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Liveblogging the Sidney Hillman Foundation Awards: Journalism for the public good

jpozners Icon Posted by Jennifer L Pozner

May 1st, 2012

The 2012 Sidney Hillman Awards have begun, as I discussed earlier.

To give you a sense of the heavy hitters in independent journalism represented in this room, even the bloggers and press here to cover the event are, themselves, challenging, critical voices in the feminist and independent online media sphere. I am sitting in a blogger row with Hillman staffer and In These Times blogger Lindsay Beyerstein, MSNBC producer and “Melissa Harris-Perry” blog editor Jamil Smith, tech expert and activist Deanna Zandt, blogger and author Amanda Marcotte, comedian and activist Katie Halper, In These Times columnist Sady Doyle, Jezebel’s Anna North, Feministe blogger Jill Filipovic, communications and tech expert Marc Faletti, among others.

And that’s just who is covering this event.

The first award went to UC Santa Barbara professor Nelson Lichtenstein who, as he accepted his Sol Stetin Award For Labor History, lamented the loss of union power in America.

Next, the Hillman Prize for Newspaper Journalism honors Heather Vogell, Alan Judd and John Perry of the Atlanta Journal Constitution for exposing widespread cheating in standardized testing.

During the introduction for the Hillman Prize for Photojournalism, Susan Meiselas notes that in this period when media communications technologies seem unlimited in their scope, “We may have an explosion of distribution channels but we face… limited resources for in-depth production.” A short video is shown about homelessness and poverty in America before honoring Katie Falkenberg from the Los Angeles Times who expresses gratitude to her newspaper for allowing her to cover poverty among three families over an entire year. Longform journalism, including photojournalism, at its best.

The Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism goes to Ta-Nehisi Coates, for his work for The Atlantic. He accepts his award by discussing the legacy of his father’s critical consumption of literature and information — “my dad would cut school and spend an entire day at the library” — and, after becoming radicalized upon coming home as a Vietnam veteran, joined the Black Panthers. But he eventually learned that “If you really wanted to be radical you did not engage in guns, you engaged in words,” Coates says. His father, who eventually became an independent publisher, taught him that “Writing is about fighting.” So in 1995 when The Bell Curve was published, Coates said, “I saw that and said ‘I’m going off to war.’”

The 2012 Hillman Prize for Book Journalism goes to Frank Bardacke for Trampling Out the Vintage, which Harold Meyerson described as the best nonfiction of the millennium in his introduction. Bardacke discusses “the heroes of my book, unknown outside their communities and rarely written about.” Speaking of the United Farm Workers whom he wrote about, he describes highly skilled farm workers who are monolingual in Spanish. They carry green cards or no cards at all. They come from a tradition of Mexican agrarian radicalism, and they fought to unionize… Bardacke says he called one of these workers when he learned that he would be receiving this award and asked what he should say. He was told to “Tell them we were not the first people in the history of humanity to fight a righteous battle against capital and lose… and we will not be the last… but [we must] keep fighting.” Bardacke adds his own PS to this: “As long as people continue to fight and remember those people who fought before them, then our struggles are not in vain. Happy May Day, everybody.”

The Hillman Prize for Broadcast Journalism goes to Yoav Potash of the Oprah Winfrey Network, for “Crime After Crime.” The documentary spotlights the disproportionate, punitive and unjust prosecution of women — especially women of color — who are victims of domestic violence who fight back against their batterers and abusers and, as a result, face the death penalty or locked up for their entire lives. Potash says that “when I was a kid I watched a lot of 60 Minutes, because my parents had the remote control. But you can just guess that doing so, watching 60 Minutes as a kid affected my worldview.” A 15-year-old girl named Mikhaela watched the film and, with all the passion that a teenager can have, she organized a screening in New Jersey, and eventually as a result, the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act bill has been introduced in NJ. Another similar bill is potentially happening in New York. Potash says that “my pitch to journalists” is to continue to report on these issues, particularly that “Over 80% of the women behind bars today are the victims of rape, incest or other form of abuse, yet Calif. is the only state that has a law that allows the women to introduce evidence of their abuse,” in the way that, say, DNA evidence is now allowed to be a factor in criminal cases. “We cannot have true democracy without these stories.”

The Hillman Prize for Magazine Journalism goes to Sarah Stillman, whose New Yorker story, “The Invisible Army,” reported on migrant workers, wage theft, uncompensated injury, sex abuse, and quasi-indentured servitude. She is speaking too quickly and too movingly for me to capture what she’s discussing. But, snippets: “1,600 workers rioted in Baghdad because they were being starved.” Also discussed frustrating experiences pitching her story to editors, including one who responded to these gruesome journalistic tales with this dismissive, commercialist gem: “If you can tell me in the Hollywood movie version of the story who would Julia Roberts play, I’ll consider it.” Says Stillman, “Ultimately I found an editor who took a chance on me, for which I am grateful. But most of all, thank you to the workers who risked so much to speak with me, who would sneak off to bunkers [etc] because they believed that if American people knew what was happening they would do something.”

Next: Danny Glover is introducing Seth Freed Wessler, Colorlines.com investigative journalist, who takes home the Hillman Prize for Web Journalism. Glover says: “After reading the article by Seth Freed Wessler, I knew there was no other place that I had to be than here at this moment to introduce him. What happens to American children if their parents are deported from the U.S.? That’s a question that Seth Freed Wessler tried to answer in his groundbreaking investigation for Colorlines.com and the Applied Research Center. What he discovered was heartbreak for thousands of children who were slipping through the cracks. Between Jan and June of 2011 alone, the US deported” the parents of “more than 5,100 children [who] were stuck in foster care limbo sometimes never to see their parents again. Imagine what it would be like to be one of those parents, never to see those children again…” Glover describes Wessler’s piece as a rebuke of the immigration policies of the Obama administration, and praises Colorlines’s model of covering race and public policy from the perspective of community.

Seth Freed Wessler says: “It’s an extraordinary honor to be here, to have that introduction… I spent a lot of time last year in small dark rooms in states ike TX, AZ, FL in the basements of immigration detention centers, and child welfare offices… in a concrete room in AZ, a soft-spoken Mexican woman told me she had not seen or spoken with her children in four months. It started with being pulled over” for speeding. Had she been a citizen, he said, she would have gotten back to her kids very quickly. Instead, the Fed severed her from her children, and severed her from the court processes that dealt with her children… cultural chauvanism says that children would be better off in foster care with strangers than with immigrants who are not citizens. Seth concludes by noting that this investigative accomplishment “would not have been possible without the remarkable vision of Applied Research Center director Rinku Sen…and without Kai Wright, Colorlines’ editor.”

Next, actor, singer, civil rights legend Harry Belafonte gets standing ovation when he is brought out to introduce Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and The Nightwatchman. In praising Tom as “a brilliant musician,” Belafonte notes that tonight his activism is what we’re here to honor. “To be an activist and artist in America is not always the most comfortable thing…there’s a price to be paid.”

Tom Morello opens by saying he feared he wouldn’t be able to accept the award in person because he was marching with his guitar at Occupy Wall Street May Day events, and when the tear gas was flying around at one point. But he avoided the gas and got here in time to tell us a story about when he told his pregnant wife he had to go to the WI union protests, and she replied, “Our boys are going to be union men. You have to go.” Tom says “I didn’t really choose to be a guitar player, it was something that chose me. Throughout my entire career it has been a challenge to merge my ideas and my passion for activism” with his role as a guitar player — one of the reasons he joins with Occupy. He talked powerfully about the disparity of life choices available to the rich verses the rest of us, and then… he started playing revolutionary anthems for us. First up: “This Is a Union Town.”

And with that, I’m shutting down the computer for a while to listen to Morello rock the house.

Update: his final song was a powerful modern rendition of “This Land Is Your Land.”

Tom Morello’s final words to this crowd of journalists who do work that changes lives, and activists and philanthropists in the audience who support that work? With his fist in the air, he signs off: “Take it easy — but take it!”

Joy, I tell you. Joy.

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