They left the Knutson Theatre in the Warren M. Lee Center at The University of South Dakota in Vermillion with a deeper understanding of the 2006 award recipient, Bob Schieffer of CBS News.
He is a man of many dimensions – a seasoned journalist, a broadcaster that's covered ever major beat in the nation's capital, a former anchor of the CBS Evening News just recently replaced by Katie Couric, and the host of Sunday Morning's Face the Nation.
His audience was delighted to learn Thursday that he's also a poet, a lyricist and a songwriter who doesn't mind poking fun at himself, or writing about his two granddaughters, who he affection- ally calls Little Lulu and Sister Hot Stuff.
His ability to poke fun at himself and to often search for the brighter side of life, however, doesn't mean he's not concerned with the challenges facing journalism today.
"I cannot remember when there has not been a time more challenging for journalists," Schieffer said. "Those on the left accuse us of being government lap dogs; those on the right accuse us of being elitist liberals that somehow want the country to fail, and they do so in the meanest possible language."
He noted that the world is in the midst of a communication revolution. People are beginning to wonder, Schieffer said, if there might be a time in the not-so-distant future when newspapers no longer exist.
"We don't know if television is going to survive," he said. "We simply don't know what the medium is where people are going to get their news. But what we do know is there will still be a need for reporters, because they are the core of journalism."
Schieffer said there will always be a need for individuals to find stories and bring them back to readers and viewers.
'Find out what happened'
Schieffer noted that at a recent seminar, famed investigative reporter Bob Woodward was asked if he and his partner, Carl Bernstein, had an agenda when they began reporting on Watergate.
"Bob said, 'No, we certainly had no agenda, and we didn't know how it would come out. All we were trying to do is find out what happened.' "
Those words, Schieffer said, should be posted above the doors of every newsroom in America, so they would be the last thing reporters would see as they left to work to on their stories.
"If we do that," he said, "then the people will decide what to do with the information that we bring back, and if we get the information wrong, we must correct it as quickly as we can."
Schieffer added that as the communication revolution has made journalists and news consumers more sophisticated in the handling of information, the government is becoming increasingly more secretive.
The current Bush Administration, he said, is more secretive than the Clinton Administration, which was more secretive that the administration of our current president's father when he occupied the White House before Clinton.
"Each one learns something from his predecessor," Schieffer said.
It's becoming commonplace today, he said, for reporters to be hauled in front of grand juries to be told to reveal who within the government he has been talking to.
"With each of these investigations come insinuations that those of us that uncover government wrongdoing, mistakes or questionable programs, Schieffer said, "are somehow unpatriotic.
"Wouldn't we be better served if more attention was paid to what was leaked rather than to tracking down who did the leaking? Why does the government need a list of my phone calls? And what business does a democracy have running secret prisons? If the government hasn't told us they exist, how will we ever know who is being kept there?"
Some people would argue that revealing the recent atrocities at the Abu Grab prison in Iraq hurt our cause he said.
"I argue just the opposite. Bringing mistakes to the fore is a strength, not a weakness," Schieffer said. "What weakens our cause is when the government tries to cover up mistakes, or plant phony news stories in foreign newspapers, or bribe friendly columnists to take the company line."
He noted that the press is not perfect, "but if ever there was a time when we needed a vigorous, free press, that time is now."
Schieffer said he is honored to be associated with Neuharth.
"He is one of journalism's great innovators and users of technology," he said, "but he has also understood that all of that comes to nothing with the courage and integrity of the individual reporter."
Schieffer's name is the latest to be added to the Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media, which is named for USA TODAY and Freedom Forum founder Al Neuharth and honors lifetime achievement in journalism.
"The award," Neuharth said, "honors the best of the best in the media across the U.S.A."
It's fitting, Neuharth added, for Schieffer to be named recipient.
"He brought the shine back to CBS News."
The University of South Dakota and the Freedom Forum created the Neuharth award in 1989 after they also jointly established the Neuharth journalism and scholarship program at USD.
Neuharth is a South Dakota native and a 1950 graduate of USD.