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Ellsberg proposes Pulitzer prize for sources

Daniel Ellsberg (photo by
Randy Lyman, SPJ)

SAN FRANCISCO, March 17 -- "There should be a Pulitzer Prize for sources," Daniel Ellsberg told the Society of Professional Journalists last night. To keep it "a modest proposal," Ellsberg said it would not be retroactive, but quipped that he'd be happy to see "a statuette called the Daniel."

The Vietnam-era Pentagon analyst was accepting the Norwin S. Yoffie Career Achievement Award from the SPJ's Northern California Chapter for his lifelong commitment to combating government secrecy. "It's hard for a known source to get a career achievement award," he noted. "Their first achievement tends to end their career."

In 1971 Mr. Ellsberg leaked the "Pentagon Papers," which revealed that the government was lying to the public about the real situation in Vietnam.

Mr. Ellsberg pointed out that whistle-blowing sources make investigative journalism possible, but are not considered part of the journalism process. He said he'd never been invited to speak at a journalism school as a source. He added, "I think a lot of journalists look on their sources like police officers look at their informants ... as very dubious characters."

Mr. Ellsberg regaled the crowd with readings from transcripts of Nixon Administration White House tapes released just two years ago. Noting that he'd heard the actual tapes many times, Mr. Ellsberg did convincing impressions of both President Nixon and aide Henry Kissinger.

Mr. Ellsberg cited Katharine Gunn as someone who deserves an award for her courage. British intelligence translator Gunn faced prosecution for leaking information about an alleged U.S. spying operation against U.N. Security Council members during the run-up to the Iraq war.

Journalists need more such sources willing to breach government security, Mr. Ellsberg said. "You have to go back to the Alien and Sedition Acts in the time of President John Adams for a time freedom of information was under greater threat" in this country than it is now.

Mr. Ellsberg received a standing ovation from the audience at the SPJ-NORCAL's 19th annual James Madison Freedom of Information Awards Dinner.

Veteran Bay Area journalist Randy Alfred serves on SPJ-NorCal's Freedom of Information committee.

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