Award celebrates book-length journalism

The Helen Bernstein Award was accompanied by talk of investigative journalism's future

Investigative journalists and their fans gathered at the New York Public Library’s flagship 42nd Street branch on Tuesday night to honor journalism, books, and the marriage of the two. The occasion was the annual Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, awarded to Ellen Schultz for her 2011 book Retirement Heist: How Companies Plunder and Profit from the Nest Eggs of American Workers. The work is an investigation into the ways that large corporations and insurance companies use loopholes and accounting tricks to empty funds meant to pay for employee retirements.

“We look for a book that’s on a subject of real consequence, that is fresh and innovative and that has information you’re not going to get elsewhere, and is the result of really enterprising work by the reporter,” explains James Hoge, Jr., chairman of the board at Human Rights Watch and head of the selection committee that chose the winning book. “What’s happening to retirees in America is a big subject of great public interest, and there’s no book quite like this one.”

Before the winner was announced, journalist and author Lynn Sherr delivered opening remarks harshly critical of the current state of journalism. “Our job,” she reminded the audience, “is not to tell the public what they say they want to hear.” Schultz, who received $15,000 in addition to the award, sounded a similar note in her short acceptance speech, recalling what Rupert Murdoch told his reporters after buying The Wall Street Journal, where she once worked: “Our mission is to entertain, enrich, and inform—in that order.”

Now in its 25th year, the award is funded through a $1 million gift from the Bernstein family to the NYPL. In addition to the book award, the gift helps endow the Library’s librarian for periodicals and journals.

The award now honors only book-length journalism published in the past year, but this was not always the case.

The first recipient, in 1987, was James Reston, for his lifetime contribution to journalism, and the second was Judy Woodruff, for a series of television broadcasts on Frontline about Iran-Contra. “After that,” explains James Bernstein, son of award namesake Helen Bernstein Fealy, “the President of the Public Library at the time, Timothy Healy, said, ‘Well, we’re a library. A library has books. Let’s restrict the winner just to someone who’s written a book.’ And so they added the word ‘book’ to the name of the award.” Since then, winners have included Thomas Friedman, David Remnick, Joe Nocera, Jane Mayer, and Nicholas Lemann.

The NYPL, though, may not always be known for books. It recently announced a controversial plan to move many of its research stacks into off-site storage in New Jersey and use the space for a lending library and computers for ebooks. Perhaps trying to head off criticism, NYPL President Anthony Marx gave a forceful speech after Sherr’s remarks, insisting that he wanted “great writers and journalists to find the facts” at the library, which still has “the most democratic access of any great research library in the world.”

But what of book-length and investigative journalism itself? With newspapers cutting investigative units, could there someday be no book-length journalism around for the Helen Bernstein Book Award to honor? Everyone at the ceremony seemed optimistic about the prospects for investigative journalism, but unsure about how to pay for it.

“I’m hopeful, I’m always hopeful,” Sherr says. “With people like the people nominated for these awards … clearly there are terrific people out there, and I love that.” But she also did not know how they would be paid. “Without money to pay the salary of someone who needs six weeks, six months, maybe six years to find something out,” she asks, “how are we going to get these stories?”

Schultz believes that “there is a growing lack of is journalism focused on corporate malfeasance,” largely because this kind of journalism needs the legal resources of large institutions to protect its practitioners from retaliation by the corporations they cover. Individual freelance reporters, she worries, “are just too vulnerable.”

The best perspective may have come from Agnes Ash, the one-time editor for and longtime friend of Helen Bernstein Fealy. “When I started working 60 years ago,” Ash remembers, “everyone said, ‘Don’t go into journalism. Television is going to kill [print] journalism.’” Her subsequent print career spanned decades.

The other finalists for the award (who each received $1,000) were Jay Bahadur, for The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World, which depicts the lives and exploits of Somali pirates; Edward Girardet for Killing the Cranes: A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan, a deep look at the continuing problems facing Afghanistan; Donovan Hohn for Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,000 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went In Search of Them, which investigates the environmental, economic, and social effects of a rubber duck spill in the Pacific Ocean; and Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, for Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda, which reveals the United States’ modern counter-terrorism infrastructure.

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Peter Sterne is an editorial intern at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @petersterne.