Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Jim Ludes, Alex Kuffner and G. Wayne Miller speak at the 2019 Pell Prize ceremony

Elizabeth Kolbert, best-selling author of the Pulitzer-winning "The Sixth Extinction" and staff writer for The New Yorker, received the 2019 Pell Center Prize for Story in the Public Square on Monday, March 4, at The Pell Center in Newport, R.I.  Awarded annually since 2013, the prize honors a storyteller whose work has significantly influenced the public dialogue.

We will have tape of Betsy's remarks up shortly. Meanwhile, here are remarks delivered that night before Betsy took the stage by Pell Center director Jim Ludes, Providence Journal environment/energy writer Alex Kuffner, and me.

Jim, me and Betsy Kolbert.

Jim Ludes’ remarks

Good evening, welcome to the Pell Center, welcome to the campus of Salve Regina University.  Welcome to the presentation of the 2019 Pell Center Prize for Story in the Public Square.

I want to take a quick moment to acknowledge some important friends and partners in the room tonight.  Sister Jane Gerety, president of Salve Regina University, thank you for being here.  Janet Hassen, publisher of the Providence Journal, and Alan Rosenberg, executive editor, thank you both for being with us tonight and for your partnership on Story in the Public Square.

Those of you who have been to this event in the past will know the story of Wayne and I meeting one cold February morning for coffee with Kristine Hendrickson, my colleague here at the University.  We met downtown and wanted to explore ways we could collaborate. 

The truth is, we had no idea what we were doing.  Wayne told me he wanted to do something about story telling.  I scrunched my face up and said, “no,” it has to be something about policy.  In a clumsy mouthful of a compromise, we conjured up “Story in the Public Square.” 

We began with an annual conference: one day; a slew of speakers; and the presentation of the Pell Center prize to one person whose use of narrative transcended sales marks and served the public good.  After a couple of years, we jettisoned the conference, and we have far fewer speakers on the program, but the prize endures and thrives because of the people we have honored—people like Elizabeth Kolbert—because of the work they do, and because of the power of the stories they tell to raise issues, understanding, and our collective consciences to act for good.

That’s really what animates everything we do on Story in the Public Square.  We’re interested in stories that matter and the story tellers who tell them.  Instead of that conference, we now host a weekly public affairs talk show of the same name, “Story in the Public Square.”  You can hear it four times every weekend on SiriusXM Satellite Radio’s POTUS Channel—the Politics of the United States.  Since September, the show has been available on public television stations across the United States.  Now we’re seen on more than 200 stations, in 80% of the country’s television markets, in 455 broadcasts each week.

And if I’m really honest with you, I’d say: we still have no idea what we’re doing.

But it seems to work—and there seems to be an audience for long-form discussions of big issues.  Whether it’s climate change or race or healthcare or Russia’s interference in our democracy, we take the time in each episode to unpack issues, shine a light into some dark spaces, and—we hope—laugh a bit along the way.  But in that audience, I find reasons to hope that reason and intelligence conversations still have a place in the American public square.  

I’m happy to announce tonight that two weeks ago we were renewed for our third national television season of Story in the Public Square that will begin in July. 

Now, before we go any further, I want to take a brief moment to acknowledge Story in the Public Square’s biggest supporter.  Let’s be honest, this was an unconventional initiative to back.  You’ve got two hosts who, frankly, look like we do, and who had never produced a television show.  We made some mistakes along the way.  For example:

We learned that you can’t build a temporary set in a home that was built 160 years earlier with single-pane glass—as we did for our pilot episode—and whose neighbors may want to mow their lawn in the middle of your first episode.  You just can’t do that.

But we also learned that a good idea, nurtured, and given time to mature, can be transformative.
So tonight, we want to acknowledge the biggest fan of our show, the person who didn’t just green light the idea, but has encouraged it, made the resources available for it, and given us the freedom to learn from our mistakes.  It’s made all the difference in the world. 

She’s going to step down from the presidency at Salve Regina University at the end of this academic year, but her legacy and her impact on the Pell Center and Story in the Public Square goes on.  Ladies and gentleman, please join us as we thank Sister Jane Gerety for her leadership, her encouragement, and her inspiration.  Sister Jane.

To set the context for tonight’s honoree, it is my pleasure to invite to the stage the Energy and Environment reporter for our partner, The Providence Journal, Alex Kuffner.

Alex Kuffner's remarks

Thank you, Jim. And thank you, both Jim and Wayne for inviting me here tonight to share some thoughts about environmental journalism.

I believe now more than ever in the importance of reporting on the environment. We have an administration in Washington that questions the scientific evidence about everything from water pollution to greenhouse gases. We have a president that doesn’t understand  -- or doesn’t want to acknowledge -- the difference between weather and climate.

But journalists are offering a counterpoint, relying on facts to educate us about the threats we are facing.

I’d like to highlight just a few of these efforts.

There was the series by InsideClimate News that exposed what Exxon knew decades ago about the impacts on the climate of burning fossil fuels. Or the recent stories in the New York Times about the influence that polluting industries are wielding over the EPA and the Interior Department. And if you haven’t read Losing Earth, Nathaniel Rich’s narrative in the Times Magazine about the history of the science of climate change, I highly recommend you do.

But I also want to emphasize the importance of local and regional news, too. Some of the best stories I’ve read about invasive species were written by Dan Egan at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Mark Schleifstein led the way in reporting on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The Texas Tribune, in partnership with ProPublica, wrote an eye-opening report about Houston’s lack of preparedness for a hurricane -- a piece that was published the year before Hurricane Harvey hammered the city.

I think it’s safe to say that there will always be a New York Times or a Washington Post, but the future isn’t so certain for smaller newspapers. Hedge funds interested only in the bottom line are buying more and more local newspapers, and then cutting staff to maximize profits. Jill Lepore wrote a good story recently for the New Yorker explaining this problem.

Environmental reporting often isn’t sensational. It may not get the online clicks of a good police story -- I know that from personal experience -- but I think it’s essential.

I’m lucky enough to work at The Providence Journal, a newspaper that still values big, explanatory stories about the environment. But I am worried about what further cuts could mean down the line.
I’ve been doing this for a few years now and was able to work with the late Peter Lord, the Journal’s longtime, great environmental reporter. If we’re going to talk about environmental reporting in Rhode Island, we have to remember him and a career that included exemplary stories about children poisoned by lead paint and efforts to protect Block Island’s unique ecology.

One thing I learned from Pete was the importance of science on this beat. I view my job as being one of translation. I’m trying to translate complex science into stories that people can understand and relate to.

These days, so much of reporting on the environment is about climate change and the impacts we’re already seeing.

Here in Rhode Island, we’re losing ecologically-vital salt marshes as sea levels rise, we’re seeing numbers of cold-water animals like winter flounder and lobster -- species that were once the bedrock of our fishing industry -- plummet while black sea bass and other warm-water fish are thriving, and we’re seeing a combination of drought, heat and infestations of invasive insects killing off tracts of forest.

I want to give a quick plug here to an upcoming series in the Journal on climate change. You’ll see the first installment in a couple of weeks, on the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier in Providence and whether it will be able to handle the higher storm surges and more extreme hurricanes that are already coming. I’m also planning a story on threats to Newport’s drinking water supply.

Elizabeth Kolbert has documented the changes to the environment on a global scale. I’ll keep this brief because my colleague Wayne Miller will speak in greater detail about her work, but I want to say that she exemplifies the best of our craft.

By highlighting the research done by scientists on the front lines, by telling their stories and humanizing them, and by showing us how the world is already changing, her work is a model that I and, I think, other environmental writers should aspire to.

G. Wayne Miller's remarks

Thank you, Alex. Thank you, Jim. And thank you Sister Jane for your incredible stewardship of Salve Regina University, and your unwavering support of Story in the Public Square from the very start, when it was little more than a half-baked idea that -- if you’ll pardon another bad pun --  Jim and I cooked up over a cup of coffee seven years ago last month, as he just mentioned.

Welcome, everyone. A special shout-out to my colleagues at The Providence Journal.

That cup of coffee we recounted set in motion a program that today includes our TV and Radio show, which has won a Telly Award and which features some of America’s best storytellers from the worlds of journalism, books, film, still photography, academia, music and more. As Jim and I like to say, our guests have made the show, together with our great crew at our flagship station, Rhode Island PBS.

A Telly Award is wonderful to receive, but the Pell Center Prize for Story in the Public Square is something truly special to award.

The first person to receive it was two-time Pulitzer winner Dana Priest, honored in 2013 for her reporting at The Washington Post.

The next year, we honored Emmy-winning director, screenwriter and actor Danny Strong -- co-creator of Empire, screenwriter of The Butler and much more.

Lisa Genova, the neuroscientist and best-selling author of five novels, including “Still Alice,” which brought Julianne Moore an Oscar for the screen portrayal, was honored in 2015.

Pulitzer-winning photographer and filmmaker Javier Manzano won the Pell Prize in 2016.

Daphne Matziaraki -- whose documentary “4.1 Miles,” about the Syrian refugee crisis, received an Oscar nomination -- was honored in 2017.

And last year, Pulitzer-winner and New York Time staff writer Dan Barry won.

I think you will agree that this a distinguished group. To it tonight we welcome, with great enthusiasm, Elizabeth Kolbert.

When Jim and I last year began considering candidates for the 2019 Pell Prize, we did not have much of a discussion. There was no national search, no brainstorming, no long or short list. We had just one storyteller in mind, and it was Betsy. And when she agreed to accept the award, we were elated.
A former reporter at The New York Times, Betsy has been a staff writer for The New Yorker for many years. She, too, is a Pulitzer Prize winner -- for her last book, “The Sixth Extinction” -- and a two-time National Magazine Award winner. She has received a Heinz Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a National Academies communications award. She is a visiting fellow at the Center for Environmental Studies at Williams College and she lives in Williamstown with her husband, John Kleiner.

Those credentials alone would qualify her for the Pell Prize, but it is Betsy’s primary topic of choice that made such short work for Jim and me.

With the planet warming, the seas rising, and this world’s most highly evolved species both at fault and at risk – and that risk applies to many other life forms, too – I think you will agree that there is no more vital topic today than the environment.

Many scientists, activists, thinkers and others agree, of course, and they have the numbers and studies to offer as evidence of cause and peril. But only a storyteller with great talent and reach can best bring the issue to the larger public -- where new understanding, firm conviction and strong action can lead to change benefitting all, even the smallest species.

Betsy Kolbert is this rare sort of storyteller. Her writing -- with its authority, clarity and, when warranted, humor -- is to be savored. As a journalist, her reporting is to be envied. She is equally comfortable with researchers and, quote-unquote, “ordinary people” – and even with golden frogs and barnacles and other non-primate species. She goes to great lengths to discover and learn – literally, great lengths, around the world today and back in time millions of years.

And we are all the better for it. Although we could not scientifically prove it, I think it is safe to say that Betsy’s work has been a powerful force in confirming the truth, challenged now by only a tiny class of fools, that climate change is real -- and caused by our fossil-fuel addiction.

Let me close with a sample of Betsy’s beautiful prose. These are the words with which she which she ends “The Sixth Extinction”:

 “Obviously the fate of our own species concerns us disproportionately. But at the risk of sounding anti-human – some of my best friends are humans! – I will say that it is not, in the end, what’s most worth attending to. Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed.

“No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately be our most enduring legacy. The Sixth Extinction will continue to determine the course of life long after everything people have written and painted and built has been ground into dust and giant rats have – or have not – inherited the earth.”

And so, it is our distinct honor to present Betsy this award “for distinguished storytelling that has enriched the public dialogue.” Ladies and gentlemen, the 2019 Pell Center Prize Winner for Story in the Public Square, Elizabeth Kolbert.

[Photos by Andrea Thansen for The Pell Center]

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