The ninth annual Izzy Awards from the Park Center for Independent Media included among the four recipients a documentary series for the first time, along with independent journalists who have investigated voter suppression and private prisons.
The Izzy Awards recognize the work of journalists operating outside of the traditional media. The PCIM has been presenting these awards since 2009, in honor of investigative journalist I.F. “Izzy” Stone for his work as an independent journalist throughout the mid 20th century.
Ari Berman, senior contributing writer for The Nation, was recognized for his work in uncovering voter suppression since former President Barack Obama was elected. Shane Bauer, a senior reporter for Mother Jones, and Seth Freed Wessler, a reporter for The Nation, were awarded for their work in exposing the treatment of prisoners at private prisons across the country.
The final award was given to a documentary series, a category of journalism not normally considered for an Izzy Award, called “America Divided.” The series discusses structural inequality that exists in the United States today and other kinds of institutional problems that plague society.
One of the creators of the documentary series, Rick Rowley, said that while economic and political inequality are the United States’ greatest issues, there are still those out there trying to remedy the problem of inequality.
“We began with the premise that inequality is the greatest political and economic crisis facing America today, and that it is an engine that drives multiple different subissues and subtopics that need to be covered and understood together,” Rowley said. “There are glimmers of hope all over the place. We sought out places where there were social movements to transform these systems that create and reproduce inequality.”
Berman said independent media are incredibly important in confronting the issues that mainstream media may not talk about.
“Independent journalism tells stories that larger and more established outlets are afraid to touch on a variety of issues,” Berman said. “So we’re always going to be the ones ahead of the curve. Whether it’s on voting rights or private prisons or inequality, it’s independent media that’s almost always getting the story first, and the rest of the media is following.”
Wessler investigated private federal prisons that housed noncitizens for crimes they had committed mostly involving exiting or entering the United States illegally. Wessler said that because of the reporting he did, one of the prisons he investigated closed down because of the conditions there. The prison, Cibola County Correctional Center, was the worst prison he said he wrote about, and in August of last year, the Department of Justice closed it and a week later pledged to close all privatized federal facilities. However, after the election of President Donald Trump, the new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, reversed the order to close private prisons.
Bauer went undercover both as a correctional officer for Corrections Corporations of America and as part of a border militia group called Three Percent United Patriots. Bauer said to tell this story right, he had to actually be a part of these systems he was investigating, rather than just asking about them.
“I’ve been interested in private prisons,” Bauer said. “I’d poked around them, but it was hard to get at that story because on top of the normal barrier to prisons, there’s a higher barrier with private prisons. These are companies, so a lot of the public access laws don’t apply. So I wanted to see what life [was] like inside of them.”
Bauer said he was surprised he was able to get a job as a correctional officer and how he was lucky that when he applied for the job, he was never asked about his previous work experience.
“So I applied for the job. Really, I was honestly just bored at work one afternoon and just thought I’d fill out an application,” Bauer said. “I talked to my editors about this and they said ‘Yeah go for it, just don’t lie about anything.’ It was this thing where I thought, ‘This isn’t really going to happen. I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere, but I’ll give it a try.’ … Lucky for me, they didn’t ask why I wanted to work in a prison. They didn’t ask anything about my job history.”
Freshman Bronzert Pedulla-Smith said he went to the event because he wanted to learn about independent journalism and that he now realizes the importance of this kind of journalism.
“I felt there was something that would blow my mind here and awaken my world view,” Pedulla-Smith said. “I felt like coming here would open me up because I didn’t even know these people before. I didn’t know anything about this, and it is even better than I could have imagined. Without a doubt, absolutely [whether independent media is important], it is almost criminal that the media is consolidated and industrialized to the point that it is.”