posted 2011-04-06 13:00:14

Hunter College celebrates the 21st annual Aronson Awards

The Aronson Awards touch on a lot of important issus. (Photo: Jacqueline Wang/Envoy)
The Aronson Awards touch on a lot of important issus. (Photo: Jacqueline Wang/Envoy)
Jacqueline Wang

Arts & Entertainment Editor

On March 30, students, professors, and renowned journalists alike gathered in Hunter College’s Lang Recital Hall to celebrate extraordinary investigative journalism and honor the recipients of the 2010 Aronson Awards for Social Justice Journalism and Cartooning with a Conscience.

The winners were selected by a committee of journalists, media professionals, scholars, activists, and Hunter’s Department of Film and Media Studies, for their remarkable in-depth coverage of topics that, as Film and Media professor and Award Committee Coordinator Peter Parisi put it, “politicians have backpedaled from” due to their controversial nature. Parisi added that, “the awards touch on a lot of important issues.”

This year’s recipients of the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism included investigative journalist Jane Mayer for her exposé article in The New Yorker that uncovered the expenditures of the billionaire Koch brothers that went to think tanks, favored politicians, and front groups such as the Tea Party; Village Voice Media for their series of stories that revealed the struggles that Latino immigrants face despite their contributions to American society; and author and investigative journalist Jan Goodwin, for her story in Ladies Home Journal about a young woman who fled from her country and its practice of female genital mutilation to seek political asylum in the United States, only to be treated like a hardened criminal.

This year in particular, the Aronson Awards honored Wayne Barrett, distinguished investigative journalist, with the James Aronson Career Distinction Award. Renowned for holding New York politicians to account, Barrett has also mentored numerous investigative journalists, including students from Hunter College where he was the first Jack Newfield Visiting Professor of Journalism in 2006.

In addition, the committee awarded the Grambs Aronson Award for Cartooning with a Conscience to Indianapolis Star cartoonist Gary Varvel, for his graphic novel-like project that, with a rare empathy for the poor, brought to light the hardships that the less-than-fortunate population of Indianapolis face every day. Using an unconventional method of drawing cartoons onto backgrounds of altered photographs, Varvel combined investigative journalism and cartooning to highlight issues ranging from transportation to literacy, by depicting the true stories of real people.

“It is often hard to cover the poor because people think they’re undeserving,” Parisi explained, “but for [Varvel], the poor are poor because of these hurdles.”

Hunter senior and political science major, Jesse Lent, received the James Aronson Undergraduate Journalism Prize and its accompanying $200 for his news piece in The Hunts Point Express about the resurgence of prostitution in the South Bronx’s Hunts Point. Formerly, Lent served on The Envoy as news editor.

“I’d be lying if I said that I hadn’t set my sights on the James Aronson Award when I got to Hunter,” Lent said. “It seemed to signify a reporter that got their hands dirty; who had gone out in the field and dared to tell the truth.”

Alyssa Katz, Hunter’s current Jack Newfield Visiting Professor of Journalism, set the stage for the award winners with a talk on the current state of social justice journalism.  Katz praised individual voices, and assured the audience that although “information is as ubiquitous as water,” individuals will be able to overcome the diminishing demand for journalists, much like “the way that artists have survived — they made their way through a hostile world.”

Each award winner had the chance to speak about their careers and their winning pieces, during which the audience learned of the many barriers that each journalist faced in order to make their stories public.

Jane Mayer, who appeared via Skype, explained how she ended up writing about the Koch brothers. Her piece, “Covert Operations: The Billionaire Brothers Who Are Waging A War Against Obama,” appeared in The New Yorker and detailed the millions of dollars the billionaires had quietly “donated” to right-wing causes, in addition to exposing their oftentimes conflicting stances.

Quoting Louis Brandeis, Mayer said “We can have democracy or we can have concentrated wealth, but we can’t have both,” explaining that the Koch’s extraordinary wealth, coupled with their experience in political activism, “raised fundamental questions about the disproportionate role of … fortunes in American politics.”

Mayer went on to tell the audience of the lengths that the Koch brothers went to in attempts to prevent The New Yorker from publishing her piece, from giving a rival publication an interview while refusing any sort of contact with Mayer, to hiring a P.I. to dig up dirt on her in hopes of sullying her reputation and discrediting her. Rather than deter Mayer, however, the Koch’s actions only confirmed for her that “revealing the unaccountable power of the Kochs was a story that had to be told.”

Jan Goodwin also spoke about her story, “Broken Promises,” which appeared in Ladies Home Journal, and how her career path took her from being executive editor to becoming a human rights activist and social journalist. “Broken Promises” features a girl and her flight from a life-threatening situation in Sierra Leon, and reveals the holes in the immigration system that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement support: torture survivors and rape victims seeking political asylum in the United States are often locked up for months, even years, alongside hardened criminals, and treated abysmally.

“When somebody comes here to claim political asylum,” Goodwin explained, “no matter what it says on the Statue of Liberty, it is totally ignored.”

Although Village Voice Media was not present at the ceremony, Professor David Alm spoke on their behalf. “Amongst U.S.” was a national series that told the stories of immigrants from south of the border and the problems they face.

“The series examines the origins of the anti-immigration sentiment … to reveal an immensely complicated political system,” Alm said.  “We simply cannot continue as a nation without a coherent federal policy on immigration.”

Hunter has been giving the James Aronson Awards since 1990 to journalists and media, marking these as the 21st annual awards to commemorate James Aronson’s lifetime commitment to journalism, teaching, and social justice.

As Barrett wrote in The Village Voice, “There is no other job where you get paid to tell the truth.”

For more information on the Aronson Awards and its winners, visit http://brie.hunter.cuny.edu/aronson/.