by Janelle Hartman, TNG-CWA ::::
James Risen told a Newspaper Guild audience Tuesday night that the U.S. government’s crackdown on whistleblowers and leaks is an urgent threat to America’s free press, one that demands journalists do something that doesn’t come naturally: Speak up and fight back.
“We as reporters don’t like to lobby on our own behalf; we don’t like to be special pleaders. But the government’s taking advantage of that. They’re taking advantage of that by coming after us one at a time,” Risen said in accepting the Guild’s highest honor, the Herbert Block Freedom Award.
“That is why I’ve decided I have to begin to speak out,” he said, after eight years of near silence while fighting the government’s demand that he testify against an alleged source. “Having been forced by the government to be a part of a news story instead of just writing about news stories, I feel like it’s incumbent on me to express myself.
“I do believe that today our business is facing an existential challenge from the government.”
Since the government first issued a subpoena against him in 2006, the veteran New York Times reporter and author had been mum about the ordeal, which he’s taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Now, breaking his silence, many of Risen’s comments have come at award ceremonies like Tuesday’s, honoring him for doing what all journalists hope they will have the courage to do in such a circumstance: risk jail and fines by defying a subpoena and protecting an anonymous source.
“I’ve been a reporter for more than 30 years and I’ve never gotten involved in politics, I’ve never spoken out politically,” Risen said.
“I think this is a threat — this is a point at which the government is coming directly at us, when we as an industry and as a community of journalists have to stand up on our behalf.”
The Newspaper Guild’s Herbert Block Freedom Award is named for the famous Washington Post editorial cartoonist, better known as Herblock, a proud Guild member for 67 years. For 56 years at the Post — spanning eight U.S. presidencies — Block expressed his opinion daily with his pen, a razor-sharp wit and a deep compassion for the “little guy” fighting unbridled power. To Block, like Risen and the other men and women who have won the award since Block’s death in 2001, the antidote was a free press.
Speaking about Block, Risen said it’s “hard to live up to the kind of legendary life that he had. It’s really quite amazing — how long he lasted, the challenges he took up throughout his career as a cartoonist and the impact he had, particularly during the Nixon administration and Watergate.”
“He made it on to the Nixon administration’s enemies list, which I think is one of the best badges of honor in journalism,” he said.
Risen also took time to honor the evening’s other professional and student journalist winners. The Center for Public Integrity’s Chris Hamby, together with Brian Ross and Matthew Mosk from ABC News, won the Heywood Broun Award, named for the famed New York City columnist who helped found the Guild in 1933. The winners’ collaborative effort on black lung disease exposed a shocking coal industry conspiracy to deprive dying miners of medical benefits. Both the Broun Award and the Herbert Block Freedom Award include a $5,000 prize.
“My uncle died from black lung,” Risen said. “Even though he was an above ground supervisor, he still got black lung and died. I just think that’s great journalism.”
The Washington Post team of Debbie Cenziper, Michael Sallah and Steven Rich won a Broun substantial distinction award and $1,000 prize for exposing how city policies made it possible for greedy tax lien buyers to prey on the district’s most vulnerable homeowners. A second substantial distinction award went to Cynthia Hubert and Phillip Reese of the Sacramento Bee for their exhaustive investigation of a Las Vegas mental hospital that “dumped” patients by busing them to dozens of cities around the country, places where no one and no help was waiting for them.
Two student journalists were honored with David S. Barr Awards, named for the Guild’s late attorney. Both college winner Victor Ferreira of Toronto and high school winner Rachel C. Hartwick of Cincinnati, investigated homelessness in their communities. Accepting their awards, they spoke of their desire for careers that continue to expose injustice and give voice to those who otherwise wouldn’t be heard.
“The fact that young people are still willing to go into this business fills me with optimism,” Risen said, congratulating the student winners. “My own son is now a journalist. And so I do believe we have a future. But I think that at the same time we are facing the kind of challenge if we don’t recognize and address now, the future may not be as good as we would like.”
For Risen, the challenge arose from his 2006 book, “State of War,” about the Bush administration and the CIA. The U.S. Department of Justice under both Presidents Bush and Obama has pursued him. With the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case, an appeals court ruling against Risen stands. Nationally, organizations of journalists and First Amendment activists, including the Guild, continue to put pressure on Attorney General Eric Holder to drop the subpoena.
“First the Bush administration and now the Obama administration in the war on terror has used the mantra of the post 9/11 world, which is we have to keep America safe, to crack down on journalism, to prosecute whistleblowers and to try to brand people as traitors for telling the truth,” Risen said.
But national security isn’t the government’s only target, he said, as officials in all sorts of agencies crack down “on the ability of the press to cover not just national security but any kind of issues that the government considers sensitive.”
“I’ve been under part of a criminal investigation now for almost eight years and I spent much of that time not saying anything publicly. But I feel like now is the time that we have to recognize that if we don’t do something about this as an industry, the government will keep coming after us.
“What I mean by doing something, I mean that we have to double down on investigative reporting. I think it’s incumbent on the industry at a time of great financial stress to continue to conduct investigations, to do even more than we have,” he said. “I know that’s easier said than done now when the pressures are all on getting more clicks online or showing more cat videos. But that’s what the government’s counting on.
“They’re counting on us not caring enough. They’re counting on the apathy of our readers and viewers. They’re counting on our willingness to ignore what happens to one or two of us, and to think that we’ll find some economic model where we can tolerate this kind of pain. And so I try to urge people in our business not to let that happen.
“I don’t have a magic wand, I don’t have any magic formula of how to do that. But all I know is that, what I try to tell editors and managers, is that investigative reporting is not as expensive as they think it is. It just requires patience and time, and allowing some good reporters to do their job.”
He urged journalists to “lobby” their editors and executives “to let you do stories in greater depth, greater length,” the kind of projects the Guild recognized Tuesday.
“I’m very happy to see the kind of work that’s been done by the winners here tonight,” Risen said. “It makes me feel much better about the future of our business.”