May 9, 2022

The Washington Post won the top Pulitzer Prize for Public Service on Monday for exhaustive coverage of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and its aftermath. 

The award was for both the Post’s daily coverage as the invasion unfolded and a retrospective three-part inquest “Before, During and After” involving 75 journalists published Oct. 6.

The Pulitzer citation reads: “The Washington Post for its compellingly told and vividly presented account of the assault on Washington on January 6, 2021, providing the public with a thorough and unflinching understanding of one of the nation’s darkest days.”

Jan. 6 yielded another Pulitzer — to Getty Images for a portfolio of 15 photographs, which the judges called “comprehensive and consistently riveting.” (Getty shared the prize with Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Times.)

RELATED TRAINING: Watch the replay of A Photojournalist’s View from Insurrection to Inauguration.

For the Post, it was the sixth Public Service prize. The most famous of those was in 1973 for Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate coverage. Other more recent ones were for exposés of spying on citizens by the National Security Agency (2014) and of neglect of wounded veterans at Walter Reed Hospital (2008).

The lengthy stories in October are summarized in easily accessible outline form, organized by chapter — The Attack: Red Flags, Bloodshed and Contagion. 

Before the attack, the Post found, law enforcement ignored many warning signs, the Capitol Police were ill prepared, and Pentagon officials worried that President Trump might call the National Guard to try to remain in power.

During the attack, escalating danger signs were ignored rather than triggering a stepped-up security response. The Post also found that the FBI was forced to improvise a response to take back the Capitol and that Trump allies were pressuring Vice President Pence to reject the results even after the siege.

The final story in the series documented the continuing trauma to first responders and the immediate and continuing effort of the Trump camp to reverse the election result. 

While the Pulitzer judges appeared especially impressed with the massive reconstruction, the Post’s daily coverage pulled no punches either.

Under the headline, “After inciting mob attack, Trump retreats in rage. Then, grudgingly, he admits his loss,” a Jan. 7 story by Philip Rucker, Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey opens:

“President Trump spent more than 24 hours after instigating a mob to violently storm the Capitol trying to escape reality.

“Cloistered in the White House, Trump raged uncontrollably about perceived acts of betrayal. He tuned out advisers who pleaded with him to act responsibly. He was uninterested in trying to repair what he had wrought. And he continued to insist he had won the election, even as his own vice president certified the fact that he had not.

“Only after darkness fell in Washington on Thursday, after the Capitol had been besieged by death and destruction and a growing chorus of lawmakers had called for his immediate removal from office, did Trump grudgingly accept his fate.”

In a letter to readers of the long story package, Executive Editor Sally Buzbee explains, “The Post began this project in late spring, after efforts in Congress to create a bipartisan panel to examine the Jan. 6 attack collapsed.”

Another sidebar summarizes a response by President Trump including, “The media’s obsession with the January 6th protest is a blatant attempt to overshadow a simple fact: there is no greater threat to America than leftist journalists and the Fake News, which has avoided a careful examination of the fraudulent 2020 election. The media, just like the Democrats, do not want to see secure and honest elections. Instead of reporting the facts, outlets like the Washington Post sow division, hate, and lies, like it is doing with this story.” 

I asked Buzbee to assess the likely impact of the coverage. While so sweeping as not to produce a specific outcome, she said in a phone interview, it “was the most important thing that happened last year, and the ramifications will be felt for several more years.

“There was no agreed-upon version of what had happened (after Congress stepped back from its investigation). So just to capture that was significant.”

The Post was reporting in real time and that was part of the entry, Buzbee said, “but a lot of the aspects of the violence were not know until after a few days … We were able to establish that there had been an attempted coup” and fill in the story of Ashli Babbitt’s death.

In framing the long story in October, Buzbee said, editors decided to be explicit about questions remaining. “We still don’t know everything … (for example) about what the FBI did and didn’t know in advance.”

Part of the newsroom celebration, she added, was a resolution to stay on the case indefinitely with a particular eye on disputes about the legitimacy of elections.

The Post’s coverage will no doubt become a touchpoint for the historical record of Jan. 6.  At this stage, it is unclear how the next chapters in the aftermath will play out in this fall’s elections and the 2024 presidential campaign.

In the Public Service category one of the other finalists was The New York Times for documenting drone air strikes and their toll on civilians in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.  The entry was moved to the International Reporting category, which it won.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel was cited for “an expose of electrical fires in the city’s rental properties and a widespread lack of accountability.”

The finalist in the Breaking News Photography category was an anonymous New York Times freelancer covering the military coup in Myanmar (name suppressed because of the personal danger involved).

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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…
Rick Edmonds

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