WASHINGTON — John Walcott, the chief of McClatchy's Washington Bureau, was named on Thursday the first recipient of the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence, sponsored by Harvard University's Nieman Foundation for Journalism.
Walcott was honored for leading a team of reporters whose skeptical coverage of the Bush administration's claims about Iraq's weapons programs in the months before the U.S. invasion in March 2003 was largely unmatched by other news outlets — and also largely ignored by policymakers.
"This is belated recognition of the powerful work done by Walcott in directing his colleagues in developing stories that were unappreciated and almost totally unnoticed at the time," Bob Giles, the Nieman Foundation's curator, said in announcing the award. "Because so many journalists fell short in their pre-Iraq war coverage, there's a real need to recognize this dogged editor who went about his business in a resolute way to challenge many of the justifications for the war that proved to be false."
In 2002, Walcott, then Knight Ridder Washington bureau chief, and two of the bureau's reporters, Jonathan S. Landay and Warren P. Strobel, produced dozens of stories that questioned the Bush administration's claims about the need for war and exposed the serious reservations that many intelligence, Foreign Service and military officers had about the rush to invade Iraq.
McClatchy bought Knight Ridder in 2006. Walcott, Landay and Strobel remain in the McClatchy bureau. The Nieman Foundation provides grants annually to journalists to study for a year at Harvard.
Established earlier this year, the I.F. Stone Medal recognizes journalistic independence and honors the life of investigative journalist I.F. Stone. The award will be presented annually.
"In recognizing Walcott, we wanted to honor the spirit of Izzy Stone as much as the reporting done by the Knight Ridder team," said John R. (Rick) Atkinson, the publisher of Harper's magazine and chair of the Stone selection committee. "And we wanted to emphasize that the spirit of I.F. Stone can still flourish in an institutional setting - that you don't necessarily have to be out there all by yourself to do the right thing."
"Part of the press now recognizes that most of the news media were duped by the Bush administration's highest officials," said Murrey Marder, a 1950 Nieman Fellow and sponsor of the foundation's Nieman Watchdog Project. "Walcott and two especially tenacious reporters operating as a formidable, closely knit trio, were the only journalists out of hundreds of American reporters and editors across the nation working on pre-invasion stories who 'got it right.' "
Walcott himself has been vocal in his criticism of both Congress and the media in the run-up to the Iraq War. Speaking last year at the World Affairs Council of Hilton Head, S.C., he said, "There was simple laziness: Much of what the administration said, especially about Iraq and al Qaida, simply made no sense, yet very few reporters bothered to check it out. They were stenographers; they were not reporters."
The I.F. Stone Medal will be presented in a ceremony at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., on October 7, 2008. Walcott will deliver a speech, to be followed by a workshop about journalistic independence and lessons learned from his team's pre-Iraq war coverage.