The Media Institute's annual awards banquet was the scene of more than a few good natured jibes among Washington power players as the Washington-based think tank honored AMC president Josh Sapan (Freedom of Speech award) and National Association of Broadcasters president Gordon Smith (American Horizon award).
The theme of the night was honoring the First Amendment and free speech, with the speakers celebrating that right with a number of well aimed and mostly well-timed zingers mixed in with praise for defending free speech.
Acting FCC chairwoman Mignon Clyburn, who gave the keynote speech, praised broadcasting and broadband, though more the latter than the former.
She drew one of the loudest laughs of the night with a reference to the hold put on the nomination of her expected replacement, Tom Wheeler.
Clyburn called Gordon Smith a "great advocate for the nation's vital broadcasting industry." She said that while they might not always find themselves on the same side of issues, he said working with him was "always a pleasure." Brian Lamb was there to present the award to Sapan and Clyburn said that he may be the only person in Washington with bipartisan support.
"Finally," she said, "I want to acknowledge the one person without whom I could not be here tonight as FCC chairman: Thank you, Senator Cruz!" Cruz was the one who put the hold on Wheeler.
Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the House Communications Subcommittee, was there to present the award to fellow Oregonian Smith. Clyburn chided Walden for "peppering" her with questions at an oversight hearing. When it was Walden's turn on the dais, he shot back after poking some fun first at his colleagues on the Hill.
Citing AMC hits Walking Dead, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, Walden quipped that they "actually sound like C-SPAN's coverage of Congress.
Turning to Clyburn he said: "We'll have another hearing," though he said until her remarks he really hadn't planned to. "I've got the team here to write the letter," he said, to collect data and issue subpoenas, he joked.
Walden, himself a former broadcaster, said the Media Institute did really important work. As a graduate of the University of Oregon School of journalism he said he was a big fan of freedom of speech and the First Amendment.
On another serious note, Walden said that both he and Smith were Eagle Scouts, and he said when he thought about Smith and broadcasting he was reminded of the scout adage about leaving a camp ground "a little better than they found it.
And certainly that's true of Gordon Smith when it comes to his work, and his role and his vision at NAB." He praised Smith's advocacy for including radio receivers in mobile devices and mobile DTV.
Smith, a former Senator from Oregon who was defeated in 2008, was not above poking fun at himself. He said that he was in Portland, Ore., recently and it was "the first time in 20 years that everyone who waived at me used all their fingers." He also said Clyburn had done a "fabulous job," and added: "go Ted Cruz," adding that it was nothing personal" against wheeler, who he said he has not met.
Smith spoke briefly about having taken broadcasting for granted when he was a Senator. He said he would listen the to the news and weather and traffic every morning as he shaved before going to work in the Senate--he said his favorite was Channel 4 (NBC's WRC-TV)--but that he took if for granted, adding that most Americans had the "privilege of taking it for granted." But as head of the NAB, he gained a new appreciation for broadcasters, and that today he watches with
some emotion knowing that many broadcasters are putting themselves in harm's way to cover storms and shootings and more.
Sapan used some of his speech to praise C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb, who had introduced him. He called C-SPAN a "breathtaking media construct that makes Democracy transparent and freedom of speech resilient." He also gave a shout out to the annual White House correspondents Association Dinner, which C-SPAN covers, calling it "free speech on steroids."
"He doesn't look like your average rock star," said Sapan of Lamb, "but he is."
Sapan appeared to be genuinely pleased by his Free Speech award, and to be in the company of some Washington luminaries, like Smith and emcee Dick Wiley, former FCC chairman. He also had some nice things to say about the work of the Media Institute and its president, Patrick Maines, thanking Maines for an op ed he wrote recently in defense of Breaking Bad.
Sapan said, with shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Walking Dead and others on his and competing networks, this is "a great moment" for TV. He said it was a time when "the quality and originality of storytelling and the craft associated with it is really quite wonderful." He said that the industry "continues to seek new ways to make shows more compelling," and that it continues to "lean on" the First Amendment. He said his mom, who was born in Poland, would often remind him that freedom of speech could never be taken for granted.