“All governments lie.” That was the stark observation that Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, opened with on Thursday, quoting crusading muckraker I.F. Stone from more than 40 years before.
She was addressing a packed Tsai Auditorium audience, gathered for the presentation of the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence to documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, as well as the first I.F. Stone Lifetime Achievement Award to broadcast journalist Amy Goodman. Both awards celebrate Stone’s belief in what Lipinski, quoting Stone again, called “the watchdog role of journalism.”
A largely visual artist, Poitras chose to illustrate her acceptance with clips from “Citizenfour.” These focused on how Snowden reached out to her because of her previous documentary work, how she partnered with Greenwald and others, and finally how government forces in Europe and the United States have attempted to squelch their work. Her goals, she explained, are twofold. Using “visual journalism” to document how this nation has changed since Sept. 11, 2001, she has sought “to create a primary document — to record history — and then to try to bridge the gap, combine what we know with what we feel.”
“We’ve entered a moral vacuum in the post-9/11 era,” said Poitras, citing not only the widespread NSA surveillance but also the detainments of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo and other abrogations of civil liberties. With her work, she is fulfilling a responsibility “to respond to that moral vacuum,” she said. “To say something.”
The presentation was followed by a brief panel discussion, moderated by Tom Ashbrook, host of NPR’s “On Point” and a former Nieman Fellow. Questions ranged from speculation about Snowden’s future (he has applied for asylum in dozens of countries, said Poitras) to the role of the public.
“As citizens, there are certain things we’re obligated to speak out against,” Poitras responded, while Goodman brought up the case against Julian Assange. “He laid the groundwork for Snowden, and he has clearly risked his freedom,” she said, pointing out that he remains “holed up” in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he has received asylum.
Ultimately, talk returned to the role of journalism and the prizewinners’ future plans. “Our job is to go to where the silence is,” concluded Goodman, “to show what is happening on the ground.”