EXCLUSIVE: Incomparable writer, producer, First Amendment apostle and funny guy Norman Lear will receive this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award from PEN Center USA, which works on global issues of freedom of speech and censorship. The non-profit human-rights group also said it is giving its First Amendment Award to journalist Glenn Greenwald and documentary director Laura Poitras for their work disseminating documents relating to NSA surveillance. Journalist and filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas will receive the Freedom to Write Award for his work on immigration issues.
Lear, who turned 92 on Sunday, made his name creating groundbreaking TV sitcoms in the 1970s, including All In The Family, Maude, Good Times, One Day At A Time, Sanford And Son and The Jeffersons. The shows couched controversy in humor, dealing with thorny societal issues including racism, bigotry, feminism, divorce, abortion and class. Lear, also the producer of films including Fried Green Tomatoes, was as politically active off-screen as on: He founded the advocacy group People for the American Way in 1981, led a consortium to purchase an original copy of the Constitution and toured it around the country, and remains at the forefront of Hollywood’s most active and influential political progressives.
Lear’s autobiography, Even This I Get to Experience, will be published this fall. He continues to weigh in on issues of politics and culture, most recently at the PGA’s Produced By conference in early June, where he inveighed against Hollywood ageism. Nowadays, Lear said, when he pitches a comedy show set in a retirement home (and called Guess Who’s Dead?), “They don’t want to touch the demographic.”
Lear’s friend Marty Kaplan, the Norman Lear Professor of Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, tells this story about his self-effacing side: “Norman once called his mother in Bridgeport, Conn., and said, ‘Mother, I just got this call. The Television Academy is forming a Hall of Fame. And the first inductees are going to be General Sarnoff and Edward R. Murrow and William Paley and Milton Berle and Paddy Chayefsky and Lucille Ball … and me.’ There was about a two-second beat, and she said, ‘Listen, if that’s what they want to do, who am I to say?’”
Greenwald, while at the U.K. newspaper The Guardian, worked with former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden to publish documents about NSA overreaching with its surveillance of U.S. citizens. Snowden left The Guardian over the winter and joined Poitras at digital-media company First Look Media, which is backed by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. In February, as part of First Look, they and fellow founding editor Jeremy Scahill launched The Intercept, a site focused initially on writing more news about the NSA and other U.S. government surveillance organization, using more of the Snowden documents. Greenwald’s books include No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State.
Poitras contributed reporting on the NSA story with Greenwald, Barton Gellman and Ewen MacAskill that won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for The Guardian and The Washington Post. The four also shared the George Polk Award for National Security Reporting.
Vargas, who will receive PEN Center’s Freedom to Write award, is a filmmaker and Pulitzer Prize winner as well, and has reported extensively about immigration issues. He founded Define American, which seeks to elevate political discussions about immigration issues. He also is the writer/director of Documented.
PEN Center’s 24th annual Literary Awards Festival will be held November 11 at the Beverly Wilshire. The evening will also include the presentation of its literary awards, which honor the best writing in the western United States. The organization said it will announce its Award of Honor recipient and the literary award winners “in coming weeks.”