Behind The Prize for Public Service Journalism
Roy J. Harris Jr.
University of Missouri Press
One of the best pieces of journalistic advice I know comes from a fellow investigative reporter who, when asked how he finds so many good stories, gives this simple answer: Just look around you, he says. Look at what seems to be too good to be true or what doesn't seem to add up. Chances are, he says, it is too good to be true and doesn't add up.
I thought of this while reading "Pulitzer's Gold" by Roy J. Harris Jr., now updated and just released in paperback. Harris tells a story about the Pulitzer Prizes that's never really been told before. He zeroes in on the history of the most prized Pulitzer, the Gold Medal for public service. Most Pulitzer prizes go to individual journalists, but the public service medal is awarded to newspapers that publish exceptional work.
Here are stories of reporters who followed their instincts and editors who backed them up, of individual acts of determination and courage, often in the face of economic and physical threats. Here are small papers that stuck their necks out and big papers that risked community outrage by attacking sacred cows or powerful interests. The result is a compelling narrative that tells how some of the most memorable journalism of the last century found its way into print.
We all know some of these stories like the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, but of more interest to me was the back story on investigations whose details are less familiar, such as the Boston Post's unmasking of Charles Ponzi in 1921 and the Boston Globe's courageous expose of sexual abuse by priests in 2003. Harris's story of the Globe project is one of the most in-depth and fascinating accounts you will ever read of what goes into an investigative project -- its origin, false starts, obstacles, division of labor, organization and writing. We live the tension, the long hours, the internal debates of team members as they piece together their explosive series that would call to account the Catholic Church in one of America's most Catholic cities.
Any journalist will relish the Globe story, but like the rest of the book it's written for a general audience and affords a view of a newspaper's inner workings that the public never sees.
Small papers can never match larger ones in resources, but the Pulitzer board historically has sought to honor small newspapers that show extraordinary grit. In 1979, the Gold Medal went to the tiny California weekly Point Reyes Light for its investigation of the Synanon cult that had turned to violence to silence its critics. In its investigation, the Light brought national attention to the cult --- documenting acts of violence including an attempt by Synanon members to murder a lawyer by planting a live rattlesnake in his mailbox.
In this era of shrinking newsroom budgets, Harris's book is an eloquent call for the preservation of investigative reporting. Nearly every Gold Medal resulted from an investigative project. To his credit, Harris doesn't overdramatize this kind of work, though he does give us stories where gutsy reporters faced danger. Most investigative reporting is, day in and out, more methodical and mundane, yet ultimately exciting when all the pieces of a story fall into place -- the "aha" moment as Harris calls it.
The Pulitzer for public service now goes back nearly 100 years, to the time when some reporters had not yet begun using typewriters. Yet from those very first years, there is a thread that binds yesterday's Gold Medal winners with today's: a sense of outrage over official misdeeds, sympathy for the less fortunate and the courage to pursue a story regardless of where it leads.
We in the media are constantly told that the public is angry with us and doesn't trust us, but it is worth remembering that most of these articles were highly controversial when published. It was only the passage of time that vindicated many of these courageous stands.
Nobody knows what the future holds for print, but Harris has given us a book that will inspire journalists to pursue public service journalism in whatever format it takes. Such work is, in his words, at the heart of the "the irreplaceable role of the press in American democracy."
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