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Awards and Rewards

May 3, 2006

A newspaper investigation, “Toxic Legacy,” that I worked on with other reporters has won major awards from the New Jersey Press Association and two national press associations—Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Society of Professional Journalists. It’s great when what you do for a living gets such acclaim.

Still, I’m far more delighted when serious problems that are put into the media spotlight actually get resolved. The “Toxic Legacy” story is still unfolding, so it’s too soon to know the outcome. Interested readers can check it out on www.toxiclegacy.com and follow the unfolding saga via Google (news).

Over the years, I’ve reported numerous exposes and controversies. Some won awards. Awards or not, usually nothing much happened to clearly resolve the issue. Government agencies seem designed to muddle through from crisis to crisis and then slip into status quo mode. Contending parties seldom resolve their differences. Many issues cycle in circles and flare up years later.

In a journalism career that began shortly after I got out of the Army in 1965 (with time out periodically for other pursuits), I can recall very few special projects that induced substantial, lasting changes. Public outrage seldom outlasts the relentless push in American society to shift onto the public the consequences of heedless pursuit of wealth and lax government oversight.

Twice, my work on projects designed to shine a light on issues that involved powerful federal agencies got me in hot water. In both cases, getting the boot propelled me to other pursuits that became great experiences for me.

In the first case, I lost a job as a researcher at CBS News because of pressure by the Nixon White House, in retaliation for having been—during a long sojourn from journalism—an organizer of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. I took getting “blacklisted” by Nixon as a badge of honor. I was also ticked off. My response was to produce, with other veterans, an anthology of antiwar poetry—Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans—with a very direct message to the American people that what they had been told about the war was far less than the full story.

My reward was discovering a love of poetry that greatly enhanced my life.

In the second case, my initial reward for doing an investigation into Vietnam veterans’ health concerns about Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals used in the war was sobering: I was laid off, lambasted by representatives of the chemical herbicide industry and audited by the IRS. The series on Agent Orange was carried by the Associated Press, widely reprinted by veterans groups, and ignored in the usual circle of journalism awards.

But within a few years, the health issues raised in that 1980 series were proven by researchers to be valid and the Veterans Administration acknowledged a responsibility by the federal government to treat or compensate Vietnam veterans afflicted by a growing list of illnesses, including cancer.

Meanwhile, I got a job with a national non-profit organization (the YWCA of the USA) with a long history of challenging government regulations and business activities on behalf of better conditions for citizens. And, with the blessing and support of that organization, I became an organizer of a citizens’ diplomacy campaign that played a big role in helping to end the nuclear missile saber-rattling era of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

As that peace campaign reached fruition, I returned to journalism, a job I love doing for the daily rush of recording the fascinating variety of things people do—where the rewards are often measured in awards that may or may not be matched by progressive change.

One thing I’ve learned from being both a newsmaker and a news reporter is that journalism’s best role is covering civic events consistently, not just once in a great while. Ongoing coverage keeps the twists and turns, arguments and counter-arguments, of an issue in the public eye and helps the process of working out reasonable solutions.

There are seldom awards, however, for duly reporting civics at work. The big awards are typically garnered for reporting disasters that got scant media attention in the making. So at the moment, my colleagues and I are being widely honored. But what I really want to see is how this issue we put in the spotlight works out in the end.

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