explains the long dress she wore. Woodruff was more seriously hurt in the head, he nearly died, in fact. And one can see that he his still-handsome face has scars and that he has a slightly halting delivery. Still, he's lucky, of course, and he is the first to say that he owes the fact that he is alive at all to Fate and to the medical care of the US military as well as private providers back home. (Yet human nature is still human nature: There was a strange and perhaps revealing moment when Stephanopoulos, knowing full well that everyone, including TV cameras were watching, made a sort of quip to Woodruff reminding him to "stop hitting on my wife." Who knows what the full story there is, but one imagines that all gossip will eventually float to the top!)

OK, back to serious stuff. There was nothing gossipy about Roger Ailes, who won the coveted First Amendment Award of the RTNDA. First off, Ailes was intro'd by Fox News' Steve Centanni, who reminded the audience that he and Olaf Wiig, his cameraman, probably wouldn't be alive today were it not for the efforts of Ailes and Rupert Murdoch, who worked tirelessly to save Steve's and Olaf's lives after they was kidnaped by Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip last summer.

And so soon Ailes himself spoke. He started out light, telling jokes about Britney Spears, George W. Bush, France, and Hillary & Bill Clinton.

Then he got serious.

Alluding to the decision of former Sen. John Edwards to back out of a Fox News-sponsored debate among Democrats in Nevada--but not mentioning Edwards by name--Ailes made a larger point about the First Amendment: "If you are afraid of journalists, how will you face other situations?" Pow! Would a hypothetical President Edwards "blacklist," Ailes asked, a news organization?

And then Ailes made a good electoral point: "Those who can't answer questions run the risk of losing votes." Indeed, one would assume that if Edwards does manage to win the Democratic nomination, he will need to win some red states--by definition he will, lest he repeat John Kerry's losing performance in '04. And yet instead, Edwards has, in Ailes' telling, "bowed down to pressure groups." What sort of President could he be then? Could he really be credible as the President of all the people?

Ailes closed in a way that nobody was expecting--at least nobody who doesn't know Ailes was expecting. He said, "Freedom of the press did not invent democracy, democracy invented freedom of the press." That's a crucial distinction, the point being that a free press, and free speech in general, are artifacts of the power of a country to protect its borders, and thereby protect the rule of law, due process, and all the other rights that we rightly celebrate.

And then Ailes said that true freedom, true freedom of the press, includes the right to think for oneself, and thus the right to see a diverse range of points of view in the media. That, of course, has been Fox's great strength, its secret weapon against the MSM-monopoly. As Ailes put it, "Diversity isn't just gender or skin color, it's also diversity of thought." And he warned, "One way to cause a newsroom to implode" is to let everyone have the same idea, and thus make the same mistake. That's where diversity of opinion, like biodiversity, can be vital.

Finally Ailes, said, "Freedom will be protected as long as there is an America." Period. And then he sat down, leaving the crowd to think about how long freedom would last without America--and not just the ACLU, but the 82nd Airborne.

Everyone applauded, and not just at the Fox tables, which included Brit Hume, Brian Wilson, Catherine Herridge, John Scott, and Bill O'Reilly. But only time--and, of course, the blogosphere--will tell whether or not Ailes' deep message got across to its target audience, in the room, and in the country as a whole.

Freedom of the press doesn't come just from the ACLU, or even the RTNDA and other watchdog and advocacy groups. It comes from a strong America, confident about its work at home, and its mission in the world. That's the true source of freedom, as well as free speech, and it was dyn-o-mite that Ailes reminded everyone in DC of that reality.

UPDATE: Here's most of Ailes' speech on YouTube.

And here's the tribute video to RA.

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