Freedman Leads National Press Club Through Pandemic, Protests, and Politics

For more than 112 years, the National Press Club has been the center of news in Washington as the nation endured two world wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War, civil unrest and terrorist attacks. Its doors were always open to journalists and news sources.

And that is how Mike Freedman expected it to be when he assumed his one-year term as National Press Club president in January 2020. Freedman, the senior vice president and journalist in residence at University of Maryland Global Campus, was looking forward to capping his journalism career with UPI and CBS Radio News with an active year similar to those of his 112 predecessors.

Instead, beginning in mid-March, Freedman faced a challenge unlike any that past presidents had encountered when the coronavirus pandemic forced the Club to suspend most of its in-person business and furlough more than half of its staff.

In a matter of days, he had to work closely with the Club’s Board of Governors and professional management to maintain the organization’s high profile as the country faced not just the pandemic, but a presidential election, attacks on the news media, protests over race relations, and an unprecedented failed insurrection against democracy as supporters of President Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 to try to change the results of the 2020 Presidential Election.

“I am proud of the perseverance, fortitude, creative spirit, positive attitude and good humor, which have combined to prove the resilience of the Club in this most challenging year,” Freedman told members in a virtual meeting Jan. 22 as he handed over the gavel to his successor, Lisa Matthews of the Associated Press. “We may have suspended in-person services for a period of months―but we NEVER closed.  We have been there for our members and for journalists around the world every single day of the year.”

Freedman brought an unusual set of talents to the Club as he assumed the presidency in such a calamitous year.  He not only had years of experience in broadcast journalism and a hard-core commitment to its values. His track record in creating virtual events at UMGC also served him and the Club well in making an instantaneous transition from in-person to online events―with more than 50 held by year’s end.

“The Club was extremely lucky to have had Mike Freedman as president in 2020,” said Club Executive Director Bill McCarren. “During normal years, a Press Club president needs to know a lot about news and business. But in 2020, with all of the challenges in the profession and the economy, the stakes were higher than ever. Mike had a great basket of experience running large news organizations, working in radio and managing large budgets. The pandemic forced us to rethink everything. Mike was a smart, imaginative and committed executive. We needed all of his skills and character. He was there for us.”

The interview with the world’s leading primatologist Dame Jane Goodall was one of more than 50 virtual National Press Club Newsmaker events conducted during 2020

The Club found that virtual events can attract much larger audiences than in-person ones, Freedman said. For example, one of the Club’s premier forums, The Kalb Report with moderator Marvin Kalb, usually attracts hundreds of people to the Club’s ballroom. But Kalb’s split-screen virtual session with documentary filmmaker Ken Burns in fall 2020—from his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, Kalb interviewed Burns at his New Hampshire home—reached thousands of people even before it was broadcast on Maryland Public Television and on stations nationwide.

Also, during Freedman’s tenure, the Club’s Journalism Institute produced more than 25 virtual events that reached thousands of journalists and journalism students across the country to help them develop their professional skills and cope with the industry’s challenges during the pandemic and election.

And to mark the centennial of radio (1920-2020), Freedman conceived and produced the Club’s unprecedented partnership series with CBS Radio Network, “Celebrating a Century of Sound.” The 10-part audio series, anchored by CBS News Correspondent Sam Litzinger, was broadcast over a two-week period in May and June on the CBS World News Roundup, the network’s flagship newscast.

In addition, the Club worked with the Commission on Presidential Debates throughout the year and served for each debate as the Press Filing Center in Washington and was open to working journalists as a press filing center on election night.  During the failed insurrection on Jan. 6, the Club remained open as a safe-haven for journalists covering the violence. And with downtown Washington surrounded by National Guard troops that had been called in to ensure a peaceful transition, the Club hosted two dozen journalists covering the Biden-Harris presidential inauguration. Freedman spent three days and nights downtown during the Inaugural as a presence for the staff in case things got out of control.

Freedman, who also teaches media history, was pleased to emphasize the values of legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow for truth and fearless reporting. As a highlight, the Murrow family donated to the Club several Murrow artifacts, photos and drawings, and lent the Club the microphone Murrow used while reporting on the Battle of Britain in World War II.

“That’s the holy grail of broadcast journalism,” Freedman said. “It marks the beginning of modern broadcast news as Murrow set the standard for generations of reporters to follow.”

The Press Club “spoke out at every turn in support of global press freedom,” Freedman said.  It kept alive the plight of Austin Tice, the freelance journalist who has been held for eight years in Syria, and the memory of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist from Saudi Arabia who was murdered by agents of the Saudi government two years ago.

“For months, with journalists in the crosshairs of no less than the President of the United States and violent insurrectionists,” Freedman said, “the quote at the top of our homepage read: ‘Reporters are witnesses. To silence the press is to silence the people, silence accountability, and silence the truth.’”

Cover composite image: (L) Mike Freedman with the microphone journalist Edward R. Murrow used during World War II while reporting on the Battle of Britain; (R) Freedman with the World Series Trophy, celebrating the 2019 World Champion Washington Nationals