George Polk Awards Winners Include a Reporter Held by Taliban
Long Island University yesterday announced the winners of 13 George Polk Awards for 2009, including a reporter kidnapped and held by the Taliban for more than seven months and journalists who demanded transparency from the Federal Reserve Board, changed the way professional and youth football leagues deal with head injuries and exposed a state child-care program plagued by fraud and deceit, the university said in a press release, in which the following information is compiled from.
For the first time in the 61-year history of the awards, judges have honored work that was produced anonymously, the university said. The panel acknowledged the bravery of those responsible for videotaping — and then broadcasting on the Internet — the horrific images of a young woman dying from a gunshot wound during a protest in Iran.
“This video footage was seen by millions and became an iconic image of the Iranian resistance. We don’t know who took it or who uploaded it, but we know it has news value,” said John Darnton, curator of the George Polk Awards. “This award celebrates the fact that, in today’s world, a brave bystander with a cell-phone camera can use video-sharing and social networking sites to deliver news.”
Long Island University has administered the George Polk Awards since their inception in 1949. The awards were established to memorialize George Polk, a CBS reporter who was shot and killed in 1948 while covering the civil war in Greece.
Tom Brokaw of NBC News will be the citation reader at the luncheon honoring the 2009 Polk Award winners inside the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan on April 8. The annual George Polk Seminar will take place on April 7 at the Kumble Theater for the Performing Arts on Long Island University’s Brooklyn Campus.
The George Polk Career Award will be presented to Gene Roberts, a reporter, author, teacher and editor who is widely respected for upholding high standards in journalism. Roberts was the executive editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer for 18 years. Under his leadership, the paper won seven Polk Awards and 17 Pulitzer Prizes.
New York Times correspondent David Rohde, a previous Polk Award and Pulitzer Prize winner, will receive the George Polk Award for Foreign Reporting for “Held by the Taliban,” a five-part series in which the veteran investigative reporter detailed his ordeal as a prisoner of the Taliban. Rohde was kidnapped in Afghanistan and taken to Pakistan. Before his daring escape, he and two Afghan colleagues were shuffled between a series of houses over a period of seven months and 10 days, during which the prospect of beheadings at the hands of their captors was a daily threat. Rohde’s extraordinary first-person account of his experience not only brought to life the physical and psychological trauma of captivity, it also revealed shocking details of a “Taliban mini-state” in the tribal areas of Pakistan and vividly conveyed the deep hatred young jihadis harbor for the West.
The George Polk Award for Videography will recognize the efforts of the people responsible for recording the death of 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan at a June protest in Tehran and uploading the video to the Internet. Agha-Soltan reportedly was shot by a pro-government militiaman. The video, which shows the woman collapsing to the ground and being attended to by several men as she lay dying on the street, became a rallying point for the reformist opposition in Iran after it was broadcast over the Internet. Seen by millions as it spread virally across the Web, the images quickly gained the attention of international media.
A team of Bloomberg News reporters who produced a series of stories that demanded accountability from the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve Board will be honored with the George Polk Award for National Reporting. The late Mark Pittman collaborated with colleagues Bob Ivry, Alison Fitzgerald and Craig Torres to help make transparent the transaction of trillions of dollars toward bank bailouts. Their stories (here, here, here and here), which kept a running tally of the government’s and the Fed’s commitments to banks, were invoked by legislators on Capitol Hill and were cited on international radio and television. When the Bloomberg staffers’ Freedom of Information Act requests were denied, their employer filed a lawsuit against the Fed. The media outlet won the case, requiring the central bank to make available to the public more detailed information about its loans. The decision has been appealed in court.
The George Polk Award for State Reporting will go to Raquel Rutledge of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for her relentless coverage of Wisconsin’s broken child-care program. Rutledge wrote nearly 50 stories about a $350-million system that was designed to assist low-wage working parents, but was, in fact, a hotbed of criminal activity that repeatedly put children in danger. Her watchdog report, “Cashing in on Kids,” led to a government shakeup, criminal probes, indictments and new laws aimed at keeping criminals out of the day care business. Rutledge’s reporting helped to uncover more than $20 million in suspicious payments to child-care providers, many of whom were conspiring with parents to falsify attendance records in order to collect millions of dollars for phantom child care. Her stories also exposed over a dozen child-care operators connected to drug-dealing rings and identified hundreds of others with criminal records.
George Pawlaczyk and Beth Hundsdorfer with the Belleville (Ill.) News-Democrat will receive the George Polk Award for Local Reporting for producing a gripping investigative series that revealed the extremely harsh conditions inside an Illinois “supermax” prison. “Trapped in Tamms” began as a two-part report that disclosed how 54 of the prison’s 250 inmates — many of them mentally ill — were held in solitary confinement 23 hours a day for more than 10 years. It evolved into a six-month series as watchdog groups, state officials and federal lawmakers scrambled to address the harsh conditions, which may have contributed to a disturbingly high rate of self-mutilation among inmates in solitary confinement. In the wake of the articles in the Belleville News-Democrat, Amnesty International pressed the governor to ease conditions at the prison, 48 inmates were selected for transfer, and reforms were proposed by the Illinois corrections department director.
The George Polk Award for Sports Reporting will be given to Alan Schwarz of The New York Times for his truly influential reporting on the long-term dangers of concussions and the National Football League’s handling of such brain injuries. In his reporting, Schwarz provided analysis of alarmingly high dementia rates among former pro players and revealed major flaws in the NFL’s research and policies on head injuries. Other news organizations followed Schwarz’s lead, bringing concussions to the forefront of topics discussed on football broadcasts and talk radio. After a congressional hearing on the subject, the NFL finally acknowledged the hidden dangers of head injuries and this fall — in the middle of its season — adopted sweeping new rules on concussions. Stars with head injuries sat out games they would have played a year earlier. Schwarz’s trailblazing reporting also helped spur Congress to introduce bills to help promote brain-injury awareness in high schools. In December, the NFL broadcast its first public-service announcement warning on concussions.
CNN correspondent Dan Rivers and producers Kit Swartz, Kocha Orlan and Theerasak Nitipiched will receive the George Polk Award for International Television Reporting for a segment that tracked the nightmarish existence of Rohingya refugees in southeast Asia. In “World’s Untold Stories: A Forgotten People,” the CNN crew detailed allegations of shocked tourists who said they witnessed Thai military members abusing the Rohingya on a popular beach. The CNN reporting team also uncovered exclusive photos of scores of boat refugees being cut adrift after being towed far out to sea. While being interviewed by Rivers, Thailand’s prime minister acknowledged that the wrongdoing likely took place and stated that the government will not allow such acts in the future.
The George Polk Award for National Television Reporting will go to correspondent Steve Kroft and producer Leslie Cockburn of CBS News’ “60 Minutes.” In their compelling segment, “The Price of Oil,” Kroft and Cockburn detailed Wall Street’s growing influence on oil prices. By carefully examining the SEC filings of bank subsidiaries and probing “dark market” transactions that are not subject to public disclosure requirements, the “60 Minutes” crew revealed how oil speculation, not supply and demand, caused the price of oil to double in 2008. The reporters also found that major banks were not only trading heavily in “paper oil,” earning fees on each sale as prices were driven higher, but also were purchasing pipelines, storage tanks, refineries and oil tankers. President Barack Obama, after the “60 Minutes” piece aired, named an advocate of increased futures market regulation to chair the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
Kathy Chu of USA Today has earned the George Polk Award for Business Reporting for a series of stories documenting how banks and credit unions have used steep fees and unscrupulous credit card practices to profit tens of billions of dollars each year off vulnerable customers. Chu’s revelations in “Credit Trap” had a direct influence on at least two Congressional and regulatory measures to reform bank fees. Her reporting, which helped to educate Congress and American consumers on the inner workings of the financial services industry, led to a flurry of similar news coverage across the country. Consumer advocates have lauded Chu for playing such a pivotal role in uncovering the extent and impact of abusive credit practices.
For a riveting group of stories on how the Pentagon used a public relations company to profile journalists and steer them toward positive coverage of the war in Afghanistan, a team of Stars and Stripes reporters will receive the George Polk Award for Military Reporting. This past year, Stars and Stripes correspondents broke a number of stories that compelled governments, here and abroad, to make dramatic policy change, but the work of Charlie Reed, Kevin Baron and Leo Shane III in “Shaping the Message” stands out from the rest. Less than a week after the Stars and Stripes report on the secret Pentagon program, the Pentagon cancelled the profiling initiative.
The George Polk Award for Magazine Reporting will be bestowed upon David Grann of The New Yorker, whose groundbreaking reporting presented what may be the first thoroughly documented case of the execution of an innocent man under the modern American judicial system. Mr. Grann’s article, “Trial by Fire,” dismantled the Texas prosecution’s case against Cameron Todd Willingham, who was found guilty of setting fire to his home and murdering his three young daughters in 1991. The report, which detailed the murky discipline of arson investigation, stirred a nationwide outcry, with major media outlets calling on the governor of Texas to acknowledge that grievous mistakes were made.
The George Polk Award for Environmental Reporting will go to Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica for documenting the deadly side effects of hydraulic fracturing, a natural gas-drilling process involving water — laden with carcinogenic contaminants — being shot underground to blast away at gas-bearing rock. Lustgarten’s articles turned hydraulic fracturing into a national story and shifted the focus of the coverage from local business issues to safety concerns. He traveled to five states where hydraulic fracturing is taking place and interviewed affected residents, doctors, scientists and rig workers. Lustgarten also pored over scientific papers and massive government reports, identifying a pattern of water contamination and raising questions about the science and safety of such drilling. Finding that pollution-reducing measures often are ignored and are not even required by many states, his series shed light on a new topic that could become a major issue as the country strives to develop more efficient ways to produce energy.