Pulitzer notes: Racism and climate change come calling from a pre-pandemic world

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

When the latest Pulitzer Prizes were announced on Monday afternoon, it felt like they’d been beamed in from another dimension.

The awards honor the best in journalism from the previous year — a time when COVID-19 was barely a blip on the radar and didn’t yet have a name. You can be sure that coverage of the pandemic will dominate next year’s Pulitzers. This year, though, they were all about journalism that exposed neglected communities in rural Alaska, corruption in Baltimore, corporate and governmental malfeasance at Boeing, and the never-ending horror that is the Guantánamo Bay detention center.

Two winners, in particular, caught my eye. Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times won the commentary award for her lead essay accompanying The 1619 Project, a massive effort that re-examined American history through the lens of slavery. The Washington Post took home the explanatory-reporting prize for a series showing the effects of climate change. Both are the sort of journalism that will have staying power even after the pandemic has receded into the background.

Locally, The Boston Globe was left empty-handed for the sixth consecutive year. But it took finalist honors in three separate categories with excellent work that is worth examining more closely.

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The 1619 Project, grounded in the idea that American history began with the introduction of slavery in Virginia that year, was a massive multimedia effort. It took up an entire issue of The New York Times Magazine last August, featuring contributions from a wide range of writers. It sparked a series of podcasts. It’s been reworked as a school resource. But the animating focus is the 7,600-word lead essay by Hannah-Jones, who conceived of the project and who has been its public face.

By honoring Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer judges chose a piece of writing that is not only worthy but also controversial. And perhaps the most controversial assertion she makes is that the American Revolution was sparked by, among other things, the belief among slave-holding interests that the colonies needed to become independent so that the British wouldn’t abolish slavery. As Hannah-Jones puts it: “Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.”

Did she get it right? Late last year, a group of five historians wrote to the Times arguing that Hannah-Jones was wrong about that central argument. “This is not true,” they wrote. “If supportable, the allegation would be astounding — yet every statement offered by the project to validate it is false.” That sounds devastating. And Leslie M. Harris, one of the historians with whom The 1619 Project consulted, has written that the Times ignored her warnings. But in an answer to the five historians, Times Magazine editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein cites compelling evidence — including a reference to the Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s book “These Truths” — that fear of abolition was in fact a significant reason why the slave-holding white power structure supported independence.

In the Columbia Journalism Review last August, Alexandria Neason wrote, “For the media to tell the truth about the U.S., it must commit to both a reeducation of its readers and of its workers. Efforts like The 1619 Project look backwards to inform a path forward.”

Almost as an exclamation point, a Pulitzer was also awarded posthumously to Ida B. Wells “for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.” Hannah-Jones’ Twitter handle is Ida Bae Wells.

By honoring Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer judges have ensured that the conversation she sparked will continue.

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The Washington Post last August published the first of a series of 10 stories aimed at showing not merely that climate change was inevitable, but that it was already here, resulting in extreme temperatures and other effects in the United States and around the world. The data-driven series, titled “2˚C: Beyond the Limit,” examined places where the average temperature has risen by at least 2 degrees Celsius.

“A Washington Post analysis of multiple temperature data sets found numerous locations around the globe that have warmed by at least 2 degrees Celsius over the past century,” the Post reported. “That’s a number that scientists and policymakers have identified as a red line if the planet is to avoid catastrophic and irreversible consequences. But in regions large and small, that point has already been reached.”

In awarding the explanatory-reporting prize to the Post, the Pulitzer judges called “2˚C: Beyond the Limit” a “groundbreaking series that showed with scientific clarity the dire effects of extreme temperatures on the planet.” The series offers close-up looks at the effects of climate change such as floods, droughts and extreme heat in places ranging from New Jersey to California, from Qatar to Siberia, as well as a conclusion headlined “How We Know Global Warming Is Real.”

Yet in looking over the Post’s award-winning work, I couldn’t help but think of the epistemic closure that characterizes the political right these days. The Post’s audience no doubt appreciated the deep, fact-based reporting. But at a time when extremist allies of President Donald Trump are refusing to accept the reality of a pandemic that has already claimed about 70,000 American lives, it’s hard to imagine that climate change-deniers will be swayed by new evidence.

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Whether a news organization wins a Pulitzer or not often comes down to the competition. The Baltimore Sun won in the local-reporting category for exposing corruption involving Mayor Catherine Pugh. Actually, make that the former mayor.

The Boston Globe didn’t expose any official wrongdoing in “The Valedictorians Project.” But by comprehensively reporting on the struggles experienced by Boston’s valedictorians in the years following their high-school graduation, the Globe revealed that the city was failing even its brightest, most successful students. The reporting was supplemented by data visualizations, videos and other interactive features. It may not have brought down a mayor, but it was certainly worthy of the finalist citation it received. (Disclosure: Several of our Northeastern journalism students worked on the project.)

Two other finalists from the Globe were also recognized.

In feature writing, Nestor Ramos was cited for his story on Cape Cod and climate change, “At the Edge of a Warming World” — which, like “The Valedictorians Project,” was enhanced with a vibrant multimedia presentation.

In feature photography, Erin Clark was honored for — as the Pulitzer judges put it — her “respectful and compassionate photography of a working Maine family as it falls into homelessness and finds new housing, albeit precarious.”

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