"Frontline" Producer Honored

By Masha Leon

Published December 20, 2007, issue of December 21, 2007.
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“Journalism is our first line of defense against those who will spread lies,” said Alan Brinkley, Columbia University’s provost, at the November 13 John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism dinner. Brinkley was quoting none other than the late NBC News anchor Chancellor. The black-tie event honored “Frontline” independent producer Ofra Bikel. Held at Columbia University’s Low Memorial Library, it was emceed by Lynn Sherr, correspondent for the ABC News program “20/20.” “We honor the memory of John Chancellor by honoring your work. Thirteen men and women walk the streets today, thanks to you,” Brinkley said.

“I am speechless to see my name on the invitations next to John Chancellor,” said Israeli born Bikel (once married to Theodore Bikel), whose 30 years of devotion to documentary reportage has helped put the spotlight on injustice and, along the way, helped save lives and reputations. What gave the evening an emotional wallop were the in-person thank you’s by a teary-eyed Elizabeth Kelly and her daughter, Nancy Smith Barrow, who were the subject of Bikel’s “Frontline” trilogy: “Innocence Lost” (1991), “Innocence Lost: The Verdict” (1993) and “Innocence Lost: The Plea” (1997).“I stand before you tonight because of Ofra Bikel. Until Ofra, there wasn’t anybody to trust. She opened the door [of prison] and let me out.” Barrow described Bikel’s arrival in Edenton, N.C., where Kelly was wrongly accused of, and charged with, sexual abuse at a day care center. “She comes from another planet,” Barrow said. “Doesn’t speak Southern. She did not understand the Southern pecking order. She took what hell was raining down. She gave us hope; she had a way of telling a story so anybody could understand. I owe you. You brought my mother back.”

Educated at Paris’s university and at its High Institute of Political Science, Bikel created such extraordinary documentaries as “Frontline” programs “The O.J. Verdict,” “Saving Elian” and “Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill,” plus 15 Israeli films. At dinner’s end, in the tradition-imbued rotunda-configured room (on the periphery of which hang massive portraits of Columbia University’s past presidents), the more than 200 guests gave Bikel a standing ovation. Bikel friends and journalism fan club applauders included Barry Scheck, clinical law professor and co-director and co-founder of The Innocence Project at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law; “Frontline” executive producer David Fannin; Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism; Hank Klibanoff, managing editor/news of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; Robert McNeil, formerly of “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer”; Paul Steiger, vice president and managing editor of The Wall Street Journal; ABC News correspondentJim Wooten; Sidney Offit, curator of the George Polk Awards, and his wife, writer and psychiatrist Avodah Offit; Ellen Adler, and Forward reader Rabbi Rafael Grossman, who told me, “I’m a Yiddishist-Hebraist.” The Chancellor Award, which carries a $25,000 honorarium, honors a journalist in any medium in the United States whose reporting over time shows courage, integrity, curiosity and intelligence. Administered by The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, the award epitomizes the role of journalism in a free society.


“Americans and Israelis alike are the children of freedom,” declared Senator Joseph Lieberman at the November 12 America-Israel Friendship League “Partners for Democracy” dinner, held at the Pierre. “The battles we are witnessing in the Middle East today… are… between freedom and tyranny…. On the one side of the war are… a loose alliance of Islamist terrorists and tyrants every bit as fanatical, pathological and murderous in their hatreds as the fascists and communists before them.… That is why the great dividing line in our time is not between Arabs and Israelis, or Muslims and Christians and Jews, or Sunnis and Shi’ites,” Lieberman noted. “It is not a war between civilizations but a war about civilization… a battle between the values that bind together America and Israel and other democracies.” Guest speaker Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said: “Why is a Baptist politician who grew up in Alabama… a state in which Jewish votes make up less than one half of 1%… so interested in Israel? In my town there was only one Jewish person, a Mr. Jaffe who owned the local shoe store.” McConnell recalled an “old law partner, Barney Barnett: He was Jewish and I once heard him tell somebody, ‘There’s only one race greater than the Jews… and that’s the Kentucky Derby.’” Early in his career, McConnell recalled “ a newspaper article by an American Jew who said that at some point, no matter how close he was to his non-Jewish friends, he couldn’t help but wonder: ‘Would they hide me in their attic?’ That article… opened a window into the Jewish experience, and it became clear to me that I’d always been an ally of Israel.” His many trips to Israel convinced McConnell “how crucial it is for America to have an ally with so many shared Democratic values in the heart of the Middle East.”

Among the 470 guests were the Connecticut senator’s wife, Hadassah Lieberman, and Partners for Democracy Award recipients Lev Leviev, chairman of Africa Israel Investments Ltd.; William Rhodes, senior vice chairman of Citigroup and chairman, president and CEO of Citibank, and Nechemia Peres, managing general partner and co-founder of Pitango Venture Capital.

The evening was substantive — and very long — with a roster of speakers that included AIFL vice presidents June Dempsey and Robert Abrams; AIFL’s president and chairman of the board, Kenneth Bialkin, and State of Idaho attorney general Lawrence Wasden. Other speakers included Israel’s consul general, Asaf Shariv; Israeli Ambassador Dan Gillerman; former secretary of HUD Jack Kemp; AIFL’s vice president and committee chair, Charlotte Frank; Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and the evening’s curtain-raiser — invocation presenter Rabbi Joseph Potasnik.

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