‘It means so much’: Poynter’s Bowtie Ball honors Lester Holt, Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

December 10, 2018

As the news industry wraps up a tumultuous year — one characterized by misinformation campaigns, attacks on press freedom and increased violence toward journalists — Poynter paused to celebrate journalism’s essential place in a democracy at its annual Bowtie Ball.

Close to 600 people attended Poynter’s fourth annual fundraising gala on Saturday, Dec. 8, at the Tradewinds Resort in St. Pete Beach, Florida. Honored guests included “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt and The New York Times Company chairman and former publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.

“Today there is a respected broadcast journalist whose honest reporting and gracious style seem to answer our longing for a trusted source for news. That voice, the voice we trust, is Lester Holt,” said Poynter President Neil Brown in presenting the Poynter medal to the NBC anchorman.

Holt, the anchor of the most-watched evening newscast in America, received the Poynter Medal for Lifetime Achievement. The award recognizes the outstanding career achievements of a journalist whose work has made a lasting impact serving citizens in our democracy. Previous recipients include Judy Woodruff, Tom Brokaw and Bob Schieffer.

“It means so much that an organization like this that is so committed to journalism — to be acknowledged by an organization like that,” Holt said. “We are all in this together, and it’s important that we create that bond with the audience, that they are partners in making us better journalists.”

After being honored, “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt played stand-up bass with the evening’s band, Orquesta Infinidad, covering “Oye Como Va” and “Jingle Bells.” (Photo by Chris Zuppa)

Sulzberger received the Distinguished Service to Journalism Award.

“Throughout their distinguished careers Arthur Sulzberger and Lester Holt have demonstrated values that guided Nelson Poynter — the power of independent journalism to help citizens fully participate in our democracy,”  Brown said.

This award is bestowed upon an individual who has championed the goals and craft of journalism through actionable efforts or meritorious service. Previous recipients include former Wall Street Journal editor and founder of ProPublica Paul Steiger, the late philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, and former publisher of The Philadelphia Inquirer Brian Tierney.

From left, Poynter president Neil Brown, The New York Times Company chairman Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. and Paul C. Tash, chairman and CEO of the Tampa Bay Times and Times Publishing Company and chairman of the Poynter Institute’s Board of Trustees. (Photo by Chris Zuppa)

“What we have really doubled down on is having our journalists out in parts of the country that are not normally covered, trying to get the stories out to better understand what’s happening in America and how it’s affecting the people who in many cases don’t read the New York Times at all,” Sulzberger said. “It’s about being more open, being willing to hear their stories and report their stories, and then use social media and other technologies to better engage with our readers and to answer questions and be more open about how we are committing to our journalism.”

Throughout the evening, trust in local news was a key theme.

Because Holt joined NBC News after nearly 20 years of working in local TV news in Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles, Kelly McBride, senior vice president at Poynter, asked him how he translates his local news roots to his national platform.

As the anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” Holt prioritizes field reporting and interviewing Americans most impacted by the news of the day. His grounded and down-to-earth nature earns him the trust of his viewers; Holt is the most trusted television news personality in America, according to a November poll from Hollywood Reporter/Morning Consult.

While leadership, local news sustainability, ethics and diversity have always been part of the conversation around excellence in journalism, a newer topic demanded attention during the Bowtie Ball: misinformation.

It’s Merriam Webster Dictionary’s word of the year, and it featured heavily in conversations about the major challenges facing journalists next year.

In January, Poynter acquired PolitiFact, the nation’s largest political fact-checking news organization, from the Tampa Bay Times. In March, Poynter launched a digital information literacy project called MediaWise aimed at helping more than one million American teenagers tell fact from fiction online. These two enterprises joined the International Fact-Checking Network, the world’s top resource, convener and thought leader for fact-checkers, which has been headquartered at Poynter since 2015.

The Bowtie Ball is Poynter’s largest fundraising event, which helps ensure Poynter can continue to grow in its teaching and fact-checking efforts in 2019.

This event was made possible through the generosity of more than 35 partners and sponsors, including Hearst, Valence Media, Red Apple Group, Brian Communications, Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation, NBC News, New York Times and Cision.

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