May 12, 2022

In the excitement of Pulitzer day, Commentary and Editorial Writing command a bit less attention than high-profile reporting categories. But as this year’s winners illustrate, the Pulitzer board still likes opinion pieces and prefers them fiery hot.

The Editorial Writing award went to Lisa Falkenberg and others on her team at the Houston Chronicle for writing on voter suppression and bogus voter fraud charges in Texas. Senator Ted Cruz, Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton all came under heavy fire.

In the Commentary category, perennial finalist Melinda Henneberger of The Kansas City Star was honored for a relentless series of columns seeking prosecution of a retired police detective accused of rape and being a serial sexual predator. “A down-market Jeffrey Epstein,” Henneberger said in a conversation.

The entries share the distinction that they were heavy on deep reporting, a frequent preference of the Pulitzer board in any category.

While Henneberger was a finalist but not a winner for each of the last three years, Falkenberg was an awards veteran, having won a Pulitzer for commentary in 2015.

The entries also have in common that they have not yet led to corrective action of the sort often found in reaction to Pulitzer-winning local investigations, and thus are being pursued this year and beyond.

Henneberger told me that the retired detective “is not young and not well” so the legal establishment in Kansas City, Kansas, seems not keen on seeking punishment. “I’m furious that nothing has been done,” she said. “It’s just appalling.”

As for the Texas editorials that ran under the continuing title, “The Big Lie,” Falkenberg said, “I wish I could tell you we stopped what was happening, but I can’t.” It’s uphill work and continuing, she said. “The worst version (of restrictions on registration and voting), known as Jim Crow 2.0, didn’t pass. I hope our work contributed to that result.”

The Pulitzers still dedicate two of the 15 journalism categories to opinion; three if you count Editorial Cartooning, which was recast and expanded this year as Illustrated Reporting and Commentary; four if you include Criticism, which often but not always tilts to arts topics.

That’s unfashionable at a time when many publications are cutting back on staffing and space for editorials, and a number have eliminated candidate endorsements (not to mention most arts criticism) altogether.

Falkenberg said she is happy to buck that trend and admit to being a bit of a traditionalist. Her earlier Pulitzer resulted in reversing a wrongful homicide conviction. But she said that she sees “a value to the institutional voice that Lisa Falkenberg, writing alone, does not have.”

In addition, editorials are consistently the best read of a variety of opinion formats at the Chronicle, she said, and during endorsement season, those pieces generate the most traffic and the most new subscriptions.

Falkenberg said that she is “always fighting to get more staffing.” As is, though, the paper has three editorial writers; she and three other editors also write, and the operation recently added a producer.

McClatchy’s Kansas City Star, as I wrote back in December 2017, reorganized its opinion operation to include columnists and upped staffing just as many metros were cutting back. The editorial staff produced a series on favoritism in bidding on a $1 billion airport construction contract that got it rescinded and rebid.

Henneberger’s resume includes a decade as a reporter for The New York Times and stints at The Dallas Morning News, The Washington Post and Bloomberg Politics. This week she moved on from the Star to a new job as columnist for The Sacramento Bee, McClatchy’s flagship.

“I’ve been in so many places,” she said, “but the last five years have been the most satisfying of my career – by a lot. In a big news market, you never really have a story – like Trump – to yourself. Here I’ve found that if I didn’t do this story, no one would. And that’s why local journalism matters so much.”

Henneberger’s Pulitzer work typically consists of the single-minded pursuit of particular injustices. This set of investigative columns, she said, took months of reporting, including time “getting to know people who had no reason at all to tell what had happened to them.”

Falkenberg said that she and her staff try consistently for “value-added” pieces, making sure the work “is not just factual but based on original reporting.”

An association of opinion journalists went out of business in 2016 as participation waned, folding into the News Leaders Association (then the ASNE). But with only informal communication left in the field, Falkenberg said, she is encouraged to hear that some papers that cut deeply have reconsidered and are building back.

I hope so. Monday’s winners show the continuing merit of robust opinion writing even as digital formats, not so friendly to opinion writing as print, become dominant.

Also, for readers of any kind, I recommend dipping into the exemplary 2022 winning entries if only for a bracing jolt of outrage. Here are some examples:

From “Editorial: The shame of Texas — Cruz, Paxton and the Seditious 16” (The Houston Chronicle editorial board, Jan. 9, 2021):

Now and then through the years we Texans have sent our share of buffoons, grifters, lightweights, crooks, ignoramuses and ego-obsessed asses to Washington as representatives of the people….

In the wake of last week’s Capitol insurrection, add to this ignominious list the state’s junior senator, Ted Cruz and the 16 Republican House members who voted in favor of discredited objections to certifying the presidential election results in one or more swing states. The Seditious Sixteen voted to short-circuit democracy even after a Trump mob rampaged through the Capitol, even after blood was shed in the halls of that august building.

Also add to this list Ken Paxton. Like a tongue-flapping pup hopping into the bed of his master’s pickup on a jaunt to town, our indictment-burdened, ethics-allergic attorney general headed to Washington last week for no reason other than to stand adoringly alongside President Donald Trump and echo his unhinged calls for insurrection…

From “Why is Roger Golubski, an accused rapist and former KCK cop, still walking around free?” (Melinda Henneberger, The Kansas City Star, Jan. 3, 2021):

A 5-foot-9-inch, 250-pound white male accused of sexually assaulting dozens of mostly poor Black women is at large in Kansas City, Kansas.

No need to put out an APB, though, because the suspect, former homicide detective Roger Golubski, who retired in good standing and with a full pension from the Kansas City, Kansas Police Department, isn’t in hiding. There’s no mystery about his whereabouts, right in Wyandotte County, where he’s lived all his life.

In a November deposition in a civil case against him, Golubski mostly declined to answer questions by invoking his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. He did that a nice round 555 times.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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