In 1969, Ron Ridenhour – a Vietnam veteran – wrote a letter to Congress and the Pentagon which exposed the My Lai massacre to the American public and the world. He went on to become an award-winning investigative journalist but died suddenly at the age of 52. The annual Ridenhour Prizes – awarded by the Nation Institute and Fertel Foundationfor the past four years – memorialize the spirit of fearless truth-telling Ridenhour reflected throughout his extraordinary life and career. They honor people who articulate unpopular truths, who act bravely and put their reputations at risk in order to strengthen our democracy.
Yesterday, at a packed and spirited gathering at the National Press Club in DC, the Ridenhour Prizes for Truth-Telling, Outstanding Book, and Courage were presented to Donald Vance (an American contractor in Iraq turned whistle blower), Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran, and President Jimmy Carter, respectively.
In introducing Chandrasekaran, Ted Koppel – whose news program America Held Hostage was created in 1979 to monitor the Iranian hostage crisis before eventually morphing into Nightline – said of Carter: “He was good enough to remind me of the role that he and his administration played in my professional good fortune and suggested that five percent of my income over the past 28 years contributed to the Carter Center might be an appropriate way of…” – he trailed off to laughter and applause.
Koppel then noted his own recent NPR commentarythat compared similar elements of Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City and the German film The Lives of Others. The film focuses on the impact of the Stasi – the East German secret police – on the lives of some theatre people and, ultimately, the impact those individuals have on a senior Stasi officer. Koppel said there was a clear message in the film that “when a regime places a higher value on ideological loyalty than it does on honesty or creativity or even efficiency, that regime has already sown the seeds of its own destruction. Which brings me to Imperial Life in the Emerald City. Hardly a replica of East Germany in the 1980’s but replete with sufficient similarities to warn us of what can happen when political loyalty is allowed to substitute for competence…. Rajiv’s portrayal… makes the tragedy of Iraq today all the greater. He makes you wonder again and again of what might have been – if only….”
If only, indeed. And if only some of our political leaders today possessed the courage and wisdom, the grace and humility, of President Jimmy Carter. Rabbi Leonard Beerman introduced Carter as the recipient of The Ridenhour Courage Prize. Beerman is the Founding Rabbi of the Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles and a past President of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, and the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis. He spoke eloquently, saying that Carter “has fashioned a career of extraordinary accomplishment…out of what I believe is most important – a persistent moral sensibility. Even about the most sensitive and contentious issues – such as the rights of the Palestinians, for example.”