James Risen

James Risen, an investigative reporter for the New York Times who said he’d sooner go to jail than divulge confidential sources, praised abolitionist and newspaper editor Elijah Parish Lovejoy as a “disruptive force,” and he criticized the Obama administration for its crackdown on journalists and whistleblowers as he received Colby’s Lovejoy Award for courageous journalism Oct. 5.

Risen reviewed Lovejoy’s career and martyrdom, praising him for rejecting deeply ingrained conventional wisdom to criticize slavery three decades before the Civil War—at a time when abolitionism was at the fringe of American discourse.

“The conventional wisdom of our day is the belief that we have had to change the nature of our society to accommodate the global war on terror,” Risen said. Americans have accepted a transformation and have accepted secret targeted killings of other Americans, the use of torture, the creation of secret offshore prisons, mass surveillance of personal communications, and the longest continuous period of war in American history, he said.

“Meanwhile, the government has eagerly prosecuted whistleblowers who try to bring any of the government’s actions to light,” Risen said. “The crackdown on leaks by first the Bush administration and more aggressively by the Obama administration, targeting both whistleblowers and journalists, has been designed to suppress the truth about the war on terror.”

The convocation, where Risen received the award and an honorary doctor of laws degree, followed a daylong Goldfarb Center conference for college and university journalists from across New England.

A panel discussion in the afternoon discussed how the absence of a federal shield law protecting journalists, coupled with escalating prosecutions, has placed enormous pressures on reporters and news outlets. Panelists included Siobhan Gorman, national security reporter for the Wall Street Journal; Thomas Drake, a whistleblower fired from the NSA; and Fritz Byers, a lawyer who advises newspapers and is a lecturer at the University of Toledo. Rebecca Corbett ’74, assistant managing editor for the New York Times and a member of the Lovejoy Award selection committee, served as moderator.

In a Q&A following his address, Risen defended leaks and journalists’ use of confidential sources: “Since 9/11, virtually everything that you now know about the war on terror was originally classified. This is the first war we’ve ever fought that was classified.” He credited journalists and whistleblowers who revealed the use of Predator drones, secret prisons, and abuse at Abu Graib.

“There’s virtually nothing in the whole history of the last thirteen years that came out of an official government press release,” he said. “It all came out through the press and through whistleblowers. If you go back and if you took away all of the things that the press revealed to begin with in the war on terror, you would know virtually nothing about the last thirteen years. If you would rather live in a society in which you don’t know anything, then that’s the alternative.”

Video, audio, and text of Risen’s address are online, as is audio from the panel discussion.