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Speaking Truth to Power: Ridenhour Prizes Recognize Brave Journalists Who Produced Great Work Against All Odds

Jose Antonio Vargas, who risked deportation by writing his immigration story, among those honored.
 
 
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A book revealing Reagan's symbiotic relationship with the F.B.I. and how he used the agency for personal gain won the prestigious Ridenhour Prize.
Photo Credit: Dawn Hudson/Shutterstock.com

 
 
 
 

For ten years, The Nation Institute and the Fertel Foundation have awarded The Ridenhour Prizes annually, honoring individuals who have shown courage in speaking truth to power. Named for Ron Ridenhour, a Vietnam veteran who exposed the atrocities of the Mei Lai massacre and subsequently became an investigative journalist, past awards have gone to such luminaries as Daniel Ellsberg, Gloria Steinem, Howard Zinn, Jimmy Carter, Bill Moyers, and John Lewis. Most awards though, have gone to whistleblowers, activists, writers, and filmmakers who are not household names, but should be.

On Wednesday this year's award-winners were honored in a ceremony at the National Press Club in Washington DC. Here's a rundown of the events:
 
The Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling went to Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist, filmmaker and founder of the immigration awareness organization Define American. Unable to accept the award in person, Vargas sent a pre-recorded video in which he described his journey as an undocumented immigrant.
 
Vargas came to the United States at the age of twelve, believing that he was immigrating legally. When he applied for a driver's license at age sixteen. The clerk at the DMV told him in a whisper that his green card was fake and advised him to leave.
 
The next year Vargas had his first experience in journalism at a camp that his high school English teacher encouraged him to attend.
 
The experience had a profound impact on him. “The moment I saw my byline in a newspaper I thought it was a way of existing,” Vargas explained. He says that the told himself, “If I can't be in this country because I don't have the right kind of papers, what if I'm on the paper? I thought I could just write my way to America.”
 
Vargas quickly ascended the ranks, interning at the Philadelphia Daily News and the Washington Post, where he was offered a staff position. He also wrote for the Huffington Post, and landed a piece in the New Yorker. During this time, he avoided writing about immigration and kept his undocumented status a secret.
 
That changed in 2010, when Vargas started following the news of undocumented youth who called themselves DREAMERs and made their undocumented status public while demanding an end to deportations and the opportunity to go to college. Their courage inspired him to out himself in an essay for the New York Times Magazine called “My Life As An Undocumented Immigrant.”
 
The piece attracted worldwide attention, and ever since Vargas has been a vocal advocate for immigration reform, appearing on numerous television and radio programs, and testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
 
Vargas dedicated his award to the many undocumented immigrants who have come forward to tell their stories and to his friend and fellow activist, Gaby Pacheco, who accepted the award on his behalf.
 
The Ridenhour Book Prize was awarded to Seth Rosenfeld, author of “Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals and Reagan's Rise to Power.” Subversives draws on thousands of pages of FBI documents to tell the story of how the agency teamed up with Ronald Reagan to neutralize political dissent at UC Berkeley in the 1960s.
 
The book was published after twenty-seven years, five lawsuits, and one million dollars spent by the FBI in an attempt to prevent Rosenfeld from accessing the 300,000 pages of records they eventually turned over to him.
 
It's no surprise why FBI official would have preferred to keep the records out of reach. Subversives describes a symbiotic relationship between the agency and Ronald Reagan dating back to his days in Hollywood when he reported other actors on the thinnest of evidence. In return, J. Edgar Hoover approved an investigation into the romantic life of Reagan's daughter, and alerted him when the FBI obtained evidence that his son was consorting with the relative of an infamous mobster.
 
When Reagan was elected governor he facilitated the FBI's surveillance of liberal students and professors at UC Berkeley. Among the FBI's many egregious and unlawful acts was the creation of a security index, a list of people to be detained without warrant in the case of a national emergency. In his acceptance speech, Rosenfeld noted that he recently came across an FBI file that showed Ron
Ridenhour himself listed on the security index.
 
Rosenfeld warned that the same abuses of power he uncovered within the FBI of the 1960s continue to plague our national security agencies, posing a threat to democracy today.
 
The Ridenhour Courage Prize was bestowed upon James Hansen, a former NASA scientist and early proponent of the need to address climate change. Joe Romm, editor of the blog Climate Progress, presented the award and described Hansen as, “A modern day Paul Revere—if Paul Revere rode in 1750 and said 'The British are coming! The British are coming! In 25 years!'”
 
When Hansen testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in 1988 it was the first time a leading scientist publicly argued that there was a connection between rising global temperatures and carbon emissions.
 
In the years since, he has continued to pressure public officials to take his warnings seriously. Hansen blasted the Bush administration for censoring press releases from the institute he headed, and has been arrested five times for engaging in civil disobedience to implore Obama not to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline.
 
Hansen has also implicated corporations for their role in the climate crisis. He has called for putting fossil fuel company executives on trial for crimes against humanity and nature, citing their practice of spreading misinformation about climate change.
 
In his acceptance speech, Hansen outlined a proposal for charging corporations a fee for carbon emissions and distributing the revenue to the public. The fee would increase over time so that businesses would have an incentive to limit their fossil fuel use.
 
The Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize was awarded to The Invisible War, a film that gives voice to survivors of military sexual assault while exposing the Pentagon's failure to prevent an estimated 19,000 service members from being sexually assaulted each year. Director Kirby Dick and Producer Amy Ziering have gone beyond their roles as filmmakers to advocate for changes to the way cases of
sexual assault are handled in the military.
 
Their work has had an extraordinary influence on Pentagon officials and lawmakers. Two days after viewing The Invisible War last April, then Secretary of Defense Leon Pannetta ordered changes to the chain of command. His action made it so survivors would no longer have to report sexual assault to their immediate commander, who is often times a friend of the perpetrator, or the perpetrator himself.
 
Senator Kristen Gillibrand is expected to introduce legislation soon that would change the Uniform Code of Military Justice so that no commanders of any rank would have part in investigating and prosecuting cases of sexual assault. Earlier this year Senator Barbara boxer credited the film when the Senate passed legislation to prohibit people with a record of sexual violence from joining the military.
 
Ziering dedicated the award to,“countless service-members who are so much more courageous than we could ever be, who dared to speak the truth to our cameras despite the considerable risks they were taking in doing so.”
 
She then asked someone named Ben Clay to stand up. A man at a table in the middle of the room rose from his seat as Ziering told his story.
 
She and Dick had finished the film and it was set to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. At the last minute they decided to look for a current service-member dealing with a sexual assault case, since the people interviewed in their films had all left the military.
 
They found Ariana Clay, who served at the Marine Barracks in Washington DC and was facing a court martial in the wake of reporting  her assault. After interviewing Ms. Clay, Ziering and Dick expressed interest in interviewing her husband, who was a senior official in the military.
 
Mr. Clay refused, insisting that his superiors would never grant him permission to speak publicly on the issue. Ziering made him a deal. If he would interview on-camera, but not sign a release, they would edit the footage and show it to him, so he could see exactly how it would be used before deciding whether to push for permission.
 
He agreed, and once he saw the results Mr. Clay called Ziering to inform her that he had decided to resign from his position in the military.
 
She said he told her, “They will never give me permission, but I always wanted to serve my country and maybe this is the best way I can do it.”
 
Mr. Clay received a standing ovation.
 
The Invisible War will air on PBS on May 13.

Anna Simonton is a filmmaker, freelance writer, and a spring 2013 intern at the Nation magazine.