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A few Davids topped Goliaths for Pulitzer Prizes Monday and reminded that media consolidation and newsroom layoffs need not necessarily mandate mediocrity.
Art Cullen, 60, is the most heartening tale as part of a family-run, twice-a-week Storm Lake, Iowa Times. He won for editorials that revealed how Monsanto, the Koch Brothers and Cargill were among agribusiness giants secretly funding defense of a major environmental lawsuit stemming from pollution of the Raccoon River in northwest Iowa. (Poynter)
Related Training: Covering Big Agribusiness
It’s one thing to show nerve while laboring for a big organization with ample financial and editorial backup. It’s another to go after the most entrenched interests in a rural, very conservative area where you may be pissing off people you’ll run into at the mini-mart — or some who could easily put you out of business. Indeed, he lost friends in the process.
The Times is published out of a dinky, gray metal shop in northwest Iowa. Rep. Steve King, the most notorious anti-immigration demagogue in Congress, is from Storm Lake, a meatpacking town with a big immigrant population traumatized by President Trump’s disputed executive order (a fear lessened by a nervy police chief who’s reassured undocumented workers he won’t go after them).
Cullen won for editorials hammering farmers, corporations and the Iowa Farm Bureau in his county and two neighboring ones for nitrate pollution in the big river. And in finding out who was behind a lawsuit’s defense.
“Art Cullen’s Pulitzer shows that a tough-minded newspaper that’s not afraid to step on local toes can still have a big impact,” says Richard Longworth, a retired ace reporter and foreign correspondent at the Chicago Tribune who’s traveled about to analyze globalization’s impact on the Midwest economy for The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
“In a small town, this is as gutsy as it gets,” says Longworth about the discovery by Cullen (and, if truth be told, his son Tom, 24) of the secret funding sources.
It’s common that the Pulitzer Board seeks (in some years perhaps strains) to acknowledge a smaller operation. There are good reasons to do that. This year, accolades included those to Cullen, The East Bay Times in Oakland, California and the Charleston, West Virginia Gazette-Mail.
“All an editor has is time and people, and how you use them is crucial to excellence,” says Tom Kearney, editor of three Vermont weeklies, including the Stowe Reporter, with a total staff of 23.
“One way to set yourself up for the big story is to strive to have at least one-third of your stories be enterprise pieces, not pegged to an event or a meeting or a study or a report or a press conference. Schedule time for reporters to dig things up that people can’t learn anywhere else, and that make a difference in their communities.”
“That we’re even having this conversation again about small newsrooms being capable of doing great work is distressing,” says Cliff Schechtman, executive editor of the Portland (Maine) Press Herald, which recently published a 10-part series on addiction to opioids in the state.
“It’s not size that determines important journalism but the passion to seek the truth and tell it in compelling ways.”
Schechtman concedes, “It’s true that smaller newsrooms too often limit themselves but not because of their staffing size — it’s by thinking small and not getting out of their own way. They get caught up in predictable journalistic formats and conventions that lead to superficial reporting. Who, what, when and where doesn’t cut it if you want to produce work that matters.”
“The smaller newsrooms that won Pulitzers this year produced some remarkable work and it should surprise no one that talented and passionate journalists in small shops can produce journalism that can improve lives,” he said.
I assumed that other than the running-on-all-cylinders New York Times and Washington Post, papers might be creamed due to recast eligibility rules that now allow digital-only operations and magazines to enter a contest long exclusive to newspapers.
I still envision the Pulitzers evolving into the Emmys, where HBO, Showtime and other cable channels now put the old-time broadcasters to shame.
It’s terrific that Art Cullen, among others, proved me wrong.
The host for the big D.C. dinner
Reuters reporter Jeff Mason, who heads the White House Correspondents’ Association, said on “Morning Joe” this morning that it “wasn’t fair to roast the president in absentia,” but that the association saw fit to have someone “funny and entertaining.” Comic Hasan Minhaj, a “Daily Show” correspondent, will be the entertainment at the April 29 dinner conspicuously not attended by President Trump. Finding someone had proved challenging.
“SoftBank Group Corp.’s Masayoshi Son and Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos are heading for a clash in India. SoftBank is closing in on an agreement to combine its e-commerce company Snapdeal with market leader Flipkart Online Services Pvt., creating a stronger domestic player to compete with the American behemoth, according to people familiar with the matter.” (Bloomberg)
The Trump-Fox amalgam
President Trump will be interviewed by Maria Bartiromo of the Fox Business Channel on Tuesday. As CNN’s “Reliable Sources” notes, “Counting Tuesday’s session, six of Trump’s eight sit-down TV interviews since taking office have been with Fox. (The other two were with ABC and CBN. NBC once had a brief stand-up interview.)”
So an early media bottom line with Trump: Sucking up to Fox and also willing to talk to The New York Times and Washington Post, seemingly craving their legitimacy even as he badmouths them. The self-acclaimed populist craves elite affirmation.
Spicer hammered (again)
We may need a moratorium on profiles of the White House briefing room (and perhaps an urging that somebody profile a forlorn counterpart in an undercovered state legislature). Following on the heels of one in The New Yorker comes Slate:
“The real problem in the briefing room isn’t the kind of questions getting asked, who’s being allowed to ask them, or how they’re phrased. It’s the posturing of the press secretary and the brazenness of his lies.”
Sex and the Cubs
Well, that was quite an opening to ESPN’s telecast of the Cubs-Dodgers game last night: Profiles of couples who conceived right after the team won the World Series last November.
It included one guy thanking the team and suggesting the child might well not be on the way now were it not for that evening. His wife then suggested that she, too, might have played a role.
Susan Rice’s semantic gymnastics
The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler concedes he was a bit tardy to this matter, but better late than never: What was the veracity of a past NPR interview by Susan Rice that, when it came to Syria’s chemical weapons, “We were able to get the Syrian government to voluntarily and verifiably give up its chemical weapons stockpile?”
He concludes, “She did not explain that Syria’s declaration was believed to be incomplete and thus was not fully verified — and that the Syrian government still attacked citizens with chemical weapons not covered by the 2013 agreement.” That bit of rhetorical gymnastics gives her a rather ignominious four Pinocchios from the Post’s Fact Checker.
Garry Wills on evangelicals
Reviewing a new Frances FitzGerald book, “The Evangelicals,” the eminent journalist-historian opens, “Every few years, it seems, conservative religious groups, quiescent or unnoticed, come blazing back onto the national scene, and the secular press reacts like the bad guy in the 1971 western Big Jake who says to John Wayne, ‘I thought you were dead.’ Wayne drily answers, ‘Not hardly.'”
Now, he says, FitzGerald answers a recurrent query: “Where did these people [mainly right-wing zealots] come from?” By and large, he agrees that there’s no big mystery, namely they’ve always been there. “What repeatedly makes us look again is what she is here to tell us.” He finds one hole in her account (not dealing with the black church) but those covering religion might well check out her book and his analysis. (The New York Review of Books)
Another Pulitzer has a good day
The nonprofit Pulitzer Center, which funds overseas reporting at a time when even elite media have been cutting back, gained a smidgen of Pulitzer Prize glory via its association with the victory for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’s Panama Papers exposé.
It funded a grantee who did the six-minute explainer animation that introduced the Panama Papers.
Meanwhile, as Pulitzer Center head Jon Sawyer notes, their unceasing string of impressive placements continues. It now includes a cover story in this week’s Science on the godawful health crisis precipitated by Boko Haram in Northeast Nigeria, a New York Times look at climate change in the Maldives and most of the new issue of Virginia Quarterly Review that’s devoted to multiple Pulitzer Center projects on refugees in Europe.
“YouTube’s biggest star is testing the waters over at Twitch. Felix ‘PewDiePie’ Kjellberg announced to his YouTube channel of 54 million subscribers that he would start doing a weekly stream over at Twitch as part of Netglow — a brand he’s ‘wanted to create.’ The show is called Best Club and will air weekly.” (The Verge)
The morning babble
“Fox & Friends” started with a light-as-meringue look at how Neil Gorsuch pronounces his name before segueing to Rex Tillerson heading to Russia, even if Vladimir Putin won’t meet with him.
“The question continues to be where they go from here on Syria,” said CNN’s Joe Johns, underscoring a seeming network line that it is “very difficult this morning for the administration to put forth what you could call a coherent policy.”
MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and the others went heavy with the passenger being dragged off the United flight, with Fox especially sympathetic to the passenger. And “Morning Joe” had former Obama deputy CIA Director David Cohen (very sharp fellow) on Syria policy, following a funny back-and-forth on whether Alabama has overtaken Louisiana as the most corrupt state with the exit of its governor.
On United, check Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown on the history of the O’Hare International Airport cops, who earn more than private security, less than regular Chicago police and have long lobbied to have guns. Imagine.
A precursor to a Pulitzer
The New York Times, New York Daily News, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal now share a double honor: winning a Pulitzer Prize and being badmouthed by Trump. (Business Insider)
The prepared traveler
If I’m flying United Thursday, should I bring a book and a network TV news crew just in case Trump sees a political upside in a missile strike on United craft at O’Hare? Will the United Club be a safe haven?