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Award winner Alpert (American University photo)

‘Pay the man,’ the judge said, and that’s how a career got started

SHOWCASE | October 03, 2009

As he tells it, Jon Alpert, winner of the 2009 I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence, had an eye out for injustice early on.

By Barry Sussman

In a series of video snippets, Jon Alpert, winner of the 2009 I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence, showed Thursday night at American University how a young New York City cab driver with a camera became a documentary film maker reporting on injustice, misery and conflict around the world, often in dangerous situations.
Alpert, feeling ill served by his labor union, started doing on-screen interviews with other cab drivers. At one point a manager came at him, threatened to smash his camera, and did. Alpert went to small-claims court, where the manager denied ever having seen him. Alpert said he could show that was a lie but the judge said, “No, you can’t; it’s one person’s word against another’s.” Whereupon Alpert produced his visual evidence, and the judge said, “Pay the man.” That was pretty much how it started.
In a career of more than 35 years, Alpert has reported from Cuba, Vietnam (his was the first camera crew there after the war), Cambodia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nicaragua as the Sandinistas took power, the Philippines, the Soviet Union, Angola, Korea and elsewhere, as well as the U.S. He gained access to some of the world’s most elusive leaders, including Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein.

His work has aired on NBC, PBS, HBO and other outlets and he has received a wide range of journalism honors that include 15 Emmys and four duPont-Columbia Awards. He also got fired from time to time, and in accepting the Stone Medal he spoke of stories he had done that TV networks wouldn’t show, or showed without promoting.
The last snippet Alpert showed was about his father, whose philosophy was, “Leave this a better place than when you came.” Alpert said his father read I.F. Stone. "He talked about Stone and how he was his own man. Stone was used as an example of the man my father hoped I would be."
The award presentation was followed by a panel discussion on journalistic independence moderated by John R. MacArthur, president and publisher of Harper’s magazine with journalists Walter Pincus, Christopher Hedges and Alpert taking part.
In addition, the AU School of Communication presented an essay contest award to a graduate student, Russ Choma, on the subject of independence in journalism.
This was the second annual I.F. Stone medal; last year’s winner was John Walcott, Washington, DC, bureau chief for the McClatchy news group.
I.F. Stone (1907-1989) was an American journalist best known for a newsletter, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, published from 1953 to 1971. For more on Stone, including much of his writing, see the Web site, http://www.ifstone.org/.
Nieman Watchdog plans to run a transcript and video of the event at AU when they are available.

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