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2009 Student Essay Award Presentation

American University School of Communication essay competition award*

Presented by Charles Lewis, distinguished journalist in residence, American University.

Introduction by Bob Giles, Nieman Foundation curator.

*Open to AU graduate journalism students.




Bob Giles: [Jon, thank you for the powerful stories and images that are so much in the spirit of I.F. Stone and his strong belief in journalistic independence.] In planning our program this year, Dean Kirkman and I and his colleagues wanted to involve the students. We decided to challenge them to write an essay on the topic “What is the meaning of journalistic independence?” The winner tonight will receive a replica of the I.F. Stone Medal and a check for $1,500. Making the presentation to the student author of the winning essay is Charles Lewis, distinguished journalist in residence and executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop here at American U.

During his years as a practicing journalist, Chuck founded the Center for Public Integrity and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Please welcome Chuck Lewis.

[Applause]

Charles Lewis: Thank you, Bob. It is a great, great pleasure to be here tonight and congratulations again, Jon. It was magnificent. I also want to say a special word of thanks to Jeremy Stone. This is the second year of this award honoring I.F. Stone and independence is in the air for the students in the audience. We have folks here who oversaw the Watergate coverage… and a person who was the top reporter covering McCarthy. We have a person here who wrote ten books on corporations. We have a lot of really interesting people in this room tonight. And it’s very, very special for students, especially, but others. I also want to say just a couple quick things about I.F. Stone. To me the most significant thing and his finest hour was what happened 45 years ago. At that time, a U.S. president had grossly misrepresented the facts about a military situation in a far-away land, a precursor to a multi-year war where thousands and thousands of people died. President Lyndon Johnson basically called the Gulf of Tonkin incidents unprovoked, but of course they were very much provoked.

The president dramatically addressed the American people on national television and within just days, literally less than a week, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was passed and the House of Representatives, 416 to zero, the U.S. Senate, 88 to two. Nearly every major newspaper in the United States supported the president. 85 percent of Americans polled back the U.S. bombing raids in Vietnam. According to the late great journalist David Halberstam in his classic book about the news media, “The Powers that Be,” Johnson quote “had handed the nation, its Congress and its press core a fait accompli. He chose the timing of the incident at his pleasure when it suited him and he chose the place where it suited him, the other side of the world where there were no cameras. Everything worked like a charm. Every institution played its role just as he wanted,” unquote.

One independent journalist in the United States was decidedly not fooled. In August 1964, I.F. Stone wrote one of the very first investigative reports into the illogic and deceptions of the U.S. accounts of its activities in the Gulf of Tonkin. Stone and his newsletter I.F. Stone’s Weekly raised several factual contradictions to the official version of events. He declared that quote “The American government and they American press have kept the full truth about the Tonkin Bay incidents from the American public.”

He also criticized the press’ susceptibility of being misled. Quote “The process of brainwashing the public starts with the off-the-record briefings for newspaper men in which all sorts of far-fetched theories are suggested to explain why the tiny North Vietnamese navy would be mad enough to adventure an attack on the 7th Fleet, one of the world’s most powerful. Everything is discussed except the possibility that the attack might have been provoked. In fact the U.S. had been conducting black operations, illegally violating North Vietnam sovereign land, air space and territory waters for months prior. Actually, the drafting of a war resolution against Vietnam had been secretly drafted two months earlier before the Tonkin incidents.

Indeed the full extent of the government’s lies to Congress and the American people did not emerge until 1971 with the release of the “Pentagon Papers”. And actually, the full truth is still seeping out.

So where is the next I.F. Stone? Of course, there will never be another I.F. Stone. I think, for one thing, I don’t know anyone that wants to learn Greek in the later years of their life and write a book about Socrates. It is not typical—which he did here at American University, by the way. But where does independent and original thought begin? That’s a deep profound question, way to large for this occasion tonight. But at American University we did, as Bob said, begin this year an essay about “What is independence in journalism today?” A number of students, graduate students this is, wrote really, really great essays. There was a team of judges. These things were numbered. It was all handled anonymously. So, I would like to identify and acknowledge the four finalists in these essays, who are in the audience, I hope, I think. First, Russ Choma, if you can stand up, Russ.

– Keyana Farkondepay.
– Seung Min Kim.
– And Naseem Miller.

Charles Lewis: These essays were very impressive and it was not a simple thing choosing a winner. The winner was notably original in content in the approach that was taken and all of them were thoughtful. This one stood out also to the judges. So, I will now announce the winner. The I.F. Stone Medal for the student competition, Rush Choma.

[Applause]

Charles Lewis: Welcome, there is an award in here somewhere. I think this might be it.

Russ Choma: I don’t have anything quite as interesting as Jon did. It is a very tough act to follow. I did want to say that I am very honored to receive this and thank you to the Nieman Foundation and to the American University School of Communication and Dean Kirkman and everyone as the SOC who brought me to AU last year on a graduate fellowship and especially Chuck Lewis who was my teacher last year and is right now my, sort of, boss. And who introduced me to a lot of the major concepts that I incorporated in my essay.

Just very briefly it was about that I thought that journalistic independence is the ability to resist the temptation to pander. Today there’s all sorts of really amazing technology that anyone with a Word Press account or a YouTube account, if you do video, or a sheaf of documents can tell the truth, it will reach the world. At least the way I see it, unfortunately, that rarely happens. The Internet puts the tools necessary to preserve journalistic independence into the hands of everyone, but it doesn’t naturally provide an incentive for journalists to practice truth, vigilance, social responsibility. And it is very easy to go on the Web and do just about anything. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough people who are doing the good things with it. The direction that I took at the end of the essay was that some of the things that we are doing at American and some of the things that Chuck has done was nonprofit journalism. It gives journalists space to step back from this nonstop, Web-driven news cycle and to get at some of the—step past the tempting fast and easy stories and hunt for the hard and unpopular truths.

And at the same time, like these organizations when they are well-organized and well thought out, they can take advantage of some of these amazing tools. So, I think that the real challenge to maintaining journalistic independence is taking these great tools and not succumbing to the urge that that threatens to distract and cheapen the mission of journalism. So, that is what I wrote about.

Thank you again for the award. It’s great. Thank you.

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