WASHINGTON, D.C. - There were two empty chairs next to me Friday as I sat on a platform in the front of a meeting room at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
The seats were supposed to be occupied by Jonathan Karl and Martha Raddatz of ABC News as part of a panel discussion during the 2013 Walter Cronkite Awards for Excellence in Television Political Journalism.
Karl was to receive an award for outstanding coverage of the 2012 campaign by an individual from a national news organization. Raddatz was to be presented with a Special Commendation for Debate Moderation for her work in the vice-presidential debate. Again, it was for an individual at the national level.
I was there to receive a Special Commendation for Citizen Engagement for the Democracy 2012 series of candidate profiles I produced prior to the 2012 General Election. That was for individual achievement at the local level.
One hundred entries were received by the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Fifteen awards were presented.
The expectation that I would get a chance to meet the ABC network journalists and discuss their efforts during the lengthy campaign was something I found very exciting.
However, neither Karl nor Raddatz was there because of their involvement in covering the massive search for the suspect in the Boston area bombings and shootings.
Needless to say, I was a bit disappointed, but that's the news business. When stories break, the best laid plans have to be pushed aside. The Cronikite luncheon had been in the works for months. News of the day changed all that.
Still, political journalists, news directors and executives of news organizations from across America came to the nation's capitol to be recognized for their efforts in giving citizens accurate information to help them make informed decisions at the polls.
I had anticipated that the panel members would focus on that theme, but the events in Boston changed things. Instead, the first question from the moderator, Geneva Overholser, Director of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism, dealt with the role social media was having on the Boston manhunt.
There was no denying the impact as journalists and citizens stayed current via Twitter tweets and Facebook postings. However, concerns were raised about when information from those sources would be used.
Would it be checked and double-checked for accuracy? Would statements be vetted to make sure they contained fact rather than opinion? Would screening be done to make sure someone wasn't trying to drive an agenda?
The answer to all three was a resounding "yes." Social media is here to stay, for now, but must be used carefully.
Eventually, the discussion shifted toward political coverage and whether awards like the Cronkite were validation that voters need local and national coverage to help them cut through the clutter of negative political advertising.
Again, the answer was "yes."
Citizens need basic information now more than ever before. Candidate statements need to be run through reality checks to see if they're truthful, misleading or false.
I brought up the point that projects like WCPO-TV Democracy 2012 are vital, since voters don't always take enough time to study candidate positions before they cast their ballots. Or, they vote a straight party line.
Democracy 2012 consisted of 27 five-minute candidate profiles for the 6 p.m. news and a similar number for WCPO.com that ranged from 12 to 30 minutes in length.
Each segment featured citizens asking questions for candidates in 14 local, state and federal offices in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. A total of 135 people participated.
The questions were then put on tape and candidates had to answer them sight unseen from a television monitor when they came in for their interviews. The finished, edited segments were broadcast or put online.
The project began in 1998 with an idea from Frank Gardner, the former president of The E.W. Scripps Television Division. He noted that voters weren't registering to vote and if they did register, they weren't casting ballots.
So, he convinced former Scripps Chairman Bill Burleigh to begin a Democracy project where candidates for major offices would be given five minutes of free airtime during the evening news in the 30 days prior to the election.
Burleigh recalled that people thought the company was crazy to make such an offer -- that ratings would suffer and political advertising revenue would decline. Neither happened.
It was up to each station to figure out how to use those five minutes. The only guideline was that candidates could not supply any pre-recorded information for the segments.
I was given the task of producing those early pieces for the 2000 election. We did straight candidate interviews and they were not the best television.
By 2002, WCPO had hired Bob Morford as news director. He handed me a tape of what his staff at KNXV in Phoenix had done in 2000 and asked me to come up with my own variation.
citizen question format was the path I chose for 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2012. In those years, more than 750 people have been put on tape asking questions in 180 races.
That's a tremendous amount of work, but voters are the beneficiaries.
Anyhow, back to Washington, D.C.
When the luncheon and awards ceremony began, Karl and Raddatz were still not there. In fact, I'd been watching both of them on television in my hotel room before heading to the National Press Club.
As the program progressed, I marveled at the quality of the work shown on behalf of the award winners.
9News KUSA-TV in Denver and CNN won the Cronkite/Jackson prize for "Truth Tests" and "Reality Checks" respectively. The storytelling and graphics were superb.
KARE 11 in Minneapolis-St. Paul and WBNS-10TV in Columbus, Ohio won awards for their thorough coverage of all aspects of the campaign. KARE partnered with Minnesota Public Radio to produce fantastic pieces. WBNS worked with the Columbus Dispatch (both are owned by the same company) on a "Show You Care and Vote" bus tour plus an interactive voter guide.
In the Local Cable Station category, Northwest Cable News from Seattle won for its innovative work as did the combined forces of WJLA-TV, Politico and Newschannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area.
TVW of Olympia, Wash., the Washington State Public Affairs Network, won for "compelling, fair and very visual treatment" of campaign issues.
Local station group winners included Hearst Television and Belo Corporation.
BET and Univision won for National Network Programming. BET informed African-Americans and issued a call to action to voters. Univison provided insightful information for the Latino and Hispanic communities -- especially some very tough interviews with President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
The top prize for individual achievement at the local level went to Marshall Zelinger of KMGH-TV in Denver, one of the newer additions to The E.W. Scripps Company's television group. His "Truth Tracker" segments were excellent.
The award I received was next and I thanked Scripps; WCPO news directors Bob Morford and Lane Michaelsen; photographers Gary Hughes, Scott Wegener, Jon Atkinson and Larry Deal; my son, Mike; and my wife, Claudia.
I was thrilled to receive the trophy.
Jonathan Karl appeared out of nowhere to accept his award, make a few remarks and head back to the White House a few blocks away. Martha Raddatz' award was accepted by Karl's producers.
What an amazing event it was. What a privilege it was to be honored along with other outstanding broadcasters.
It just proves one point: There will always be room for quality political coverage that informs voters. The key is to engage them in the process, listen to what they're saying and hold candidates accountable.
I am excited about getting ready for the 2014 mid-term election and especially 2016 when President Obama won't be able to run again because of term limits.
Voters will get the best efforts of journalists across the nation.
You can watch a sample of Tom McKee's work from the Democracy 2012 in the media player below (Mobile and tablet users can view the YouTube video in a web browser version of this story or visit the following link: http://ow.ly/khtig )
Copyright 2013 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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