(Image of sides of the Pulitzer Prize medal, Pulitzer website)
“These days journalists need a soul and a spine, and the journalists who worked on these had both. They had a soul in seeking and finding the truth, and they had a spine in that they overcame deceit, denial, obstruction and threats. They stood strong throughout that.” (Marty Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post at the announcement of two Pulitzer Prizes for Washington Post reporters, one for investigative reporting on the sexual assault allegations against Roy Moore during the 2017 Alabama Senate race, and one for investigative reporting on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.)
Congratulations to all of the journalists, writers, poets, photographers and musicians who won Pulitzer Prizes this year, and all who were nominated as well. The body of work of these remarkable intellects sustains our freedom as a nation, lifts up excellence in the face of threats and disrespect, demonstrates that persistence in service of truth ultimately wins the day.
At a time when the president of the United States and his acolytes routinely express the most venomous contempt for newspapers and journalists in all media — resorting to taunts like “the failing New York Times” or “fake news” to denigrate true stories about corrupt official misconduct — celebrating and honoring the courageous work of journalists is an important expression of our reverence for, and need for, a robust free press to sustain our way of life.
The New York Times took three Pulitzers today, including one for reporting on the Harvey Weinstein sex abuse scandal that gave rise to the #MeToo movement, one also on the 2016 Russian interference in the U.S. election, and one on the plight of Syrian refugees. The full list of all winners is here.
The work of Pulitzer Prize winners is worthy of study not only by students of journalism but all who want to understand the importance of excellence and resilience in the craft of investigation, research and writing to inform the world about the conditions that afflict our society. Courageous journalism has exposed to public scrutiny constant stories of official lies and cover-ups — Woodward and Bernstein reporting on Nixon’s cover-up of the Watergate scandal leading to Nixon’s ultimate resignation; Kay Graham’s courage in deciding to publish the Pentagon Papers exposing the truth of the Vietnam War and hastening the end of the war; Marty Baron and the Boston Globe’s relentless pursuit of the truth about priests abusing children in the Boston Archdiocese; and countless other stories not quite so famous but equally important for rooting out official corruption and sustaining the balance of power in society between those in office and the people they are supposed to serve.
A healthy free press challenges conventional wisdom, looks under rocks for dirt others may not even think about, and yes, sometimes gets it wrong or acts in completely annoying and even irresponsible ways. Like all professions, journalists and media professionals have to work constantly to maintain trust and to weed out the bad actors. But it would be a far worse abuse of trust for journalists to hold back, to look the other way for fear of incurring official wrath, to choose a less vigorous path on an investigation to protect the powerful at the expense of everyone else.
Jefferson was right about this: a free press is far more important than the government itself, and any government that tries to stifle the free press is unworthy of the trust and confidence of the people.
The Pulitzer Prizes remind us of the best of journalism, and all reporters and media professionals should rightfully take pride in these achievements while redoubling commitments to do even more to preserve our precious freedoms.