by John MecklinHigh Country News Northern Rockies Editor Ray Ring has won the 2006 George Polk Award for Political Reporting for his story, “Taking Liberties,” an in-depth look at a secretive libertarian campaign to cripple land-use planning in six Western states.
One of the most prestigious prizes in American journalism, the Polk Award was established at Long Island University in 1949 to honor a CBS correspondent slain while covering a civil war in Greece. The list of Polk Award winners includes some of the most renowned names in American journalism, from Seymour Hersh to Jimmy Breslin to Ted Koppel to Edward R. Murrow. The contest also has a history of honoring less well-known print and broadcast outlets (including, for its 1986 environmental reporting, High Country News).
In his winning story, published July 24, 2006, Ring examined signature-gathering efforts for the state-level libertarian ballot measures pursued across the West in the November elections. Paid political salesmen touted the measures to petition-signers and voters as a way to prevent governments from “taking” people’s land against their will. But Ring showed that that the measures went far beyond eminent-domain reform, including language that would force governments to pay owners any time a regulation reduced the value of property — a sure way to bankrupt governments or force abandonment of all land-use regulation. Ring also unmasked the primary instigator and funder of the ballot measures — who was not a Westerner, but the reclusive New York City-based real estate mogul, Howie Rich.
“Taking Liberties” had significant national impacts, spurring coverage by major newspapers, Web sites and radio stations. Ring’s article was widely credited with being instrumental in the defeat — either at the ballot box or in the courtroom — of most of the proposed land-use measures.
Ring and “Taking Liberties” also won the American Planning Association Journalism Award in the small newspapers category. The contest judges said “Taking Liberties” provided “exceptional political analysis” of an organized campaign aimed at “shrinking government to the point where you could drag it to the bathtub and drown it.”