2009 Opening Remarks and Presentation of the I.F. Stone Medal

By Bob Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard

Dean Larry Kirkman: Now, let me introduce Bob Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation and organizer of this event.

Thank you, Bob.

Bob Giles: Good evening. Thank you, Larry, for your generous welcome and for the opportunity for the Nieman Foundation and its watchdog journalism project to join with American University School of Communication, its journalism students and faculty this evening in presenting the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence to Jon Alpert.

This is an appropriate partnership that blends the Nieman Foundation’s mission of elevating the standards of journalism with Americans U’s growing reputation as a center for new journalism. We have many to thank for making this event possible. The John S and James L Knight Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, the Favrot Fund and an extraordinarily generous but anonymous supporter all whom have provided major gifts to establish this award and to give it a long life. We deeply appreciate American University’s invitation to utilize the Katzen Recital Hall for our program this evening. Thanks, especially, to the School of Communication’s Sharon Metcalf, Adell Crowe, and Maggie Barrett for their helpful logistical support in planning this event. And to my colleague, Ellen Tuttle, our communications officer who always makes a train run on time.

I am also happy to acknowledge three of our supporters in the watchdog project as well as in the development of this idea – Barry Sussman, the editor of the Watchdog Project, Morton Mintz and Murrey Marder, each of whom had a long and distinguished career at The Washington Post. And I am also happy to welcome, as well, Washington area Nieman Fellows who have joined us this evening.

The I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence is given to an American journalist or news executive whose work exemplifies the independent spirit of I.F. Stone as well as the qualities of integrity, courage and indefatigability that characterized I.F. Stone’s Weekly 1953 to 1971. This medal honors both an idea that journalistic independence is essential to the functioning of our democracy and to the memory of a man who worked against injustice and inequity and who was unafraid to dissent from conventional wisdom. The Nieman Foundation is hopeful that honoring a journalist for demonstrating the journalistic independence that Izzy Stone evoked can inspire and embolden the current generation of journalists and the students in our audience this evening to stick to their principles and to speak their minds.

The honor we bring to Jon Alpert this evening recognizes his comprehensive body of work over 35 years that embodies lasting examples of fearless independent reporting. He has taken on the toughest issues, local to global, personal to political, with integrity and determination. He has exposed the failures of government and corporate policies and given voice to those whose stories have been neglected or excluded from the mainstream media. Over the years, Jon Alpert has demonstrated a remarkable ability to shoot international stories that no one else could get. In 1974, he was the first American allowed to film in Castro’s Cuba. Three years later, he went to Vietnam to make the first television program since the end of that war. Both projects were shown on public television to resounding acclaim.

Over a span of twelve years, from 1979 to 1991, Jon Alpert contributed exclusive reporting to NBC News as an independent journalist. He was the first journalist into Cambodia to cover Pol Pot’s genocide and the last to leave the U.S. Embassy in Iran during the hostage crisis of 1979. He was the first reporter with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan and the only American television journalist in Nicaragua when the Sandinistas took power. He won an Emmy for his coverage on the Philippines that produced evidence of President Marco’s corruption. The Castro regime banned Alpert from Cuba over displeasure with his coverage of the Mariel boatlift in 1980 and his disclosures that the Cuban government had sent prisoners and the mentally ill to the United States under the cover of the Boat Lift.

His instinct for finding the big story drew him to the Soviet Union during glasnost and Perestroika, to China during Tiananmen Square and to Angola and Korea. During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Alpert produced an uncompromising footage of the civilian casualties of allied bombing. Alpert says he got into the streets to document the carnage that neither Saddam Hussein nor the United States government wanted people to see. NBC News fired Alpert over the story and cancelled his report from Iraq. It was later shown on independent television outlets and in that program, he quoted the president of NBC News who fired him as saying “Whenever you go into the Third World, you cause trouble for us and I am just not going to take it anymore.”

In the years that followed NBC, Alpert worked as an independent investigative documentary producer for HBO. During this time, he became one of the video pioneers who seized on the new portable video technology as a tool for storytelling. He was a leader in a new movement of independent producers that created new TV formulas and utilized public broadcasting as an outlet. In 1972, he co-founded Downtown Community Television with his wife Keiko Tsuno with a mission to provide training in electronic media as a way to empower and enable people in the New York community to tell their stories and make their own case in the democratic process.

DCTV has flourished in a world of emerging digital technologies. Working from a historic firehouse on the edge of Chinatown, Alpert and his staff have trained more than 50,000 low-income and minority students who have produced programming in fifteen languages. The letter nominating Jon Alpert made the connection between his work and the spirit of I.F. Stone. It read “Jon doesn’t need anymore awards, but he will treasure the connection to I.F. Stone just as he treasures the achievements of DCTV because it honors him as an independent, honors him for challenging mainstream media and serving democracy at every step of his career. He is a symbol for our current generation because he has led the way in using new technologies and embraced the power of the new media as a democratic tool while meeting the highest professional standards in his own work.

The I.F. Stone Medal is cast in silver and bares his likeness on the front and on the reverse a headline from I.F. Stone’s Weekly challenging the veracity of President Johnson’s claim that the North Vietnamese had attacked U.S. warships in the Tonkin Gulf.

It is a great honor for the Nieman Foundation to present the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence and a check for $1,500 to Jon Alpert.

Jon Alpert: I want everybody to know that in case I start overstepping my bounds and saying anything that might be not quite factually, I’ve got the truth squad sitting there in the second row. I’ve got my friends from high school who are all absolutely astonished that anybody has anything nice to say about me. And I have my two brothers and my mother who are also ready.

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