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Anchors Comic And Serious Win Peabodys

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 17, 2005

NEW YORK, May 16 -- Two newsmen -- one fake, the other recently evacuated from his anchor chair in the wake of scandal -- were among those honored Monday at the 64th annual Peabody Awards. Jon Stewart and Dan Rather each took home one of the electronic media's most coveted prizes, along with 30 other winners in radio and television from around the world.

"The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" won for its coverage of the 2004 elections, which the Peabody judges said "provided the kind of cathartic satire that deflates pomposity on an equal-opportunity basis." When he took the Waldorf-Astoria podium to accept the award, Stewart opened with a potshot at the food that doubled as a potshot at culture critics.

The chicken with the noodles, he said, "shows a distinct liberal bias. I hope that next year the group will consider veal medallions and succotash, which I feel are more reflective of the traditional values of our country."

Dan Rather earned his Peabody for a "60 Minutes II" report about prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, which "aired for the first time the photographs of American soldiers and abused Iraqi prisoners that shocked the world," in the words of the judges.

For Rather, the prize comes in the wake of the highly public debacle surrounding a story he reported about President Bush's stint in the Air National Guard, also for "60 Minutes II." That segment, which was eventually discredited, led to his premature retirement from the anchor spot on the "CBS Evening News" and to the firing of Mary Mapes, who produced the story. Mapes, as it happens, also produced the Abu Ghraib piece, and Monday she stood behind Rather as he thanked his colleagues for their diligence and then got downright Churchillian.

"In their name and on their behalf," he said of his staff, "I accept this award and join them in hoping this recognition will further inspire us and others to never give up, never back down, never give in while pursuing the dream of doing integrity-filled journalism that matters."

The Peabody Awards ceremony doesn't have anything close to the red-carpet glitz and name recognition of the Emmys, but it has enormous cachet among those in the news business. The awards were first given in 1941, before most people imagined it possible to send moving pictures through the air. It also has a quirky sensibility about the programs it honors. "Friends" need not apply, but it's more fun than C-SPAN. Winners are selected by an advisory panel made up of critics, academics and others, and there are no set categories, nor is there any set number of winners, nor is it limited to American television or shows broadcast nationally. If judges like the show, they can give it a Peabody Award, which, for the record, looks a lot like a fancy paperweight.

"I like it because you can hollow out the base and fill it with chocolate," Stewart said during an interview after lunch. This is the second Peabody for "The Daily Show," and this one he called "a bit of a letdown." He was kidding. Though he seemed serious when he said that when the show won the first time, for programs that aired in 2000, he'd never heard of the Peabody before.

A total of 32 prizes were awarded Monday. Other winners included the WNYC radio show "On the Media," a Wisconsin Public Radio program called "To the Best of Our Knowledge," a BBC Television news show called "The Darfur Crisis," a report about Chesapeake Bay pollution by Baltimore TV station WBAL, and a South African children's show called "Takalani Sesame Presents 'Talk to Me.' " A documentary for the History Channel called "Rwanda -- Do Scars Ever Fade?" was praised for addressing "the question of how an entire nation and culture can recover from the terrors of its past." The HBO Wild West series "Deadwood" earned a Peabody for twisting the "conventions of the Western into an excruciating knot of history and imagined events."

The shows range so broadly that it's hard to see much pattern to what catches the judges' eyes. The director of the awards, Horace Newcomb, said that the Peabodys have no agenda other than awarding excellence. The prize collected by Rather, he added, wasn't in any way intended as a jab at his critics or a defense of the man. It simply honored a great piece of journalism, he said.

Asked after the ceremony what he thought this prize might mean for his legacy, Rather demurred: "I don't have a legacy. I work in news, I work in television. If in any small infinitesimal way I have inspired others to try to do good journalism, then that's good. But a legacy is for people who find a cure for cancer or for polio, not for people who do television and news."

Was he glad to ease back on his responsibilities now that he's part of a weekly instead of a daily show? Nope.

"When it comes to news, I don't know the phrase 'ease back,' " he said, looking dead serious. "That's not in my vocabulary."

"I'm just glad to see Dan Rather in a suit," quipped Stewart during his post-award chat with reporters. "When you see that guy on the beach in a safari shirt, you know the invasion is imminent."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company