An interview with Ham Fish, American publisher, social entrepreneur and Academy Award winning film producer
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Q: You’ve got roots in Canada and deep, deep roots in New York, but New Orleans seems to have snuck up on you. Watching you soak up New Orleans at your first second line on Rampart Street reminded me of Jesse Winchester’s lyric: “I want to live with my feet in Dixie and my head in the cool blue north” (which of course is how I want to live). Tell us what enchants you about New Orleans.
A: I didn’t make it to New Orleans until after Katrina, and so everything I saw and felt was through the prism of that staggering event. Everything post-Katrina seemed heroic; always the back story was about overcoming overwhelming odds. By the time I first drove through it with you, the Ninth Ward was already indelibly imprinted on the national consciousness. But even the familiarity that one now gets from the media blizzard didn’t begin to capture the sense I had of visiting sacred ground. The closest parallel I can think of was Cambodia in the early eighties, where like New Orleans the devastation had forced a reordering of reality.
Everywhere in those early months the city was scarred by the water lines across the lower sections of the homes and schools and businesses. Of course even by then the legendary pulse of New Orleans had started to revive, and everything about that aspect of New Orleans life to an outsider is enchanting. But I think from the start what reached me was that feeling of a tiny, erratic heartbeat at the core of unthinkable pain and loss, getting stronger each day and willing itself back to health.
Q: You helped create the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund, which broke the story of Henry Glover, a man who was murdered during the hurricane by a rogue police officer and whose body was burned by other officers as part of a cover-up. What other stories has the Investigative Fund taken a lead in? Any others in New Orleans?
A: I did create the Investigative Fund, but the credit for establishing its credibility and importance in the world of journalism goes to Esther Kaplan, the editor, and in the case of the path-breaking story we ran on the Henry Glover case, to A.C. Thompson, the award-winning reporter. Esther and AC spent nearly two years on that project, and even to the point of filing suit in New Orleans court under the public records statute. The two Thompson pieces that were eventually published in The Nation led to the FBI’s involvement in the case and were cited by the US Attorney as the catalyst in their investigation. They also inspired a PBS Frontline piece on police corruption and brutality in New Orleans, and a Spike Lee documentary on the role of race and class in the long history of police misconduct in the region.
We also ran a story about the toxic emissions in the FEMA trailers, published an anthology of writing on Katrina, and helped produce a wonderful documentary called Crepe Covered Sidewalks, a very personal story of a New Orleanian woman’s return to her hometown and her family in the wake of the storm.
Q: Some of our New Orleans readers may remember Gambit andCity Business investigative journalist Ron Ridenhour for whom we named the Ridenhour Prizes for Courageous Truth Telling co-sponsored by The Nation Institute. Please share a bit about the importance of the prizes. And what does Ron mean to the world of investigative reporting and whistleblowing?
A: Ron of course was well-known during his lifetime among journalists and whistleblower advocates around the country for his historic role in releasing the My Lai massacre story during the Vietnam years and his subsequent and very distinguished career as an investigative reporter in Louisiana. But I think what has happened with the success of the Ridenhour Prizes program is that the name of Ron Ridenhour is now the defining standard for having the courage to speak out on unpopular truths, often at personal risk. The fact of these awards has elevated the status of whistleblowers and whistleblowing, and has alerted the media and the public to the importance of whistleblowers to a functioning democracy.
Q: Your family has a distinguished history in politics, perhaps a little more distinguished than my own family’s. You know that my dad ran for mayor on the platform that the zoo needed a gorilla – perhaps in the spirit of Jimmy “The Rent Is Too Damn High” McMillan’s run for governor of New York last year. What, if anything, do fringe candidates like these contribute to politics, aside from their entertainment value?
A: Hard to say. Some remain marginalized and are not taken seriously even by an electorate that is accustomed to low standards in public life, while others seem to touch a nerve and speak for people who feel — usually with justification — that they don’t have a voice. I do feel the two major parties have an unhealthy lock on the political process and that we frequently don’t get much variation among the candidates. And, of course, when you do vote for a third party candidate, the system is rigged so that the worst candidate in the field usually benefits.
Q: You’re now President Emeritus of the Nation Institute, which you founded. I know your hand is stirring a lot of different pots. What’s next for you?
A: My children are still either in college or about to enter, so like everyone else I feel I need about six jobs. I continue to publish the Washington Spectator, and encourage everyone to subscribe by going to www.washingtonspectator.org — we are unveiling a re-design of our print edition later this month. Our new website should be live in January, and we’ll be launching a new e-book imprint soon. I maintain my life-long affection for The Nation and have been overseeing preparations for the magazine’s 150th birthday coming up in a few years. And I’m slowly working through the early stages of several for-profit social ventures which will I hope one day offer examples of how to succeed in business without causing harm to the social or environmental life of the country.
Let me add one last stipulation – don’t forget to read Randy’s splendid new memoir (after you’ve subscribed to the Washington Spectator).