On Sunday, the U.N. held its annual World Press Freedom Day under the theme “Journalism without Fear or Favour.”
On Monday, the awarding of Pulitzer Prizes projected that ethos — and then some.
Indeed, international reporting revealing repression and corruption was evident in several key categories, including international reporting, which was won by the New York Times “for a set of enthralling stories, reported at great risk, exposing the predations of Vladimir Putin’s regime.”
Another authoritarian government’s abuses were vividly depicted by Reuters, which won the breaking news photography category “for wide-ranging and illuminating photographs of Hong Kong as citizens protested infringement of their civil liberties and defended the region’s autonomy by the Chinese government.”
Regrettably, it’s not just repressive regimes crushing dissent: Some ostensible democracies like India do too, as witnessed by feature photography winners from the Associated Press for their “striking images captured during a communications blackout in Kashmir depicting life in the contested territory after India stripped it of its semi-autonomy.”
Sometimes the international injustice spans nations, as it did in two key categories: feature writing, won by Ben Taub of the New Yorker “for a devastating account of a man who was kidnapped, tortured and deprived of his liberty for more than a decade at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, blending on-the-ground reporting and lyrical prose to offer a nuanced perspective on America’s wider war on terror.” And in a new, overdue category, audio reporting, for “The Out Crowd,” which the judges deemed “revelatory, intimate journalism that illuminates the personal impact of the Trump Administration’s ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy.” That award was won by Molly O’Toole of the Los Angeles Times, Emily Green, a freelancer working for Vice News, and the staff of public radio’s “This American Life.”
Life in America can be corrupt, too, as evidenced by the investigative reporting award given to Brian M. Rosenthal of the New York Times “for an exposé of New York City’s taxi industry that showed how lenders profited from predatory loans that shattered the lives of vulnerable drivers, reporting that ultimately led to state and federal investigations and sweeping reforms.”
Many of the victims were immigrants witnessing the American dream turn into a nightmare. Others often tragically cast as “the out crowd” in an inconsistent America were the subject of Pulitzer-worthy exposés.
In the prestigious public service category, the Anchorage Daily News, with contributions from ProPublica, won “for a riveting series that revealed a third of Alaska’s villages had no police protection, took authorities to task for decades of neglect, and spurred an influx of money and legislative changes.”
And in the editorial writing category, Jeffery Gerritt of the Palestine, Texas, Herald Press won “for editorials that exposed how pretrial inmates died horrific deaths in a small Texas county jail — reflecting a rising trend across the state — and courageously took on the local sheriff and judicial establishment, which tried to cover up these needless tragedies.” (The Star Tribune’s Jill Burcum was a finalist for her edifying editorial on the BWCA/Twin Metals mine issue that the judges described as “passionate, persuasive writing about a pristine wilderness area, accessible largely by canoe, to demonstrate to readers why a proposed mine would do incalculable environmental damage.”)
Of course, corruption doesn’t just afflict “the out crowd,” but benefits insiders — at least until they’re exposed by journalists, like those at the Louisville Courier-Journal, which won in the breaking news category “for its rapid coverage of hundreds of last-minute pardons by Kentucky’s governor, showing how the process was marked by opacity, racial disparities and violations of legal norms.” Meanwhile, the Baltimore Sun’s win in local reporting was “for illuminating, impactful reporting on a lucrative, undisclosed financial relationship between the city’s mayor and the public hospital system she helped to oversee.”
And in the national reporting category two awards were given: To the Seattle Times “for groundbreaking stories that exposed design flaws in the Boeing 737 MAX that led to two deadly crashes and revealed failures in government oversight” and to ProPublica “for their investigation into America’s 7th Fleet after a series of deadly naval accidents in the Pacific.”
If, as is often said, journalism is the first rough draft of history, then that draft needed revisions, according to the striking “1619” project by the New York Times, whose lead author, Nikole Hannah-Jones, won in the commentary category “for a sweeping, deeply reported and personal essay for the groundbreaking 1619 Project, which seeks to place the enslavement of Africans at the center of America’s story, prompting public conversation about the nation’s founding and evolution.”
Race relations were also a prominent theme in prizes in books, drama and music. Colson Whitehead won his second fiction award, this time for the Jim Crow-era novel “The Nickel Boys.” W. Caleb McDaniel won for history for “Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America.” And the drama, poetry, and music category winners took on the topic, too.
So it was particularly timely that the committee awarded a special citation to Ida B. Wells, a former slave turned journalism legend, “for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.”
Tragically, such violence isn’t a thing of history, but headlines, as a video — a form of citizen journalism — played a part in the arrest of two white men accused of the shameful slaying of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man in Georgia.
Reporters Without Borders recently released its World Press Freedom Index and warned of converging geopolitical, technological, democratic and trust crises that will be compounded by the coronavirus crisis — a scourge resulting in record readership but a compressed, if not collapsed, media business model. Leadership from usually dependable places has collapsed, too: On World Press Freedom Day, President Donald Trump didn’t shine a light on America’s model of media freedom, but threw shade on Twitter about the press, including using the Stalin-era “Enemy of the People” phrase to describe some news organizations.
But as this year’s Pulitzer Prizes prove, the press will continue to serve people by practicing journalism without fear or favor.
Indeed, while the news business may be in crisis, the reporting is as vital as ever.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.