May 9, 2014
By Steven Wishnia
The Sidney Hillman Foundation gave its annual awards May 6 to 13 people who “still dedicate themselves to investigative journalism,” as foundation president Bruce Raynor put it. The 13 honored included labor historians Leon Fink and Ira Katznelson.
In a country that’s bifurcated by economic inequality and where racism is rising, Raynor told a crowd heavy with union leaders and journalists, this kind of work is essential to sustain democracy. The awards have been given since 1951. Previous winners include Barbara Ehrenreich in 2000, for her first-person account of low-wage work, Nickel and Dimed; Seymour Hersh’s 1974 exposé of the CIA; and On the Line author Harvey Swados in 1958, for a Nation article on how the Taft-Hartley Act enabled strikebreaking.
Pat Beall of the Palm Beach Post won the newspaper prize for unveiling abuse and corruption in Florida’s for-profit prisons. In a media industry where stories are often selected on the basis of search-engine optimization and focus groups, she said, the Hillman Prize works are a reminder of “why we should keep trying to do it.”
Seattle Times reporters Craig Welch and Steve Ringman won the Web journalism prize for “Sea Change” The Pacific’s Perilous Turn,” a multimedia series on what Welch called “the evil twin of climate change,” the oceans’ unexpectedly rapid acidification from CO2. Sparked by their story on why oysters on the Washington coast were dying, reporting the series took them from a fishing village in Indonesia to a crab boat on the Bering Sea.
The magazine award went to New Republic editor Jonathan Cohn, for “The Hell of American Daycare,” which used the death of a 20-month-old girl in a fire at a Houston daycare center as the peg to investigate what CNN producer Rose Marie Arce called “a miserably inadequate system.” Six of Arce’s CNN coworkers took home the broadcast prize, for “Weed: Dr. Sanjay Gupta Reports.” Aired last August, the program showed a 6-year-old girl with Dravet’s syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy, being relieved of her seizures by a specially bred strain of Colorado cannabis, and Gupta confessing that he’d wrongly dismissed the idea of medical marijuana.
Blogger Heather Parton, better known as Digby, won the opinion and analysis prize for her Hullabaloo site. Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel praised her for her elegant prose, knowledge of history, and coining terms like “the village” to define the herd mentality of inside-the-Beltway journalism and politics.
Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself, which Raynor said “redefined our understanding of the New Deal,” got the book award. The book details how to get his agenda through Congress, Franklin D. Roosevelt was forced to compromise with economically liberal but virulently racist Southern Democrats, such as by excluding predominantly black agricultural and domestic workers from minimum-wage laws. Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates called it the kind of book that “forces us to argue with each other.”
Another labor historian, University of Illinois–Chicago professor Leon Fink, won the Sol Stetin award for labor history, for works including Upheaval in the Quiet Zone, about the growth of Local 1199 SEIU, and The Maya of Morganton, an account of Guatemalan immigrants’ efforts to organize at a poultry plant in West Virginia. Fink’s next book, The Long Gilded Age: American Capitalism and the Lessons of a New World Order, 1880-1920, is due out later this year—and he’s also waiting for the university faculty’s new union to win its first contract.