For six decades, the Weehawken Elks Lodge No. 1456 has set aside one night each year to honor the members of the media who cover their municipality.
The “Salute to the Press” night is perhaps the oldest tradition that the Weehawken Elks still holds, as the 60th annual dinner was held last Monday night with 200 people in attendance.
“It’s probably the longest standing private event in the town,” Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner said. “It’s one of the institutional events of Weehawken. The Elks have never missed a year in 60 years and it’s always held in October, giving tribute to the press right at the height of political campaigning. The value of the press and the freedom of the press are highlighted during elections and it’s when those freedoms come to a peak.”
With that in mind, it was only fitting that a politician seeking an elected office serve as the guest speaker. State Assemblyman and Union City Mayor Brian Stack, who is running to become the state Senator for the 33rd Legislative District, spoke to the audience and spoke of his relationship with the press.
“I’ve been fortunate to always have a good working relationship with the press,” Stack said. “They’ve always been fair to me. My door is always open to them. I got involved in politics at a very young age and when I was 14 or so, I couldn’t wait to get to City Hall to get involved.”
Stack then spoke of the reasons why he wants to serve as a state Senator.
“I really enjoy being a part of the political process,” Stack said. “What I do not only benefits Union City, but it’s also in the best interests of Weehawken. Everything directly reflects and benefits Weehawken. It’s one of the reasons why I run for office, because I feel it’s important that we all work together. We may differ politically at times, but being truthful, if we can’t accomplish things by working together, then why run for office?”
Stack’s prophecy will be put to the test after he gets elected Tuesday, when he has to work on the state Senate with political opponents Nicholas Sacco (32nd District) and newly appointed Sandra Bolden Cunningham (31st District).
“He’s the leader of the next generation,” Turner told the audience, referring to his political ally Stack. “He’s someone who has dedicated his entire life towards helping people, particularly those who came here with nothing. He spends most of his time helping the less fortunate.”
But this was supposed to be a non-political function, yet it definitely took a political undertone.
Weehawken High School senior Chetali Mahajan, the winner of the annual “Freedom of the Press essay contest,” got up to read her essay – and it was one of the more poignant and powerful messages ever presented at the annual event.
Mahajan spoke of coming to the United States from her native India and how there has been such a difference in culture and a vast dispersion on how the press is treated in the two countries.
“In India, the right to a free press has yet to be added to the Indian Constitution,” Mahajan said. “Freedom of the press is a means by which to know the truth.”
Mahajan spoke of the atrocities that have occurred by women trying to cover the war in Iraq. Six women received awards for their coverage for the McClatchy Newspapers in Baghdad and were fearful of being photographed.
“Since the war began, an average of one reporter and media assistant has been killed every week,” Mahajan said. “These women live double lives, unable to share their work with friends or relatives without reprisal. Why do they do it? One woman responded through a spokesperson: ‘Why now put down my proverbial pen and sit back? It’s because I’m tired of being branded a terrorist, tired that a human life lost in my country is no loss at all.'”
Mahajan then added: “I’ve come to dearly love America because it provides me with the freedom I was denied in the land of my birth, paramount among them, the freedom of the press.”
She then told the story of her coming to the United States in 1996, leaving India where she basically had nothing and coming to America for a new life filled with freedoms.
“In India, it is very difficult for a female to walk alone on the street because of male harassment,” Mahajan said. “On the streets of America, I can walk freely without being harassed every step I take. Arranged marriages are also forced upon women in India. Dowry given during marriages to the groom is an example of the inequality existing between men and women in my homeland. In America, I have the freedom to determine my own path in life rather than having my life orchestrated by others.”
Her presentation was well received and well appreciated by the audience at Press Night. Mahajan received a check for $100 from the Weehawken and You Civic Association for winning the essay contest, an award well deserved.
Making a difference
Dominic Facchini, a past exalted ruler and chairman of the Elks’ Board of Trustees, expressed his appreciation to the press.
“The men and women of the press who have devoted themselves to the pursuit of facts and the expression of opinions are our main bridge to those events,” Facchini said. “The knowledge they supply enables us to make intelligent and rational decisions that shape our daily lives.”
Jersey Journal opinion editorial page editor Agustin Torres also spoke at the event on behalf of his paper, as did this reporter speak on behalf of the Hudson Reporter Newspapers chain.
The school system’s famed “KidWitness News” team, celebrating its 25th year of existence, also reported on the evening for its regular news programs that are shown periodically on Cablevision Channel 18.
The Weehawken High School Peer Leadership group worked the event as food servers and wait staff.
“We had a great turnout,” Turner said. “It’s a means of celebrating and discussing the roles and values of having a free press. There’s always an explanation of what our society would be like without a free press.”
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at either OGSMAR@aol.com or email@example.com