Eye on the Prize

SF Weekly writer Lisa Davis wins a Polk Award for exposing the history of nuclear waste at Hunters Point Shipyard

It is an understatement, even a cliché, to suggest that journalism is a profession prone to self-congratulation. Indeed, journalists give themselves awards arranged along almost every imaginable parameter. There are national, regional, state, and local journalism awards relating to news, feature, and opinion writing. There are subject-based journalism awards, one of which honors articles crafted by “active food journalists,” whoever and wherever they may be. There is a contest that recognizes only journalists younger than age 35, as if youthful reporters constituted a disadvantaged class warranting affirmative action.

And then, above the others, hover the death awards.

Death awards are those journalistic honors prestigious enough to be regularly listed in the winners' obituaries. Contrary to the term's sardonic connotations, death awards are highly sought after and esteemed. They are recognized, across the profession, as rising above the self-congratulatory stream in which journalists habitually bathe. Although the subject of much envious gossip, death awards intend to, and usually do, mark out the genuinely noteworthy in a particular year of journalism, the type of work that real journalists ought to want to do.

The most prominent death award is, of course, the Pulitzer Prize, which, once bestowed, follows one-quarter inch behind a journalist's spine for life and then, when death happens, searches out an obit headline to inhabit (“Machu Picchu, 34, Pulitzer Prize-winning Writer”).

Located very slightly below the Pulitzers in the death-prize pantheon are the George Polk Awards, established by Long Island University in 1949 to honor a reporter killed while covering the civil war in Greece. A quick search of the Nexis news database shows highly regarded New York Times editorial page editor John B. Oakes with a recent Polk-containing obit; Edward R. Murrow and I. F. Stone are more distantly dead Polk honorees. Of course, not all Polk Award winners are dead yet. Christiane Amanpour, Jimmy Breslin, Nina Totenberg, Daniel Schorr, Walter Cronkite, David Halberstam, Seymour Hersh, Peter Jennings, and Ted Koppel each has a Polk to his or her name.

And now so does SF Weekly staff writer Lisa Davis, who, I'm proud to announce, is quite alive and the winner of the 2001 George Polk Award for Environmental Reporting for her investigative series “Fallout.”

I met Lisa Davis about eight years ago, when she worked for The Arizona Republic/ Phoenix Gazette. I was trying to persuade her to come to the Phoenix alternative weekly, New Times, where I was editor; she was trying to figure out whether to make the jump. She did, and over the next couple of years I came to know her as a fine, direct, clear writer, and a real blue-collar reporter. (I mean that description as high praise; there is nothing less useful in journalism than “reporters” with fancy advanced degrees and an inability or unwillingness to do the hard fact-proving necessary for quality journalism.)

Ms. Davis turned out a steady stream of important articles in Phoenix — a lengthy piece on Mormon child molesters stands out in my mind — and then transferred to SF Weekly, also a member of the New Times group. In an entirely unconnected happenstance, about a year later I also transferred to the Weekly, once again became Ms. Davis' editor, and once again watched her produce a series of wonderful stories. But “Fallout” was and is special, and not — at least not primarily — because it has been recognized with a death award.

“Fallout” began because Lisa Davis is as aware and curious as all reporters ought to be. While researching a feature story that dealt with a scientific submarine, she came across mention of the dumping of radioactive waste near the Farallon Islands, 30 miles or so off San Francisco's shore. Over time, she followed that waste backward from the ocean floor to its apparent source, a little-publicized nuclear research laboratory at the Hunters Point Shipyard in San Francisco. From there, she engaged in a painstaking process of requesting access to and reviewing shipyard records from the National Archives; many of those records had to undergo declassification before Ms. Davis could view them. The records led to other documents located in far-flung government databases and agencies. The records led to people who were interviewed, who led to other people and other records.

In the end, Ms. Davis was able to piece together a remarkable two-part series about remarkably careless handling of nuclear material at the now-decommissioned military base, which was (and still is) in the process of being transferred from U.S. Navy to City of San Francisco control. Through her painstaking research, Ms. Davis was able to show, among other things, that nuclear scientists at the shipyard oversaw the dumping of tons of radioactive sand and acid into San Francisco Bay; spread radioactive material on and off the naval base to practice cleaning it up; burned radioactive fuel oil and discharged the smoke into the atmosphere; sold radioactive ships as scrap metal without warning buyers about radioactivity; and dumped far more nuclear waste in a prime ocean fishing ground than had previously been disclosed.

In response to “Fallout,” San Francisco Supervisor Sophie Maxwell sponsored new legislation aimed at ensuring a proper cleanup of the base, and U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi asked the Navy a detailed series of questions about nuclear contamination at the yard. The Navy, meanwhile, announced it was conducting a historical research program on radiological activities at Hunters Point, a program shaped at least partly by the findings of “Fallout.”

“Fallout” is the result of more than a year of documentary research, self-questioning, interviews, frustration, and plain, hard, blue-collar work by Lisa Davis. And let me tell you something the Polk judges didn't know when they made their selection: Ms. Davis was facing a special challenge when she organized the thousands of pages of documents underlying “Fallout” and wrote the 15,000 words of the series — a challenge known as the final weeks of pregnancy. She absolutely deserves the George Polk Award.

This column began with the suggestion that journalists might — just might — be prone to self-congratulation, and it would be silly to deny that this column is in some regard proof of the thesis. Ordinarily, SF Weekly notes its journalism awards in understated prose placed in a small box on the letters page. Obviously, I am writing a column about Lisa Davis and “Fallout” at least partly because I want as many people as possible to know that an SF Weekly writer won a George Polk Award, alongside writers from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Yorker.

Of course, I believe I have a reason beyond bragging for writing this column. My better self hopes people will read this column, then go to the SF Weekly Web site (www.sfweekly.com) to read the entire “Fallout” series. My better self believes that, if enough people read the series, there will be enough continuing public pressure to force the Navy to clean the shipyard properly — before it is redeveloped as a new neighborhood in a quarter of the city that has long been an environmental dumping ground.

But yes, I'm proud as hell of Ms. Davis, and, for that matter, the entire staff of SF Weekly, because the whole staff contributed in some way to making “Fallout” happen. And yes, I'm bragging.

So shoot me. Just make sure the obit mentions that once upon a time I edited a series that won Lisa Davis her first George Polk Award.

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