Before we go back Washington politics, let’s please take one more minute to recognize the list of 2019 Pulitzer winners and finalists as a celebration of the role of local journalists to expose those who would abuse their power.
The South Florida Sun Sentinel’s reporting told Florida residents that the Broward County Sheriff’s Office and public school district were badly trained and unprepared for a school shooting. As a result, many more students died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. For their work, the paper received the highest honor, a Public Service award from the Pulitzer Prize Board.
The Los Angeles Times’ won the investigative prize for reporting on a campus gynecologist at the University of Southern California who was accused by more than 300 women of sexual abuse. They beat out the Tampa Bay Times, which exposed a number of fatal surgical errors at a local children’s hospital, recently taken over by the prestigious Johns Hopkins Medical Center.
Metro columnist Tony Messenger of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch won the prize for his commentaries on an abusive court system that locks poor people up for fines they cannot pay. Across the state of Missouri, his counterpart Melinda Henneberger of the Kansas City Star was a finalist in the same category, for a body of work that exposed misogyny and sexism rampant in various institutions including the police, the NFL, the Catholic Church and state politics.
The staff of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette won the Breaking News category for their work covering the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue by a white supremacist.
And while The New York Times won the Editorial Writing prize, the tiny Capitol Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, and the barely larger Baton Rouge (Louisiana) Advocate were runners up to the big dog. The Advocate staff campaigned to change an unjust law that allowed 10-2 jury votes for felony convictions, a provision that disproportionately hurt Black citizens.
The Capitol Gazette, which also received a special citation from the Pulitzer Board, in the weeks after a violent attack produced a series of poignant and heartbreaking editorials as they buried their colleagues. In writing the names of their coworkers over and over again — Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, Wendi Winters, John McNamara and Rebecca Smith — the staff of the paper became the story while they covered the story.
The Capitol Gazette and The Advocate, among others, accomplished these feats of editorial prose at a time when many local papers are considering forgoing editorial boards and writers. Read this entry start to finish if you want to experience the power of the “editorial we” at work. The unsigned voice of a benevolent institution is much maligned in the age of the internet, yet when used properly, it retains its punch.
To look at this body of work is to look at journalism that directly impacted communities across the country, communities beyond New York and Washington.
As the rules about who can enter the Pulitzers expanded to include publications like The New Yorker and The Atlantic, many local journalists worried they would not be able to compete.
This year’s crop of prize-winners and runners-up is a testament to journalism that serves cities and communities, regions and neighborhoods. This is the kind of journalism that builds trust in journalism.
I don’t want to diminish the work of national publications, because they are amazing. But local journalists are heroes. They have fewer resources and greater demands. Their very viability is threatened. And yet, they press on. Because they care about their communities where they live.
They care enough to bare their own souls about the details of a rape that was never reported, like the Kansas City Star’s Henneberger. Who but a local journalist would listen to the story of Precious Jones, who ran into a brutally unforgiving court system that forced her to serve 20 weekend days in jail for an excessive speeding ticket, requiring the sentence be served in a jail hours from her home and then, after the sentence had been completed, impose a six month sentence because car troubles caused her to be late for one of the 10 check-ins? Tony Messenger of the St. Louis Post Dispatch.
Who would dig into a 1944 case of an unjust court-imposed death sentence against a 14-year-old Black child in South Carolina? Jennifer Berry Hawes and Deanna Pan of the (Charleston) Post and Courier, a finalist for the feature writing prize.
These stories, even those about the past, illustrate the humanity of people living today under the shadow of injustice and fighting for their own dignity. When a local journalist leans in, it often tips the scales.