Joseph Pulitzer well understood how essential a free and vigorous press was to America.
His thoughts on the subject are enshrined on a plaque at the Columbia University journalism school in New York, which was founded with his bequest in 1912.
Journalists and all Americans would do well to examine them closely:
“Our republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mould the future of the republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations.”
As I stood before that plaque last week, its words struck me as especially relevant in 2014. Our republic and its press are rising and falling together, and each institution needs to recommit itself to Pulitzer’s vision. Due to technology and mankind’s penchant to always find a way to make a buck, the press has splintered in recent years. Today the American media landscape includes more cynical, mercenary and demagogic elements than it has in a very long time. As Pulitzer predicted, that is creating a people as base as itself, and threatening to make popular government a sham.
An incredibly talented cast
The emergence of that type of media, however, should not obscure the fact that there remains a large core of “able, disinterested, public spirited” reporters, editors and others with whom the republic is rising.
Dozens of them were at Columbia last week for the awarding of the 2014 Pulitzer Prizes. I was there with Observer Publisher Ann Caulkins and Editor Rick Thames to celebrate our editorial cartoonist, Kevin Siers, this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning.
The talent in that room and the excellence of the entries were a reminder of the critically important work journalists still produce and of how indispensable that work is to a functioning democracy and a fair society.
Take Chris Hamby of the Center for Public Integrity, who won the Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting. Hamby showed how doctors and lawyers rigged the system to avoid payments to coal workers who suffered from black lung disease. Or David Philipps of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, who examined how wounded combat veterans are mistreated and denied earned benefits. Or Will Hobson and Michael LaForgia of the Tampa Bay Times. They revealed the horrid conditions in which their city’s homeless population lives, prompting policy changes.
They are added to a list of past prize winners who have exposed public and private corruption, avarice and ineptitude. That includes two Pulitzers for Public Service awarded to the Observer.
These are journalists with the “intelligence to know the right and courage to do it.”
Discomforting those in power
The courageous journalist I took the most interest in at Wednesday’s ceremony was Kevin Siers, whose penetrating, funny work graces these pages almost daily. His cartoons cut to a situation’s essential truth, which is often something the community senses but hesitates to call out. Kevin does not hesitate.
He didn’t know I was taking notes at a dinner Tuesday night when it was mentioned that many of the cartoons in his winning portfolio pointed out President Obama’s shortcomings.
“If you’re going to discomfort the people in power, then you have to do that (with) whoever is in power,” Kevin said. “People want you to be on one side or the other, and they can’t see that there are problems on both sides.” He noted he gets more hate mail from conservatives, but more virulent hate mail comes from liberals.
I’m gratified that this community and state benefit from his sharp eye, keen wit and powerful voice.
While the Pulitzers honor the very best in journalism, they recognize only a fraction of the reporting that makes an impact on communities day in and day out. Thousands of journalists across America serve as the watchdogs and truth-tellers who build, protect and sustain democracy and community institutions.
Media-bashing has become a national pastime, and certainly some of that is warranted. But to attend the Pulitzer Prize ceremony, and to reflect on all the other important journalism being done in the country today, is to have hope renewed that America will, more often than not, confront its problems and achieve its promise.