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Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director
Remarks (as prepared)

ADL Hubert H. Humphrey First Amendment Freedoms Prize
To Tim Rutten

Los Angeles, CA
November 14, 2008

I always look forward to presenting the annual Hubert H. Humphrey First Amendment Freedoms Prize.  This is the 37th presentation of this award. 

It was established and endowed by Dwayne Andreas and the Andreas Foundation, as a tribute to his close friend, Hubert Humphrey, who in a long life of public service was a mayor of Minneapolis, a distinguished senator from Minnesota, vice-president of the United States and his party’s candidate for president.

Humphrey devoted his life to fighting for those who suffered from inequality and injustice.  He was an ardent advocate of the First Amendment.  But mostly he was a voice for the voiceless and a champion of those deprived of economic or social justice.

ADL presents the Humphrey First Amendment Freedoms Prize to an institution or an individual who has made a significant and lasting contribution to the preservation and advancement of the ideals embodied in our Constitution’s First Amendment which enshrines the free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press.

In a dangerous world, and at moments of national crises in particular, these principals are particularly worth defending.  We present this award to enhance public awareness and understanding of these precious ideals which are fundamental to American democracy.

We are pleased to present this year’s prize to Tim Rutten, who for more than thirty-five years has been an outstanding journalist at the Los Angeles Times

He started in 1972 as a copy editor, and over the years has held a number of other positions at the paper, including city bureau chief, metro reporter, editorial writer, and assistant national editor.

He is now an op-ed columnist and book critic for The Times, having formerly written the paper’s “Regarding Media” column.

In 1991, Tim won the Greater Los Angeles Press Club Award for editorial writing.  And he was part of the team coverage reporting on the 1994 Northridge earthquake that earned The Times a Pulitzer Prize.

A political science major at California State University, Los Angeles, Tim’s writing reflects a keen interest in domestic and international issues, analyzing the social, political, and even religious forces at play.

His criticism and editorial writing display a concern for our most cherished principals and the mandates of real Politik.

His readers surely know that he is as capable of teasing liberal pieties and facile left-wing slogans as he is of skewering conservative ideology.

As a columnist free to advance his personal viewpoint, Tim uses language that is lively, literate and pointed, but that also builds an informative and well-reasoned argument.

His commentary about Iranian President and Holocaust-denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s embarrassing public relations coup at Columbia University informed his readers of the ivy league university’s own lamentable past history when its then president, Nicholas Murray Butler, was an outspoken admirer of Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini and gave quarter to Nazi emissaries during the 1930s.

But Tim went further by remarking on “the almost willful refusal of commentators in the American media to provide their audiences with insight into just how sinister Ahmadinejad really is.”

More recently, after the Iranian president delivered another of his anti-Zionist harangues at the United Nations, remarks that also rehashed classic anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about the power of international Jewish finance, Tim wrote a column warning us that Ahmadinejad’s evil words aren’t just talk.  He called out the General Assembly for applauding his extremist remarks and chided the American media for passing over them in silence.

Tim’s willingness to call into question the fourth estate has not always endeared him to his colleagues, and yet he has insisted on highlighting the lapses of today’s electronic and print journalists.

After Salmon Rushdie was knighted by Queen Elizabeth last year, renewed calls for Rushdie’s death spread across Pakistan and Iran in eerie echoes of the original fatwa pronounced against the novelist 19 years ago.

Tim Rutten rhetorically asked, “Is there something beyond the solidarity of the decent that ought to have impelled every commentator and editorial page in the U.S. to express unequivocal support for Sir Salman this week?”

Tim then noted the shameful record of deadly worldwide violence against journalists.  He wondered about the cost of our media’s silence in the face of the murder of Muslim journalists in countries like Iraq where four out of five journalists killed have themselves been Iraqi.

The silence of the American media in the face of these realities prompted Tim to conclude: “What masquerades as tolerance and cultural sensitivity among many U.S. journalists is really a kind of soft bigotry, an unspoken assumption that Muslim societies will naturally repress great writers and murder honest journalists, and that to insist otherwise is somehow intolerant or insensitive.”

Despite working in a company town, Tim has not attempted to curry favor in the movie business.  Tim’s commentaries on the controversy surrounding Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” were informed by an obvious understanding of the vexed history of Catholic-Jewish relations growing from the deicide charge laid for nearly 2,000 years at Judaism’s door.

Tim detailed Gibson’s skillful manipulation of the film’s public “rollout” through selective invitation-only previews for those Christian groups most likely to support the film sight-unseen, regardless of its caricatures of Jews or the possibility of the film fanning the flames of current anti-Semitism.

Among the concerns that encouraged his commentary on the Gibson controversy is his own devotion as a Catholic to the hard won interfaith dialogue that has, since the Second World War, improved relations between Christians and Jews.       

Throughout this and other controversies, Tim has remained aware of the frequent lip service we too often pay to the First Amendment.  “Every American loves free speech,” he writes, “For themselves.  We think the other guy should shut up and sit down.”

In another context, he wrote, “Sadly, too many Americans now believe the only way to confront offensive or dangerous speech is to silence it.”

This appeared in a column that was Tim’s spirited response to self-styled right-wing iconoclast Ann Coulter’s televised comment that she hoped to see Jews “perfected” through conversion to Christianity, a notion Tim wisely described as part of a whole body of ‘respectable’ intellectual opinion between the two world wars that made theological anti-Semitism a perfectly legitimate complement to the Nazis’ and Fascists race-based form.

Tim then reminded his readers that words have consequences, and therefore freedom of speech has its responsibilities.

“For too long,” he began, “we’ve pretended that the brutal political rhetoric that now characterizes our partisan politics can be quarantined, that it won’t inevitably leach over into every other aspect of our lives.  In fact, it’s doing just that, and soon the coarse and vituperative language of the war between red and blue – with its instantaneous imputations of bad-faith and utter disrespect for minimal civility – will begin to color aspects of our civil society where mutual respect is too crucial and hard won to tolerate this sort of risk.”

Tim Rutten openly invokes both the blessings of free speech and its responsibilities.  Therefore, I am proud to present the Hubert H. Humphrey First Amendment Freedoms Prize to Tim Rutten.
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