Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Mattering more: the Pulitzer public service award

Maggie says:
The Pulitzers were announced this week, and to news nerds like myself, that's something worth noting. Some might look to poetry, history, or non-fiction Pulitzer awards for inspiration, and I definitely appreciate those categories, too. But for me, the Pulitzers are all about journalism, about showcasing the best work of the year and reflecting back to us what's missing from the breakfast tables in far too many communities these days.

For folks who don't know how newsrooms work, the Pulitzers also offer a spotlight into news worlds and how papers are produced. The Pulitzers split up the journalism awards into fourteen categories, including beat reporting, criticism, explanatory reporting, and editorial writing. The premier award, however, is the Public Service Award. It's the heart of the Pulitzers, the guts. It's the one I look forward to most.

The public service award matters because it represents the highest calling of newspapers, print journalism at its best, that moment when a piece of paper becomes something better, higher, more than it's ever been. The public service award captures the moment when a newspaper transcends itself, when people are waking up and grabbing the paper to see the latest story in a series, when the talk of the town turns on the words printed that morning. The public service award recalls our esteemed Fourth Estate, reminds us that newspapers should work for us, that they are guardians of something precious and beautiful and worth saving, and that thing is truth.

I hear from a lot of people that the current state of media is nothing to get worked up over because we shouldn't expect more, that it's the way of the world for us to downgrade our expectations. It's normal that newspapers would become mere transmitters for press releases without questions, mouthpieces for folks who have too much of one already. In that context, the Pulitzer public service award is crucially important, because it's the best place we can point to and say that they're wrong, to prove that courageous journalism is still happening. Hell, it even matters that depressed and deflated reporters can simply log on one day and follow the links to journalism that really matters. No better comparison or inspiration than that.

I've been watching these awards for a while. In 1996, my hometown newspaper, the Raleigh News & Observer, won a Pulitzer public service award for its coverage of the massive environmental problems caused by illegal hog waste disposal that was trickling into streams, rivers, and finally the ocean. That series was more than a dry scientific discussion, more than a technical description of bacteria run amok. It represented a place that was in the throes of change, showed the juxtaposition of farmer versus new resident, hog versus fish, sustainable family farming versus corporate agribusiness. In a way no local reader expected, a series on bacterial pollution became an explosive expose on values in a place in flux.

In 2003 the Pulitzer public service award went to the Boston Globe. For anyone who lived in Boston then, as I did, we will forever remember what happened that year and how the Globe reflected all of our hearts and minds in its pages each morning. It was the year of the clergy abuse scandal, and I can't tell you how horrific it was in many ways to read the latest details every day. The clergy abuse series - reported day-to-day as the scandal was unfolding, not a careful retrospective in any way - was absolutely courageous. The Globe tread that line between reporting terrible truths and asking the questions you almost couldn't bear to hear the answers to, while also respecting the folks and the communities that were coming forth with their horror stories. The Globe was our conscience; it is truly responsible for uprooting deeply-buried truths and demanding accountability. Today, things are very different because of them.

This year, the winner seems so clear after the fact. Our hearts have been in New Orleans for months now. The award goes there, too.

There are two Pulitzer awards this year:

Two Prizes of a gold medal each:

Awarded to the Sun Herald, Biloxi-Gulfport, Miss., for its valorous and comprehensive coverage of Hurricane Katrina, provided a lifeline for devastated readers, in print and online, during their time of greatest need.


Awarded to The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, for its heroic, multi-faceted coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, making exceptional use of the newspaper's resources to serve an inundated city even after the evacuation of its newspaper plant.

If you were paying attention, these awards probably don't surprise you. Just a few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a great piece on how the Sun Herald and the Times-Picayune were mattering to the devastated residents of the area. The story explored how both papers stayed afloat (literally) during the storm and how they've managed to keep going financially in a place where much of their readership may never return. The answer for both papers has been to matter more. No easy outs there. No excuses. Their towns needed them, so they came to mean something more. It's a lesson all of us should learn from.

In a non-news town like this one, in a country where no one expects the White House Press Corps to ever ask anything of substance or demand a real answer to even their lamest questions, the Pulitzers remind us of what we're not getting, of what we deserve, of what is right.

Imagine if like the Sun Herald and the Times-Picayune, we started demanding more of ourselves, of each other, and of our supposed watchdogs. Imagine what could happen then.

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