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Pulitzers Honor Array of Investigative Reports

April 17, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: In a year when most emphasis has been on the woes of newspapers — readers lost, reporters laid off, papers on the auction block — today was a day to honor the best in American journalism, as Columbia University, which administers the Pulitzer Prizes, released the 90th annual winners.

It was a year in which some very high-profile, investigative stories made a major mark. The Washington Post won the investigative category for its coverage of the Jack Abramoff lobbying and corruption scandal. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel was a runner-up for its probe of federal government mismanagement of hurricane aid. Another finalist was the Los Angeles Times for its exposure of management and acquisition problems at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Investigative work was also honored in the national reporting category, where two prizes were given: the New York Times, for its reporting on secret domestic eavesdropping; and the San Diego Union-Tribune and Copley News Service, for their disclosure of bribe-taking by former Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham.

And investigative journalism also featured in the award for beat reporting, where the top honor went to the Washington Post for reports on secret prisons in the government’s counterterrorism campaign and the award for international reporting, which went to the New York Times for stories on China’s legal system.

An assessment now from Jay Harris, a member of the Pulitzer board and one of the judges of today’s awards. Mr. Harris has been a reporter and editor and served as publisher of the San Jose Mercury News. He’s now head of the Center for the Study of Journalism and Democracy at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California.

And Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. He previously covered the press for the New York Times and was himself awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1987.

Mr. Harris, starting with you, when you look at these stories from the last year, what did they tell you about the state of investigative journalism today?

JAY HARRIS, Pulitzer Prize Judge: Well, Jeff, first, let me say that I’m speaking on behalf of myself only and not as a representative of the Pulitzer Prize board. But I was enormously encouraged by what I saw as I read the finalists. I think you could say that the press as a watchdog did its job remarkably well this year.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why did it seem to you, Mr. Harris, that there were so many big, important stories this year? Or did it seem unusual?

JAY HARRIS: Well, I think that there were a number of important stories, some generated by natural events. Hurricane Katrina, we learned a lot about the mismanagement of FEMA.

And a number are generated by the war on terrorism. We learned a great deal about questions, the balance between the war on terrorism and civil liberties, a great deal about domestic eavesdropping.

And, finally, we learned, sadly, a great deal about corruption in government at the national level, with the Abramoff trial, and local. For example, in Toledo, Ohio, a finalist where illegalities by government up to and including the governor were reported.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alex Jones, what did you see when he looked at these stories? What did it tell you about the state of investigative journalism?

ALEX JONES, Awarded Pulitzer Prize in 1987: Well, I would say that the first thing it says is that there’s certainly plenty to investigate out there. I think that that’s always been the case, of course.

And I think this was a particularly important year, because so many of these investigations had really national implications. I mean, the Abramoff one, the New York Times one, of course, on the domestic eavesdropping story, so many others that really had a national focus and were not just local.

But I think that the real message here is just how important this kind of reporting is. And in the environment that we’re in, there is, I think, despite the fact that there’s some great work being done, there’s probably a lot more work that could be done and should be done that isn’t being done because of the sort of turmoil that the newspaper industry is undergoing.

And newspapers do most of this kind of reporting. They don’t do it alone, but they are by far the greatest engine for this kind of investigative reporting.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Mr. Jones, would you say these stories should be seen as the exception, rather than the rule? In other words, is there less of this kind of big, investigative storytelling going on now than in the past?

ALEX JONES: I think there’s no question that the budgets for investigative reporting are going down. I think there’s no question also that many of — especially the publicly owned newspaper companies are devoting less money to this very expensive and time-consuming kind of reporting, and focusing on a kind of hyper-local kind of reporting, which is the sort of the mantra of the newspaper industry as they try to combat the effects of the Web and so forth and decline in advertising.

I think this is a very, very hard question, because investigative reporting goes to the very heart of the sort of public role, the public obligation role that the newspaper business has had from the middle of the 19th century. It was a business, but it was a business that had an obligation to spend a significant amount of money doing this kind of watchdog work.

The work you see on Pulitzer day is the very best, and the very best is as good or better than it’s ever been. But that very best work does not represent, I think, what is going into this kind of reporting broadly, in terms of the newspaper industry overall.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Harris, what do you think? What are the forces that are telling us how much and the quality of the kind of investigative work that we’re seeing today?

JAY HARRIS: Well, first, I would agree with Alex: The effects of news organizations being owned by large corporations which exist and have as their primary goal the acquisition of profit for shareholders. This has really had a deleterious effect on news organizations. You’ve seen their capacity, the fundamental capacity for excellent journalism, weakened by cuts in the news room.

That said, there’s still excellent investigative work being done out there, but it’s being done as much as anything because of individual journalists and editors who are concerned that this work be done. Even with the budget cutbacks, they are doing it out of dedication to the best of what journalism is.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Jones, one thing I noted here is that some smaller circulation — again, the largest papers won the most, the Times, the New York Times and the Washington Post. But there were some smaller circulation newspapers that did quite well, too. So they are finding a way to do this work.

ALEX JONES: Well, I don’t want to — I think it’s very important to point out that there are smaller newspapers that are doing this. For the most part, they’re family-owned newspapers that have a tradition of doing this kind of work as a matter of pride, as a matter of sense of public service.

I think what you don’t see, though, are small newspapers owned by large newspaper chains that are in this list. That’s not entirely true, but I think for the most part that’s not the way it works anymore. Those are not the kinds of places that are willing to give the time and the resources for this kind of expensive work.

This is the most expensive, difficult kind of journalism to do. It takes the reporters with the most experience and that cost the most. This is a problem for a lot of publicly-owned-and-operated news corporations that are basically feeling an extreme pressure on their profit margins and are looking to cut their news budgets.

And one of the ways they do that quickly is to diminish their investigative, you know, ambitions. I think that that’s a shame. And I think that — I wish there had been, you know, 20 times as many investigative and another Pulitzer-worthy pieces out there from newspapers all over the country.

I just don’t think that really is the reality, because that’s the very hard times the newspaper business is going through. It’s kind of a crisis of conscience, as much as anything else, figuring out what their public service obligation is going to be, as a measure against their duty to their shareholders and their need to make a profit.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Alex Jones and Jay Harris, thanks very much.

ALEX JONES: Thank you.