Tuesday, April 11, 2017

MY FAVORITE PULITZER WINNER OF THE YEAR

My favorite Pulitzer Prize winner this year had to be the tiny Storm Lake Times of Storm Lake, Iowa, a 3,000-circulation paper that took home the editorial writing prize on Monday for some real  shoe-leather work.

Editor and publisher Art Cullen raised the issue of how local government entities planned to defend themselves against lawsuits related to agricultural and irrigation toxins in local water. When they would not reveal their funding, the paper kept digging and uncovered the fact that the defense cash came from companies known for their own questionable practices such as Koch Industries and Monsanto, according to The Washington Post.

The Pulitzer Board described the work as "editorials fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa."

For years I was lucky enough to cover the Pulitzer Prizes annually for Editor & Publisher. When the biggest awards in journalism were announced inside the third-floor World Room at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, I was as excited as any of the hopeful candidates.

At E&P, we also had a string of finding out the finalists names in advance for several years, a scoop that upset the decision-makers at Columbia, but one that still gets some people reaching out to me for such information. Alas, the well of leaks dried up years ago.

More important, however, was the idea that the Pulitzer could be won by any newspaper, of any size or readership. To this day, The New York Times - which garnered three more prizes on Monday - can be challenged by the likes of a Point Reyes Light or Grand Forks Herald in the competition that gives no weight or sympathy to staff size or revenue.

You win because you speak truth to power, dig up the real story, or challenge the status quo. 

In my 11 years at E&P, I was lucky to write about many notable Pulitzer winners -- ranging from The Village Voice's Mark Schoofs, who won that weekly's first Pulitzer in 2000 for a lengthy series on AIDS in Africa (for which he caught malaria during his time overseas) to The Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence, MA., honored in 2003 when it went all out on the story of four local boys who drowned in a river boating tragedy.

One of my favorites, however, was The Boston Globe's Spotlight team revelations about the Catholic Church. Although far from a small newspaper, The Globe had additional challenges as it took on one of the city's sacred institutions - a battle many saw in the 2016 Oscar-winning film Spotlight

What the film failed to mention, however, was that the coverage won the 2003 Public Service Pulitzer, considered to be the most prestigious, and the only one without a cash prize.

So as this year's winners properly enjoy their accolades, knowing they are well-earned in this time of newsroom cutbacks and instant deadlines over dogged reporting and fact-finding, readers should also rejoice that such true newspapering is still going on.

And as the editor of the Storm Lake Times put it, still scaring "the bejeebers" out of those in power.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

LOSS OF A LEGEND: JIMMY BRESLIN'S NEW YORK

Very sadden to hear today of the death of Jimmy Breslin, the legendary former columnist for the New York Daily News, Newsday, New York Herald-Tribune and others.

For those of us from several generations, Breslin was New York. The epitome of the loud-talking, tough-writing, cigar-smoking newsroom scribe who would dig out the news, and his views, with little concern for backlash.

He took on the streets with real stories about real people, and the politicians with gritty truth -- even running for city council president himself once. His typewriter -- yeah, remember typewriters? -- plucked words that attacked many previous ivory towers, from City Hall to the Vatican.

His books ranged from novels of quirky characters to non-fiction looks at issues ranging from the early New York Mets to the Nixon impeachment.

When he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986, I was a sophomore at Brooklyn College studying journalism and news and read his daily missives with joy and hope that a journalist's words could make a difference. 

I am sure I was not alone in seeing the way Breslin, and many in those past tabloid and daily newspaper days of New York and elsewhere, could speak truth to power and demand answers.

And he was in the news himself at some moments. Along with his city council run, Breslin drew international attention in the summer of 1977 when the so-called Son of Sam killer David Berkowitz sent a letter to Breslin revealing his psychotic thoughts and plans during a murder spree that ended with six dead and seven wounded. 

When the Pulitzer committee gave Breslin his prize, they wrote that it was for "columns that consistently champion ordinary citizens." That was him to a tee.

When I got my first job at a small newspaper in New Jersey two years later, I always remembered Breslin's approach in that way. That it is how ordinary people were affected by government, crime, taxes, schools, and daily events that was important in journalism. Any news person worth their salt knows that is the focus, or should be, of most any news story.

During my career, I have been lucky to interview Breslin on several occasions. First during my time at Editor & Publisher, and more recently at Media Matters for America. The last time was just four years ago when I wrote about the 37 journalists on the NRA's "enemies list," Breslin among them. 

His reaction: "Put me first on the list."

One of my favorite stories was Breslin's piece in 1963 on the man who would dig JFK's grave. Dispatched to Washington by the Herald Tribune to find an angle on the funeral of the 35th president, Breslin has written that the gravedigger was the most likely unknown part of the story, and among the most important simply for his job.

Breslin wrote, in part:

Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday, so when he woke up at 9 a.m., in his three-room apartment on Corcoran Street, he put on khaki overalls before going into the kitchen for breakfast. His wife, Hettie, made bacon and eggs for him. Pollard was in the middle of eating them when he received the phone call he had been expecting. It was from Mazo Kawalchik, who is the foreman of the gravediggers at Arlington National Cemetery, which is where Pollard works for a living. "Polly, could you please be here by eleven o'clock this morning?" Kawalchik asked. "I guess you know what it's for." Pollard did.

He hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

See the entire column HERE.

He revealed years later that when Pope John Paul I died in 1978, he went to Rome looking again for the under-written story. He came up with the idea of writing about the embalming of the pope, which his piece viewed as poorly done in Italy at the time. He said his then editors at the Daily News declined the idea.

And now it is we who write about this death, and his life. And at a time when national politics and local government need fiery news voices more than ever, let's hope that those in our profession seek to continue Breslin's work even as they face stiffer competition, budget cutbacks and a White House more anti-press than ever.