By:
May 4, 2020

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Pulitzer Prizes bring bittersweet reactions

A year ago, when the South Florida Sun Sentinel won a Pulitzer Prize for public service, it should have been the happiest day in the careers of its journalists. The Pulitzer Prize is generally considered the highest award a journalist from an American news outlet can win — an Oscar for journalists, if you will.

Yet, when last year’s Pulitzer Prizes were announced, the mood in the Sun Sentinel newsroom was bittersweet. They were proud of their work, but heartbroken that they even had to write the stories that brought them the prestigious award.

The Sun Sentinel’s Pulitzer came from its coverage of the Parkland school shooting that killed 17 students and staff members and wounded 17 more.

Just moments after the Pulitzer announcement was made, Sun Sentinel editor-in-chief Julie Anderson told me the newsroom was a mix of appreciation and somberness.

“I don’t think it ever left our minds of why we won and the tragedy that we were covering,” Anderson said. “It was a complex reaction.”

Brittany Wallman, one of the main reporters on the Sun Sentinel’s awarded coverage, told me at the time: “Most of us can’t talk about the coverage without getting emotional. The community is still grieving and we’re grieving right along with them.”

Today is Pulitzer Prize day. At 3 p.m. Eastern this afternoon, the finalists and winners of the 2020 Pulitzer Prizes will be announced. Already, celebrations will be strange, seeing as how coronavirus and social distancing will keep journalists from gathering in newsrooms to pop champagne and toast the winners.

But even still, it’s not uncommon for journalists to have complicated reactions to winning Pulitzers because, often, their award-winning work is for coverage of a sad topic or grim circumstance. Past Pulitzer Prizes have been awarded for coverage of such things as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, sexual assault by priests in the Catholic Church, Hurricane Katrina and the Boston Marathon bombing and other mass shootings. Those are just a few of the examples of horrific conditions that led to critical work.

Certainly, reporters would gladly trade in their Pulitzers if it meant those tragedies had never happened.

But they also shouldn’t feel guilty for their award-winning work. Even in the aftermath of these awful events, these journalists and media outlets provided valuable reporting that helped understand what happened and how to lay out a blueprint for the future.

In some cases, that reporting was critical in righting a wrong or stopping an injustice. In those cases, the media shined a light on something that needed to be stopped. One such example came from the Boston Globe and its — notice the name — Spotlight team for their coverage of the Catholic Church sexual assault scandal. Yes, they won awards and the story was even turned into an Oscar-winning movie. But, more than that, it exposed what was going on in the Catholic church. That coverage made a huge difference and positive impact and, for that, it’s OK to feel honored and accept an award.

And it will be OK today, too, when journalists win Pulitzers for stories that might have to do with death, harm, injustice and sadness.

Home of the free press?

President Donald Trump on Sunday. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Sunday was World Press Freedom Day. This year’s theme was “journalism without fear or favour.”

But you might not know it by looking at President Donald Trump’s Twitter feed on Sunday morning. Just before 8 a.m. on World Press Freedom Day, Trump tweeted, “The Fake News doesn’t show real polls. Lamestream Media is totally CORRUPT, the Enemy of the People!”

Well before that tweet went out, Washington Post global opinion writer Jason Rezaian wrote that press freedoms are being restricted in many places, such as India, Turkey and Brazil. But he added, “In the United States, however, we are dealing with a rather different phenomenon: President Trump’s more personal fight with journalists and their work.”

Rezaian notes that, according to Reporters Without Borders’ annual Press Freedom Index, the United States actually ranks 45th in press freedom. U.S. press freedoms are considered “satisfactory” as opposed to “free.” The Press Freedom Index report said press freedoms have actually gotten worse during the coronavirus crisis because of Trump’s attacks on the media during his White House press conferences.

“Fortunately, we still live in an open society, one ruled by the principles of law and truth,” Rezaian wrote. “But those hallowed values are increasingly forced to co-exist with this president’s fondness for bullying and deception. For the time being, however, the spirit of American pluralism — beleaguered like no other time in recent memory — is continuing to demonstrate its resilience. But there is no room for complacency. The threats are all too real.”

Speaking of World Press Freedom Day, it’s not just something to be celebrated one day a year. Poynter’s Mel Grau looks at how you can support the press and press freedoms.

A Twin Cities controversy

A popular weatherman. A hot-take repost. A former Congressman weighs in. A firing. And now a big-time controversy.

KARE 11, the NBC affiliate in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, fired 14-year veteran meteorologist Sven Sundgaard on Friday. KARE 11 would only say it was because of “continued violations of KARE 11’s news ethics and other policies.” But the firing came less than a month after Sundgaard reposted a comment on Facebook from a Minneapolis rabbi who compared the protests of economic shutdowns to “white nationalist Nazi sympathizer gun fetishist miscreants.”

Former U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis (R-Minn.) then jumped on Sundgaard for the reposting. Lewis tweeted, “Today’s forecast: mostly sunny w/ a chance of idiocy. First ‘sports reporter’ @KFANRosen attacks the right to peaceably assemble.Now ‘weatherman’ @svensundgaard does this. #Covid_19 models are about as accurate as his forecasts. @kare11 should fire him!”

That’s what happened. Sundgaard was fired. The (Minneapolis) Star Tribune’s Neal Justin wrote that within two hours of KARE 11 posting the firing on its Facebook page, the post had more than 3,000 comments, many coming from people who said they disagreed with the decision to fire Sundgaard and that they would never watch the station again. By Sunday, the number of comments had surpassed 6,000.

Justin also wrote that Sundgaard’s popularity extends beyond his forecasts. He is active in the community and has “never been shy about expressing his thoughts.” Justin recalled a 2015 interview with The Star Tribune in which Sundgaard was asked for a reaction about those who waved the Confederate flag upon greeting President Barack Obama.

“Hate and racism,” Sundgaard said. “I had a great-great-grandfather who fought in the Civil War in the 38th Iowa Infantry. Injured because those, what’s the word we should use, morons and racists in the South wanted to preserve their way of life. They lost. Actually what I’ve likened it to, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration, let’s pretend that Germany were a state in the U.S. and they still wanted to fly the Nazi flag. Get real.”

A job well done

MSNBC television anchor Mika Brzezinski. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

In media circles, all eyes were on “Morning Joe’s” Mika Brzezinski as she interviewed presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on Friday about sexual assault allegations leveled against him by former staffer Tara Reade. Her work, as it turned out, was more than respectable. Her performance was outstanding, as she grilled Biden in an interview that, at times, turned contentious.

Even Fox News thought Brzezinski did well. During Sunday’s “Media Buzz” on Fox News, commentator Gillian Turner said, “That was no softball interview. … She came at him with all of the facts and tough, uncomfortable questions.”

Many thought Brzezinski might go easy on Biden, but that was far from the case

“I think she proved (herself) in this interview that went against the detractors who said it was going to be a liberal and softball interview entirely,” Turner said.

“Media Buzz” host Howard Kurtz said, “I think Mika was superb. She was prepared and she was relentless in following up: What about your papers? I wish she had asked about the corroborating witnesses, but you can’t get everything in.”

Whatcha reading?

One of the more non-critical, but interesting things to come out of the coronavirus coverage is that we get a peek into the homes of celebrities. And most people who do interviews from their homes set up their computer cameras with bookshelves in the background. So not only do we get to see a glimpse of their homes, but which books celebrities have on their shelves. The New York Times’ Gal Beckerman has a fun story detailing the reading material of famous people such as Cate Blanchett, Prince Charles, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd and Stacey Abrams.

Sunday morning news show highlights

Here are the most notable quotes from the Sunday morning news shows.

Dr. Deborah Birx on “Fox News Sunday” about the huge protests to reopen in Michigan: “It’s devastatingly worrisome to me, personally, because if they go home and infect their grandmother or their grandfather who has a comorbid condition and they have a serious or a very — or an unfortunate outcome, they will feel guilty for the rest of our lives. So we need to protect each other at the same time we’re voicing our discontent.”

Veteran Washington Post journalist Carl Bernstein on CNN’s “Reliable Sources:” “You can’t successfully wage a war against the coronavirus while simultaneously waging a huge war on the truth, which is what Donald Trump continues to do. The cost of it is really measurable in lives.”

National Economic Council director Larry Kudlow, on CNN’s “State of the Union,” on his comments in February that the coronavirus in America had been contained: “For the umpteenth time, I will say, my quote then was based on the actual facts, which, at the time, there were only 40 or 50 cases. And it was contained, particularly after President Trump boldly put up travel restrictions with China. That’s what the data — I didn’t make a forecast. So far — and that was just — there was hardly any cases, OK? Now, yes, some doctors were more fearful. Other doctors had many different things to say. I don’t want to get in and play this game of who said what and when.”

Gilead Sciences CEO Daniel O’Day, on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” about when he expects the antiviral drug remdesivir to be delivered to patients: “We are now firmly focused on getting this medicine to the most urgent patients around the country here in the United States. We intend to get that to patients in the early part of this next week, beginning to work with the government, which will determine which cities are most vulnerable and where the patients are that need this medicine.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on ABC’s “This Week,” with this remark when asked if he believed China intentionally created or genetically modified the coronavirus: “Look, the best experts so far seem to think it was man-made. I have no reason to disbelieve that at this point. … There’s enormous evidence that that’s where this began. We’ve said from the beginning that this was a virus that originated in Wuhan, China. We took a lot of grief for that from the outset. But I think the whole world can see now. I can tell you that there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan.”

A new newsletter

As I mentioned late last week, The New York Times is rebranding its morning newsletter starting today. It will be called “The Morning” and be led by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Leonhardt. In a note to readers Sunday, Leonhardt wrote that the newsletter will have a new look, including more graphics and other features.

Leonhardt wrote, “As part of The Morning, you’ll also get a peek behind the curtain at The Times — at the more than 1,700 Times journalists, including doctors, lawyers, cartographers, former Marines and other experts, reporting from more than 150 countries around the world.”

Three things that popped into my head

Injured NFL quarterback Alex Smith, last summer, about eight months after breaking his leg in a game. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

  • If you haven’t seen it, be sure to seek out re-airs of ESPN’s “E:60” episode on NFL quarterback Alex Smith. He had his leg snapped during a game in 2018 and, after nearly losing his life and leg from infection, has had 17 surgeries. It’s frightening, sobering and, ultimately, inspiring. But it’s a roller coaster and not for the weak of stomach.
  • President Trump did a virtual town-hall with Fox News on Sunday night. As the country continues to deal with the coronavirus, it might be the best interest of the country for the president to do more one-on-one interviews with networks — and I don’t mean just Fox News. How about ABC’s David Muir? Or NBC’s Lester Holt? Or CBS’s Norah O’Donnell? Or PBS’s Judy Woodruff?
  • New White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany ran an official White House press briefing Friday — the first time a press secretary has held one in more than a year (417 days, to be exact). The quote that stood out and likely will come back to haunt her is “I will never lie to you. You have my word on that.” CNN’s Daniel Dale, Marshall Cohen and Tara Subramaniam write, in fact, she has already broken that promise.

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Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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