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Long Island University Announces Winners of 1999 George Polk Awards


Peg Byron,Director of Public Relations
Brooklyn Campus,
Long Island University

The George Polk AwardsBrooklyn, NY -- The 1999 George Polk Awards for excellence in journalism were announced in 13 categories by Long Island University today, several for probing reports exposing a range of exploitative practices and human suffering.

Winning entries highlighted the victimization of Pakistani women for suspicion of sexual infidelity, the dehumanization of youthful offenders in Maryland, death sentences meted out to innocent defendants in Illinois, and the wholesale murder of civilians by both sides in Kosovo. Also cited were stories documenting blue-chip companies secretly reducing pensions of workers, police using racial profiling to unfairly target people of color, hospital patients killed by medical mistakes, and farm workers subject to unspeakable squalor.

Two of the winning entries were echoes of a distant past--an account of the official cover-up of the illness and death of employees exposed to toxic metals decades ago in A-bomb factories and revelations of an unreported My Lai-style massacre by American troops at the end of the Korean War.

The Polk career award went to author and broadcaster Studs Terkel, America's oral historian.

The winners will be honored at a luncheon in April that will also celebrate the 51st anniversary of the George Polk Awards, which were established by Long Island University in 1949 to honor the memory of a courageous CBS reporter killed while covering the civil war in Greece.

Reporters at the Chicago Tribune won the Polk Award for Criminal Justice Reporting for uncovering a scandal that has reverberated throughout the world of law enforcement. Spurred by the earlier work of journalism students at Northwestern University, Tribune staff writers Ken Armstrong and Steve Mills undertook an exhaustive investigation of all of the death-penalty cases in Illinois, finding not only a system riddled with faulty evidence, unscrupulous trial tactics and legal incompetence but one that had condemned 12 innocent men to death. The series led to a moratorium on executions in the State.

Searing reports on the war in Kosovo, made possible by his ingenuity, persistence and courage, earned Paul Watson of the Los Angeles Times the Polk Award for Foreign Reporting. This is the second consecutive year that a Times reporter has won the Polk for coverage of the Kosovo conflict. After Serb officials rounded up about 30 journalists from NATO's member countries and expelled them under police escort to Macedonia, one--Watson--returned the following day. He was the only North American reporter to spend most of the next 67 days of the 78-day bombing campaign reporting, first-hand, on the daily terrors and privations, the courage and cruelties of both Albanians and Serbs.

The Polk Award for Medical Reporting was awarded to Andrea Gerlin of The Philadelphia Inquirer for a four-part series revealing how thousands of Americans are killed in U.S. hospitals every year as the result of doctors' and nurses' medical mistakes. Her meticulously researched reporting led to Senate hearings on the issue and helped to spur proposed legislation mandating public disclosure of medical errors.

A scathing report on three of Maryland's "boot camps" for juvenile delinquents earned reporter Todd Richissin and photographer Andre Chung of The Baltimore Sun the Polk Award for Regional Reporting. Their series portrayed guards routinely slamming children to the ground, punching them, kicking them and breaking their bones and teeth. Less than a week later, a coalition of advocates for children accused the state of "institutionalized child abuse," demanded the camps be closed and called on the governor to fire the head of his juvenile justice agency--all of which was done.

Ellen E. Schultz of The Wall Street Journal has won the Polk Award for Financial Reporting for her series of articles revealing how many of the largest American corporations were reaping huge savings--and often boosting their earnings--by adopting new "cash-balance" pension plans that cut retirement benefits for millions of employees without their knowledge. Following these revelations, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission launched an investigation into the situation, resulting in changes that are having a significant positive impact on the financial well-being of a large segment of American workers.

Kevin Carmody's three-part exposé, "Deadly Silence: The government's betrayal of A-bomb pioneers," in the Daily Southtown (Tinley Park, Illinois) has won the Polk Award for Local Reporting. His series revealed how hundreds of scientists and workers at a Manhattan Project lab at the University of Chicago were carelessly exposed to the toxic metal beryllium, then for 45 years intentionally kept in the dark about the potentially deadly health consequences. Carmody's revelations have led to a federal compensation plan which includes notification, testing and treatment of surviving victims.

The Polk Award for Editorial Writing went to the Daily News (New York) for a series of 14 editorials, "New York's Harvest of Shame," exposing the privations experienced by New York farm workers who were excluded by state law from receiving a minimum wage, workers' compensation, unemployment insurance, a day off a week, adequate housing and the right to bargain collectively. The News's editorial writers went out into the fields to interview workers and then interviewed growers and agriculture experts. Their impassioned editorials attracted the interest of unions, the religious community and the public, leading to passage of the State Farm Worker Equity and Wage Reform Act of 1999.

Reporter Olenka Frenkiel, producer Giselle Portenier and executive producer Fiona Murch of BBC News have won the Polk Award for Television Foreign Reporting for their chilling documentary, "Murder in Purdah," which recorded how, as Islamic fundamentalism took an ever-firmer grip on Pakistan, men in rural areas maimed and killed wives, daughters and sisters for suspected sexual infidelity. Over a six-week period, Frenkiel and Portenier tracked down the victims as well as the perpetrators. Shown in America on ABC-TV's Nightline under the title "A Matter of Honour," the film has had reverberations throughout the Muslim world and beyond, in the form of widespread letter-writing campaigns and organized protests.

The "I" Team of WWOR-TV in Secaucus, N. J., won the Polk Award for Local Television Reporting for reports on racial profiling by police in New Jersey. The station's coverage spans more than a decade, beginning with a ground-breaking 1989 investigative report, "Without Just Cause," and culminating in the 1999 admission by the State that selective targeting of minority persons took place and the assertion that it would no longer be tolerated.

The Polk Award for International Reporting went to three Associated Press reporters--Charles J. Hanley, Martha Mendoza, Sang-hun Choe--and AP researcher Randy Herschaft for their uncompromising coverage of the U.S. military cover-up of the killings of civilians in Korea nearly a half-century ago. Their exhaustive research confirmed long-simmering allegations that American soldiers machine-gunned hundreds of helpless South Korean civilians under a railroad bridge at No Gun Ri during the first desperate weeks of the Korean War.

Hard-edged analysis of the results of welfare reform, sharpened by portraits of the people affected by it, earned Jason DeParle of The New York Times the Polk Award for National Reporting. In Wisconsin, which pursued welfare-to-work first and most aggressively--slashing rolls by 90 percent--DeParle looked deeper into the complicated and often unhappy stories of the people in Milwaukee who were moved off welfare. Wisconsin administrators found that social factors were as important to the program's outcome as the source of income. "What seems most noteworthy about the lives of the 
poor," noted DeParle, "is not the change at all. It is the long list of things that remain the same: violent neighborhoods, absent fathers, bare cupboards, the temptations of drugs."

A Special Polk Award went to the National Security Archive, which functions as a research institute on international affairs, is the world's largest non-governmental library of declassified documents, and works to expand public access to government information. The Archive has forced the release of important documentation, ranging from Henry Kissinger's transcripts with Mao to the Guatemalan death squad dossier.

Studs Terkel, who has been honored with the 1999 Polk Career Award, is called, affectionately, "America's oral historian." A reviewer of Terkel's latest book, The Spectator, wrote: "Studs shifts shapes--from witness to reporter to advocate to fan--not to duck our questions, but the better to spill the beans." He interviews the rich and famous when they come through town, but for 45 years Terkel's daily radio show on WFMT in Chicago has been more noted for his pithy exchanges with the wide assortment of "regular guys and gals" who fill the pages of his more than two dozen books on such subjects as the Depression, World War II, the arts, race relations and aging. At 87, Studs is still going strong.

Long Island University will hold the 1999 Polk luncheon at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City on April 18. A seminar, also sponsored by the University, with Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes and 1999 Polk Career Award winner Studs Terkel, "Terkel and Wallace One-on-One: The Craft of the Journalistic Interview," will take place the previous evening in Manhattan at The Museum of Television & Radio.

Posted 02/01/2000

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