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Celebrating a Free Press



(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.

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One Response to Celebrating a Free Press

  1. Carrie O'Reilly says:

    Thank you, President McGuire, for focusing on the prizes with this blog post. A free people cannot remain free if freedom of thought and expression is limited to an elite few. For the first time a music prize went to a rap artist, not either classical or jazz. While the continued freedom of the local and national press is vital, so is the continued freedom of expression from every walk of life and lived life experience among those members of our society who have been traditionally discounted and contributors to our collective narrative because their forms of expression do not meet with the idea of cultural norms by those seen to be in “the know” and therefore are vested with the power to determine relevance for society at large.
    I am not a fan of rap music and don’t own a single rap or hip hop music file or album. That does not mean that I don’t appreciate how relevant this type of expression for life experience can be for the vast majority of the students I teach. I can hear the beat from their earbuds or headphones, emanating from their car stereos, note the bob of their heads as they walk campus or wait for classes to begin, the turn of phrases they use, the way they use this form of creative expression on class assignments, and the appreciation they must feel (as I did as a young adult listening to that very evil ‘rock and roll’ that my parents’ generation thought would be the ruin of our national moral compass) for hearing bits and pieces of relevancy to their lived experiences in the art forms they choose to consume.
    I believe, today more than ever, we must celebrate the freedom of expression even if we don’t comprehend the import of that expression for another member of our society. We must practice what we preach, as Aaron Sorkin so eloquently wrote: “America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, ‘You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours….’ Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.”
    The Pulitzer Prizes just announced help us to see our nation differently. I am blessed to know that citizenship, advanced or otherwise, is still celebrated in all its variety.

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: