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Winona LaDuke, executive director of Honor the Earth, spoke to aroung 45 people during a Honor the Earth rally at the 121 7th Place East building in July of 2014. (Photo: Bruce Bisping/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

Winona LaDuke, executive director of Honor the Earth, spoke to aroung 45 people during a Honor the Earth rally at the 121 7th Place East building in July of 2014. (Photo: Bruce Bisping/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

Danny Schechter Award for Journalism and Activism Goes to Winona LaDuke

The Global Center, a non-profit educational foundation dedicated to developing socially responsible media, is proud to announce Native American leader Winona LaDuke as the recipient of the fifth annual DANNY Award, which honors the life and work of the late Danny "The News Dissector" Schechter.

Rory O'Connor

“With the country in turmoil over racial injustice, a public health crisis and devastating job losses, it should be no surprise that journalists are caught up in the tumult,” Washington Post media writer Margaret Sullivan recently noted in a column headlined “What’s a journalist supposed to be now—an activist? A stenographer? You’re asking the wrong question.” To Sullivan the “core question” is this: “What journalism best serves the real interests of American citizens?”

New York Times media writer Ben Smith also weighed inAmerica’s “biggest newsrooms are trying to find common ground between a tradition that aims to persuade the widest possible audience that its reporting is neutral and journalists who believe that fairness on issues from race to Donald Trump requires clear moral calls,” Smith noted, before declaring that this “shift in mainstream American mediadriven by a journalism that is more personal, and reporters more willing to speak what they see as the truth without worrying about alienating conservativesnow feels irreversible.”

It wasn’t always this way…

Decades ago, pioneering journalists like Danny Schechter took a stance toward such then-controversial topics as apartheid in South Africa and human rights abuses around the world. It led to his being branded with a metaphoric scarlet letter—“A” for Advocate. As one of the first to marry the two, Schechter often faced scorn for combining journalistic endeavors with advocacy and activism in support of causes for the social good. While at CNN and later ABC News, he pushed against the constraints of cable and broadcast news. He left ABC to partner in the independent production company Globalvision and began producing programming about such controversial topics as apartheid in South Africa and human rights abuses around the world.

The growing acceptance of journalist as activists is one welcome outcome of  the current protests. That’s why the board of The Global Center, a non-profit educational foundation dedicated to developing socially responsible media, is proud to announce Native American leader Winona LaDuke as the recipient of the fifth DANNY Award, which honors the life and work of the late Danny “The News Dissector” Schechter. The DANNY is given each year to those who best emulate Schechter's practice of combining excellent journalism with committed social activism. Previous winners include Jose Antonio Vargas, Patrice O’Neill, the reporters and editors of the Eagle Eye, the student newspaper of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. The award is bestowed annually by The Global Center and includes a $3,000 grant to support the honoree’s work.  

An environmentalist, economist, author and activist, LaDuke has already published six non-fiction books and has a new one, To be A Water Protector, coming out this fall. (She’s also written Last Standing Woman, a novel about an American Indian reservation’s struggle to restore its culture.) A graduate of Harvard University, LaDuke has long worked in Native and community-based organizing and groups. In 1985, for example, she helped establish the Indigenous Women’s Network, dedicated to “generating a global movement that achieves sustainable change for our communities,” and later, with the proceeds of a human rights award, founded the White Earth Land Recovery Project to help the Anishinaabeg Indians regain possession of their original land base.

In the 1990s LaDuke became involved with the Green Party and was presidential candidate Ralph Nader’s running mate in both the 1996 and 2000 elections. Today she is the executive director of Honor the Earth, a Native environmental advocacy organization she co-founded in 1993 with the folk-rock duo, the Indigo Girls.The organization played an active role in the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and remains a key opponent to proposals by the Canadian multinational corporation Enbridge to bring more tar sands to the United States.  LaDuke continues to write and speak in support of water protectors and in opposition to other pipelines and mega projects near Native land and waters.

Among her many previous honors and awards, LaDuke was chosen by TIME magazine as one of America's fifty most promising leaders under forty years of age; won a Reebok Human Rights Award and a Thomas Merton Award; was named the Ms. Magazine Woman of the Year for her work with Honor the Earth; and has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

Whether or not activism and journalism should mix remains controversial, but in the face of allegations of “fake news,” the invention of “alternative facts,” charges that the news media is an “enemy of the people,” and outright police assaults on reporters covering protests, it has increasingly become embraced by professional practitioners. As Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times noted, "Journalism *is* activism in its most basic form.” Wesley Lowery, who quit his reporting job at the Washington Post in a dispute over his own activism, says the core value of news organizations “needs to be the truth, not the perception of objectivity.” America’s “view-from-nowhere, ‘objectivity’-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment,” he believes. “We need to rebuild our industry as one that operates from a place of moral clarity.” A NewsGuild spokesperson added, “When people in power are sowing doubt about basic facts, journalism looks like activism.” And Lowery concludes, “Journalists perform acts of activism every day. Any good journalist is an activist for truth, in favor of transparency, on the behalf of accountability.”

Danny Schechter knew from firsthand experience that the commercial media world was not open to such coverage. So he offered it instead to public television. Rather than being welcomed there, however, he was told by top PBS executives that opposition to the racist regime in South Africa was too controversial and that human rights was "an insufficient organizing principle" for a television program. The PBS reaction, combined with deceitful right-wing protests, led to being told that advocacy on behalf of human rights meant that he wasn’t a journalist at all.

Sadly, such views are still prevalent in today's media world. But as the pace of change within the field of journalism continues to accelerate, many are raising questions about the role of advocacy and the concept of objectivity.  More and more, journalists with strong points of view are giving us news and insights we can’t find elsewhere. Should we even bother trying to distinguish between so-called “objective” journalism and advocacy? Many experts say the answer is no.

I am enough of a traditionalist that I don’t like to see mainstream reporters acting like partisans—for example, by working on political campaigns,” says the WaPo’s Sullivan. “But it’s more than acceptable that they should stand up for civil rights—for press rights, for racial justice, for gender equity and against economic inequality.”

“We might have passed the point where we can talk about objectivity in journalism with a straight face,” Patricia Aufderheide, founder of the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University, has noted. “Objectivity was always a shortcut. It was a useful little shortcut of a concept to say you should be fair, you should be honest, you should have integrity, you should tell people accurately and responsibly what you think are the important things about what you saw or researched. If what we’re doing is advocating for the public, that’s our job.”

And if a piece of journalism “isn’t advocacy, it isn’t journalism,” declares Jeff Jarvis, Director of Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY's Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. “Isn’t advocacy on behalf of principles and the public the true test of journalism? The choices we make about what to cover and how we cover it and what the public needs to know are acts of advocacy on the public’s behalf. Don’t we believe that we act in their interest? After all, what is a journalist, if not an advocate on behalf of the public?”

Perhaps the last word for now should go to someone who epitomizes the so-called “mainstream media,” Times publisher A. G. Sulzberger. While “we’re not retreating from the principles of independence and objectivity,” he told Ben Smith, “we don’t pretend to be objective about things like human rights and racism.”

Sounds like journalism and activism to me.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Rory O'Connor

Rory O'Connor is Board Chair of the non-profit educational foundation The Global Center. He is also an award-winning author, journalist and filmmaker, whose programming has aired on leading networks in more than one hundred countries. The author of three books, including most recently Friends, Followers and the Future: How Social Media are Changing Politics, Threatening Big Brands, and Killing Traditional Media, O’Connor’s articles have appeared in such national outlets as The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, Vogue, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Nation, Newsweek, and other publications. O'Connor's broadcast, film and print work has been recognized with a George Polk Award, a Writer's Guild Award, a George Orwell Award and two Emmys, among other honors.

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