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
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
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
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.”