The Washington Press Club Foundation presents the Lifetime Achievement Award every year at the Congressional Dinner. This award recognizes an individual whose outstanding accomplishments promote the journalistic profession and enhance the role of women journalists.
The board of directors of the Washington Press Club Foundation is pleased to announce that award-winning journalist Robin Sproul has been selected to receive its 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award. The award will be presented at the 74th Annual Congressional Dinner.
Click here to watch her acceptance speech, the transcript pasted below:
"Well, I’m overwhelmed, and humbled. Thank you so much, Washington Press Club Foundation, for all you do, and for letting a magazine writer in on your activities. Also, I don’t know where he is, Michael Watts, for making that wonderful film: he came to my house and rummaged through my life, and somehow put it together; he’s an artist.
When Lizzy Brenner was growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, she got the inchoate feeling after a while that she didn’t really want to live her mother’s life of playing Canasta and Mah Jong. But our options were very few: we could become a nurse or a teacher, that was it. Well, it didn’t quite work out that way. When I was graduating from college our college jobs advisor brought in “career women” – for those of us who weren’t desperate to get married the next day – she was going to give us inspiration on the jobs we might hold. One of them was taking complaints for the telephone company. That didn’t seem too exciting. Of my college class, nobody went to law school, they were just beginning to take in women; a lot of them went to graduate school to learn to become teachers; one became a doctor; a few went to graduate schools in certain subjects. My first job after graduating was pretty exciting under the circumstances – as a receptionist for some architects and when they didn’t have too much business they taught me architecture. In order to qualify for it I went to secretarial school at night, where I learned speed writing and fast typist – probably the best investments in my future that I made.
While my development as a journalist may look like a straight line, it’s been anything but. (And I’m going to name names tonight. Why not?) I never went to journalism school: I fell into it, largely by a series of accidents. I do realize that that’s less possible today; I realize it’s much more structured and there’s much more credentialing. When I came to Washington I knew three people, and one of them said, Why don’t you try Congressional Quarterly. (Is CQ here? Hi, CQ.) You’ll learn a lot there. Having had a mini- editorial job at a mom and pop editorial thing in Boston, another accident, I had a vague acquaintance with sentences. CQ offered me a temporary six-month job to help get out their annual almanac. And I stayed five years. There was a certain amount of frustration there, too, because In those days we couldn’t use adjectives, and our work was from the Congressional Record. Period. I was dazzled by the man in the next cubicle from me, his name was Bill Corns, because he knew a congressman and he’d call him up, and the congressman would take the call. I thought that this was amazing; it was so impressive.
Finally, I managed to get sprung to go to Capitol Hill to cover the 1964 civil rights act, and the filibuster. I developed a huge crush on Russell Baker; most of you know about him. In one of our conversations during the filibuster – there was a lot of time to talk during the filibuster -- he said to me, “The great thing about being a journalist in Washington is you’re in constant graduate school.” And I thought, That’s right; you just keep learning. There’s always another subject, or six subjects, or ten subjects. Anyway, I wanted to get out of CQ. I didn’t know a great deal about adjectives, but I knew I didn’t want to do everything from the Congressional Record. And I started to look around for jobs. Now, people– David Broder and George Wilson, had left CQ and they got very good jobs; working for the Washington Star. They ended up at the Post and the New York Times; they did extremely well. Not me. When I wanted to leave CQ I went a certain news bureau – I won’t name this person, for reasons – and he looked me in the eye and said, We don’t hire women. I didn’t slug him. I just said, Oh, OK. I went to the New York Times, where, famously, James Reston had said to the later legendary Mary McGrory that she could work there if she’d work the switchboard. I did much better than that, or I would have done. I was told that maybe, maybe I might be able to do research for the Week in Review. None of these turned me on. So, I remained at CQ and I began to write magazine pieces. Now, magazines in those days, compared to any press, were like the balcony at the National Press Club; it was our purdah. Somehow, women weren’t supposed to be around where real men were doing “real journalism.” In those days it was acceptable for women to write for magazines, they were the equivalent of the all-male Press Club’s balcony for women to attend major events, magazines were “real journalism’s” purdah: we shouldn’t be around where people were doing real journalism; but we could do magazine pieces because we were out of sight, we weren’t interfering with these men who were doing this very important work.
Now, I recognize that magazine writing allows you more time and more space. But we have our deadlines, too. I still do all-nighters. There still are the pressures. But we all do the same thing. When we interview someone we want to know, Why is this person telling me this? Think about it: why? And, If it’s not on the level, do something about it: Let your readers know without putting your thumb on the scale. What’s behind what they’re saying. We want to know, What happened. What really happened. Not what they say happened but what really happened? What are the various levels on which these things happened.
Our job, as I see it, is to help the curious citizen understand what’s going on. There are an awful lot of them out there. They’re really interested; they want to know what’s happening here, and our job is to tell them. We represent them. We’re their advocates; we’re their questioners they want to know what’s going on, and our job is to deliver.
Back to me: In time when I was still at CQ, I was offered a job with a magazine called The Reporter, where the top editor and owner, his name was Max Ascoli, was probably the first of the neocons; we didn’t have the term at the time. So he didn’t take kindly to my sympathetic coverage of the two senators who voted against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which was the pretense for getting in the Vietnam war. One more piece about something he didn’t agree with and he fired me. He just called me up and said, “You are no longer on the staff.” This began a series of being fired. You may not think so, but I’ve had a number of them. I’ve been fired by Tina Brown when she took over The New Yorker. I was fired by Ian Buruma when he took over The New York Review of Books. Among other things, these people wanted to show that they were different from their predecessors – and they certainly were.
But I’m still standing; I’m still typing.
Now, while things are still not ideal for women in journalism, we’ve come a long way; we’ve come a very long way. But there’s something new going on. Yes, there are still problems of equal pay and maternity leave, paternity leave and these issues need to be perfected but they’ve been recognized and they’re being worked on. But something else is going on, and I don’t think it’s been recognized but I sure have been seeing it. It’s what I call atmospheric discrimination. Men who treat us with condescension, unkindness, rudeness; I’ve had pieces rejected because somebody was making a point, not because the piece was lousy, that couldn’t possibly be the case.
I was at The New Republic for nine months turning out a piece a week, everything was dandy. Then I was turned over to a new editor – I don’t think I’ll name him – and he began to treat me very patronizingly, and reject my pieces. And said, Well, do feel free to try us from time to time. So I knew I had to leave.
I had an editor who took over the Daily section of New York Review and he greeted me very warmly. But, well, let’s just say that he didn’t quite know how to handle what I was doing, which was contemporary. That section is about mausoleums and things like that now. So, actually, he ran me off after 16 years of having done it just fine; he said I couldn’t do it.
These unpleasant encounters leave you feeling kind of soiled. You want to take a shower. They’ve demeaned us. What are we going to do about this? We can’t sue it; we can’t quantify it. I don’t know yet what to do; I’ve just begun to really think about it, So I think the first thing to do is air it; recognize it, talk about it. Do we say to these guys, “Look, you wouldn’t talk to a man that way,” when you know perfectly well that that’s the case.
So I suggest we get on this; it’s the next frontier; and it’s quite serious. I don’t know how many women in this room have had this kind of experience; I’ve had enough for several of you, I assure you. They assume that because I’ve had a certain amount of success I’m going to be a diva; I’m about as much a diva as I’m the queen of Wakanda. The great, great editors I wrote for: William Shawn, Bob Silvers of the New York Review; they were great editors and they were gender blind. It didn’t make any difference; they loved writers, and they were very supportive. But there’s a whole new world, mainly because the online sites.
I’ve had to leave two places, but I have other outlets, so I’m OK.
But we need to get onto this. So, Ladies of the Washington Press Club Foundation, And Gentlemen -- I’d like to think -- Members of Congress, please keep fighting for us and keep the country’s liberties safe – because that’s somewhat in question now.
Colleagues, see you on the battlements.
The Washington Press Club Foundation Life Time Achievement Award is based on the ideals of the founders of the WPCF, the Women’s National Press Club. For almost 70 years these pioneers in journalism fought for equal status in the newsroom and within journalism organizations because they believed that the voice of the press should be as diverse as the readers it promised to serve.
2006 Helen Dewar
2007 Tad Bartemus
2008 Helen Thomas
2009 Nan Robertson
2010 Dorothy Gilliam
2011 Bonnie Angelo
2012 Edith M. Lederer
2013 Lynn Povich
2014 Ann Compton
2015 Charlayne Hunter Gault
2016 Linda Deutsch
2017 Diane Rehm
2018 Robin Sproul