In a city that knows deception and cover-ups all too well, whistleblowers are often the catalyst for change.
A decade ago, the Fertel Foundation and the Nation Institute started the Ridenhour Prizes in honor of Ron Ridenhour, the journalist who exposed the My Lai massacre. Every year since, journalists, public interest advocates, academics, and donors have gathered at the National Press Club to celebrate the accomplishments of whistleblowers.
This year, honorees tackled issues from immigration reform to sex crimes in the military. The annual award ceremony began at noon on Wednesday with a reception, followed by a luncheon and a presentation.
Guests—many in business attire, having come from work—gathered around the reception hall’s two bars to enjoy afternoon cocktails or wine (some opted for water) and appetizers such as smoked salmon and capers on toasted bread. Many of the guests were journalists—both those being honored and those covering the event—so the reception hall was filled with banter about current events and coverage of hot-topic issues. Lunch in the ballroom consisted of a colorful salad with chicken, potatoes, lemon, and oil and vinegar, followed by miniature desserts and coffee.
The first award presented went to Jose Antonio Vargas, who received the Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling. A well-known journalist and filmmaker, Vargas risked his career and life in the US when he revealed that he was an undocumented American in a 2011 New York Times Magazine essay. Vargas has since become a leading advocate for immigration reform and founded Define American, an organization that raises awareness about immigration issues.
Vargas couldn’t be at the luncheon to accept the award himself, so he asked Gaby Pacheco, who appeared on a 2012 Time magazine cover with Vargas and several other undocumented Americans, to represent him at the luncheon. Pacheco also testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Monday for immigration reform. Vargas had prepared a video for his award acceptance. “I am an American—I just don’t have the papers to show you,” he said at the end of the video.
Next up, Seth Rosenfeld received the Ridenhour Book Prize for Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Regan’s Rise to Power. Rosenfeld began researching FBI surveillance in the 1960s. At the time, he had no idea that his research would lead to five Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] lawsuits against the FBI over 27 years and that the FBI would spend more than $1 million trying to keep records Rosenfeld requested under wraps. The FBI ultimately had to surrender more than 300,000 pages of records, which Rosenfeld used to write his book.
Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick received the Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize for The Invisible War, a 2012 documentary that confronts the issue of rape in the military. Ziering began to tear up as she described her experience interviewing a victim. After the interview, the female soldier told Ziering that even if her story didn’t make it into the documentary, she was grateful that she finally had the chance to tell it. Ziering and Dick also recognized a military official who resigned so that he could be interviewed for the documentary.
James Hansen, winner of the Ridenhour Courage Prize, has been warning the world about global warming for 25 years and is still working to raise awareness about climate change. Hansen was the first leading scientist to bring this issue to light. In 1988, he testified about the greenhouse effect in front of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. At the time, Hansen was the director of NASA’s Institute for Space Studies. The next day, the New York Times ran the headline, “Global Warming Has Begun.” Hansen has since been arrested five times during peaceful protests.
Against all odds, these award winners blew the whistle on some of the biggest issues of our time. During his introduction of the ceremony, Fertel Foundation President Randy Fertel quoted Bob Edgar, the president of Common Cause who passed away early this week: “We need to stand up when others tell us to sit down, and we need to speak out when others tell us to be silent.”