Pulitzer round-up: Race, #MeToo and the ever-present Trump story

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The 2018 Pulitzer Prizes are likely to be remembered as the Year of #MeToo, as courageous reporting on Harvey Weinstein and other predatory men sparked what may prove to be an enduring change in relations between the sexes. But the awards, announced Monday at Columbia University, covered a wide of subjects. And perhaps none of those is more difficult than race.

For The Boston Globe, the Pulitzers brought a near-win as well as a haunting voice from the past. The paper’s Spotlight Team was a runner-up in the Local Reporting category for its series on the city’s racial tensions, a painful part of our cultural DNA. And Patricia Smith, a lyrical African-American writer who left the Globe in 1998 after she was discovered to have fabricated characters and situations in her column, was herself a finalist in Poetry.

The Globe’s series, “Boston. Racism. Image. Reality.,” was a massive effort that explored the city’s troubled racial past and present from a variety of angles, including the nearly all-white Seaport District, our newest neighborhood; racial disparities in health care; and how African-Americans fare in higher education and in sports.

For those of us who urge news organizations to reconceptualize journalism as a form of civic engagement, the series was a landmark, sparking deep online discussion and forums at which members of the Spotlight Team met with members of the public. The Pulitzer judges called it “a poignant and illuminating exploration of the city’s fraught history of race relations.” I thought it might win a Pulitzer, perhaps in the Explanatory Reporting category. And though it fell short, it should nevertheless lead to conversation and follow-up stories for some time to come.

Patricia Smith, for those of you who weren’t around during the Globe’s Summer from Hell in 1998, was one of two star columnists who left in the midst of ethical lapses — Smith and Mike Barnicle for writing fiction, and Barnicle for plagiarism as well. Barnicle has remained an outspoken presence during the intervening 20 years, in recent years as a talking head on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” Smith, though, largely disappeared from public view.

To her credit, Smith did the hard work of rebuilding her career. In 2015, The New York Times published a profile of Smith, by then a prize-winning poet as well as a professor at the College of Staten Island. Her selection as a 2018 Pulitzer finalist is for her collection “Incendiary Art,” described by the Pulitzer judges as a “searing portrait of the violence exacted against the bodies of African-American men in America and the grief of the women who mourn them.”

Although perhaps less well-known to those of us whose main interest in the Pulitzers is journalism, the most striking prize of all may have been the one awarded to the rapper Kendrick Lamar, who won in the Music category for his album “DAMN.” According to NPR.org, “It’s the first time in the prize’s history that it has been given to an artist outside of the classical or jazz community.” The Pulitzer judges called the album “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”

It is often said that the story of race is the story of America. At a time when our culture is becoming increasingly diverse, and when nearly half of our fellow Americans have made it clear that they fear that diversity, it’s heartening that the 2018 Pulitzers do so much to highlight it.

And congratulations to the Globe and to Patricia Smith.

The media and #MeToo

When considering the charged politics of gender in the workplace, it seems like the world began anew after the Times and The New Yorker exposed the violence-tinged depravity of the former entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein.

The list of once-powerful men who’ve been laid low since the Weinstein revelations is a long one, and includes Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Garrison Keillor, Louis C.K., Al Franken, and others. Locally, Tom Ashbrook of WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) would probably still be at the “On Point” mic were it not for #MeToo, even though an investigation of his behavior found that he was a bully, not a sexual harasser.

The Globe has done good work in reporting the #MeToo story (such as columnist Yvonne Abraham’s exposure of former Massachusetts Senate president Stan Rosenberg’s husband, Byron Hefner) and has itself run afoul of rapidly changing workplace mores (consider editor Brian McGrory’s decision not to identify reporter Jim O’Sullivan after he left the paper — a decision McGrory later reversed).

The revelations have slowed down recently. It’s important that the momentum not be lost. By honoring Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey at the Times and Ronan Farrow at The New Yorker with the coveted Public Service Award, the Pulitzer judges have reminded us of how essential their work has been.

We live in a political world

I have made it to nearly the end of this column without mentioning President Trump. You’re welcome. Still, the overarching drama of our time is the chaotic Trump presidency, and the diligence with which that story is covered matters is of paramount importance to the fate of our democracy.

At a time when much of the news media is under siege because of its declining economic prospects, the Times and The Washington Post have both the resources and the competitive drive to try to get to the bottom of Russian interference in the 2016 election. The papers have been excoriated by Trump himself as “failing” and “fake,” but the Pulitzer judges awarded them the National Reporting prize for their “deeply sourced, relentlessly reported coverage.” The Post also won the Investigative Reporting prize for a related story: its exposure of the Trump-backed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore as a probable child molester.

Every week, it seems, brings new evidence of confusion, falsehoods, and possible wrongdoing emanating from the Trump White House. The Times and the Post, fortunately, show no signs of backing down.

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Patricia Smith’s tale of poetic redemption

Patricia Smith reading at the Library of Congress. Photo by Slowking4. Click here for licensing information.
Patricia Smith reading at the Library of Congress. Photo by Slowking4. Click here for licensing information.

The New York Times today has a fascinating story about how former Boston Globe columnist Patricia Smith has reinvented herself as an acclaimed poet. The end of Smith’s newspaper career was ugly, and reporter Rachel Swarns spares no details. But Smith was always a talented writer, and her tale of redemption is inspiring.

Some thoughts about the meltdown of The New Republic

I don’t have much to offer on the meltdown of The New Republic except for a few inchoate thoughts. Many people have written many things, but it seems to me that the one essential read is Lloyd Grove’s piece in The Daily Beast. Now then:

1. Despite owner Chris Hughes’ excruciatingly awful behavior last week, it still isn’t clear to me why everyone resigned. When then-owner Marty Peretz fired editor Michael Kelly in 1997, mass resignations were threatened, but only one writer — media columnist William Powers — actually walked out the door. Kelly was an enormously popular, charismatic figure, but maybe the lack of solidarity was in recognition of how far he had dragged the supposedly liberal magazine to the right. Still, does no one want to see if there might be some positive aspects to Hughes’ plan?

2. And yet — if Hughes wants a digital media startup, why didn’t he just do it instead of buying TNR and turning it into something else? That makes no sense. And yet again — if Hughes is looking for the kind of print/online/events strategy that has transformed The Atlantic, as media-business analyst Ken Doctor argues, how could that possibly be a bad thing? I’d be the first to admit that I don’t like The Atlantic nearly as much as I did when it was a staid, Boston-based monthly. But it has managed to combine success, influence and seriousness, and that’s nothing to be scoffed at.

3. During Peretz’s long ownership, TNR was derided not just for its lack of diversity but for its hostility to any steps aimed at ensuring racial justice. I wrote for TNR twice. The first time, in 1998, was about the departure of Boston Globe columnists Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle for fabricating, and Barnicle for plagiarizing as well. When I received the edited version of my piece, I saw that someone had inserted some harsh anti-affirmative action language. (The idea was that both Smith, an African-American, and Barnicle, an Irish-American, had been beneficiaries of some sort of affirmative-action mindset.) I was appalled, and fortunately was able to get the language removed before publication. But it showed what kind of thinking prevailed at TNR.

4. Among the former TNR editors lashing out at Hughes is Andrew Sullivan, who, among other things, once gave over the cover of the magazine to the authors of “The Bell Curve,” a racist tome that argued that black people just aren’t as intelligent as whites. Sullivan also published an infamous, falsehood-filled article by Betsy McCaughey that trashed the Clinton health plan and may have contributed to its defeat. Sullivan did far more harm to TNR than Hughes, but now he’s seen as a defender of tradition. (For more on the sins of TNR during the Peretz era, see Charlie Pierce.)

5. Probably the worst thing you can say about Hughes is that he decided to blow up The New Republic just as it was rediscovering its footing as a liberal journal. Editor Franklin Foer, by all accounts, was doing a fine job before Hughes fired him. But what is the role of a magazine like TNR in the digital age? The policy pieces in which it specialized are everywhere. Hughes could have kept it going as a small, money-losing journal, of course. But there was a time when TNR was an influential small, money-losing journal. Those days are long gone, as Ezra Klein notes at Vox. You can’t blame Hughes for wanting to try something different. If his behavior had been less reprehensible, maybe he could have brought his talented staff and contributors along for the ride.

For the Cape Cod Times, the beginning of the trail

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Image via Today’s Front Pages at the Newseum

You may have heard that a journalistic scandal is unfolding at the Cape Cod Times. A 59-year-old reporter, Karen Jeffrey, left the paper after editor Paul Pronovost and publisher Peter Meyer concluded she had fabricated sources in at least 34 stories dating back to 1998. Jeffrey had worked at the daily since 1981.

According to the apology that the paper has published, the fabrications appear to be restricted to “lighter fare,” and that Jeffrey managed to stick to nonfiction when covering hard news. That might help explain how she got away with it for so long. Then, too, fictional sources don’t call up the editor to complain.

Still, you have to wonder if anyone either inside or outside the newsroom harbored suspicions. This is a big deal — as bad as Mike Barnicle, Patricia Smith and Jayson Blair. The only difference is that Jeffrey’s downfall is playing out on a smaller stage. Count me as one observer who would like to know more.

Jim Romenekso covers the scandal here; Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon has more here; Walter Brooks of Cape Cod Today indulges in a little schadenfreude here.

Rupert Murdoch, believe it or not, actually owns the Times, a consequence of his having bought the Wall Street Journal and its affiliated properties five years ago. Boston Herald owner Pat Purcell, a Murdoch protégé, is involved in managing the Times and other Murdoch-owned community papers.

Jeffrey’s reign of error began many years before the Murdoch era. But it will be interesting to see whether Purcell is heard from as this story unfolds.