It’s Called Journalism, Not Entertainment: The Dupont-Columbia Awards Ceremony Gets Serious

baton_long_transparent_2Last night, we braved the frigid temperatures and took the 1 train all the way to Columbia University’s Low Library for the Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia Awards ceremony, one of the top prizes for broadcast and digital news.

We asked J-School dean Nicholas Lemann if the ceremony was comparable to the Emmys for journalism.

“The Emmys are a crock,” the soon-to-depart dean said, explaining that there are over 300 television awards given but only 14 DuPont awards, and so the journalism awards are much more prestigious. 

The cocktail hour leading up to the ceremony, in the library’s faculty room, featured tables with Asian and Mediterranean food. Old-guard broadcast reporters deftly tried to balance plates filled with sushi and ravioli with their drinks while catching up. Tall blond women who looked like (and were) tv news anchors mingled with journalists who looked like they spent more time behind the scenes.

“This is what happens when you hang out in this business too long,” we overheard one old-timer say as he tried—as failed—to extract himself from a conversation.

The lights dimmed. It was time for the ceremony.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the Fourth Estate, please take your seats,” a voice over the loud-speaker instructed. “Untether yourself from current news.” There was an audible rustle as guests searched through bags and pockets to silence their phones.

Mr. Lemann, whose decade-long tenure as dean ends this spring, took to the stage and directed those who were inclined to tweet to do so using the hashtag  #duPont2013. The instructions were at odds with the previous announcement, an inconsistency that Mr. Lemann noted, before introducing hosts Christiane Amanpour and Byron Pitts.

Ms. Amanpour opened the ceremony by invoking Hurricane Sandy, the shooting at Newtown and the 31 journalists who were killed while on assignment during the past year. The hosts introduced clips from the award-winning pieces, which were no less somber.

“How awesome to get an award from Christiane Amanpour?” Lee Hirsch, the director of Bully, a documentary about the epidemic of bullying in schools, rhetorically asked before noting the gravity of the problem and introducing a family featured in the film whose son had committed suicide as a result of incessant bullying.

From Bully to a Frontline story about underage girls in Afghanistan who are forced to become brides to pay off opium debts, to two pieces (one from NPR and one from CBS Evening News) about the fighting in Syria, to a piece from Current TV’s Vanguard series about the ease with which the Mexican drug cartel buys guns on the US side of the border, to stories about local corruption and the health effects of fracking…well, it was a heavy evening, to say the least.

“They should have an award for humor,” we heard someone whisper. “Just to lighten things up.”

The only light note was early on during a clip from a documentary about Ai Wei Wei when the dissident artist told his state police minders that he was going to finish his dinner before leaving a sidewalk restaurant. And that wasn’t really funny at all.

We left the nearly three-hour ceremony feeling inspired by all the journalistic excellence on display. And a bit depressed about the state of the world.

It’s Called Journalism, Not Entertainment: The Dupont-Columbia Awards Ceremony Gets Serious