Winning Winners  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2006

Winning Winners    

A particularly impressive line-up of Pulitzer recipients underscores the enduring importance of the nation’s much-maligned newspapers. Posted April 17, 2006

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


In happier times the names most associated with the newspaper business were Woodward and Bernstein. In recent years the Watergate twins have been replaced by Gloom and Doom.

It's a familiar litany: profit pressures, cutbacks, plummeting circulation, the relentless onslaught of the Internet. In the blogosphere and elsewhere, papers have been repeatedly portrayed as irrelevant dinosaurs too dumb to realize they were dead.

But you know what, their very real problems and challenges notwithstanding, newspapers still matter. They perform a vital and often decidedly unglamorous service to our democracy day in and day out, a service nothing else is set up to replicate.

Exhibit A: the winners of the 2006 Pulitzer Prizes. Up and down the list are vivid reminders of the wonderful and essential work that newspapers, and the journalists who work for them, do.

Hurricane Katrina was not only devastating to New Orleans and Gulfport, Mississippi, and their surrounding regions, it was a crippling blow to the newspapers themselves. Yet under staggeringly difficult conditions New Orleans' Times-Picayune and Gulfport's Sun Herald covered the catastrophe splendidly, providing information desperately needed by their readers and alerting the nation to the severity of their regions' plight.

The two papers each were honored with Pulitzers for public service. And the Times-Picayune won in the breaking news category as well.

Under terribly onerous circumstances, these journalists put their professional responsibilities above concerns about personal safety and well-being, as Brian Thevenot recounted in a remarkable AJR story. (See "Apocalypse in New Orleans," October/November 2005).

We are not generally thought to be living in a golden age of investigative journalism. But the Pulitzer Board this year honored numerous examples of watchdog reporting at its finest.

There are so many glittering examples that it's hard to know where to start. Let's begin with the public corruption beat, where the tenacious Washington Post coverage took down lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The pieces by Susan Schmidt, James V. Grimaldi and R. Jeffrey Smith won the award for investigative reporting. In Washington, D.C., a town where the press corps is often pummeled for being too cozy with power, Schmidt and Co. went after the insiders with a vengeance.

The stories that ended the political career of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.), bribe-taker extraordinaire, have a special resonance. The San Diego Union-Tribune and Copley News Service won a Pulitzer for national reporting for their Cunningham coverage. But much of the credit goes to Copley Washington correspondent Marcus Stern, who doggedly combed through records to uncover the goods. Stern is a regional reporter in Washington, an unheralded but critically important (and endangered) breed whose importance can't be emphasized too much. (See Drop Cap, April/May).

But perhaps the most significant decisions the Pulitzer Board made were to honor two stories in the realm of national security. James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times won a national reporting award for their expose of warrant-free domestic eavesdropping by the National Security Agency. And the Washington Post's Dana Priest was honored in the beat-reporting category for her reporting on the CIA's secret prisons and other unsavory aspects of the Bush administration's counterterrorism efforts.

What a difference four-plus years makes. In the wake of September 11, the news media lost their way. Whether swept up in an understandable wave of patriotism, cowed by the Bush administration or both, the press dropped its customary skepticism and reported far too uncritically on Team Bush. (See "Are the News Media Soft on Bush?" October/November 2003.) The WMD fiasco is a vivid example of this collapse, but hardly the only one.

The courageous, powerful reporting by Risen, Lichtblau and Priest, by the Times and the Post, underscores how far the press has come back. And props to the Pulitzer people for giving this important work its imprimatur.

One last thought: Nicholas D. Kristof's relentless crusading on behalf of the afflicted, the powerless, the hopeless – epitomized by his dogged pursuit of the Darfur story – is as praiseworthy a journalistic enterprise as I can think of. The fact that his New York Times columns are so heavily reported is particularly impressive. He richly deserves the Pulitzer for commentary.

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