Journalism at its very best
The Pulitzer Prize for public service shows newspaper courage still lives.
Arriving in eastern Ohio in 1925 as the new editor of the Canton Daily News, Don Mellett stumbled onto a civic disgrace – and a great story. Gangsters from as far away as Chicago were using Canton as a "hideout" for thugs on the lam, and paying off officials to look the other way. "It is the opinion of The News that Canton needs cleaning up," he wrote, launching a campaign that named the police chief, among other culprits. "Get busy or get out," wrote Mr. Mellett.Skip to next paragraph
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It was Canton's criminal element that got busy, though, shooting him dead outside his own home. Still, the paper's anti-crime campaign didn't fold. "We Carry On," the Daily News proclaimed on the front page.
In 1927, it won the Pulitzer Prize for public service. Eighty years later, amid plummeting newspaper readership, staff cutbacks, and often-superficial coverage, it's easy to think that such courage and civic devotion is in short supply. But when this year's winner of the prestigious prize is announced Monday, it will be just the latest evidence that journalism of the highest order continues to be practiced in newsrooms across America.
The history of this prize – the only Pulitzer award taking the form of a gold medal, and designed to be given to a newspaper, rather than individuals – shows the vital role that newspapers have played in serving the public good, often in the face of determined and powerful opposition.
That service-oriented courage can take many forms. Journalists putting themselves in harm's way have continued to get serious attention from the editors and academics who make up the Pulitzer Prize board, of course.
Dailies exposing Ku Klux Klan hatred, for example, won several early gold medals. Two North Carolina papers, in Whiteville and Tabor City, won in 1953 for campaigns against Klansmen, often revealed, under their sheets, to be government officials. (After winning, Tabor City Tribune editor Horace Carter admitted he had been terrified for his family as cars drove past his home at night, and he recounted how his 4-year-old son asked him, "The Klan gonna come and get you, Daddy?")
The 1979 Pulitzer medal went to the tiny Point Reyes Light in northern California. It reported on the armed cult that had grown within the Synanon anti-drug program, located just up the road from the editor's house. In one story, the Light reported how Synanon members had tried to kill an opposition lawyer by placing a rattlesnake in his mailbox.
But the public-service Pulitzer has grown to recognize fiscal as well as physical fortitude. In 1958, the Arkansas Gazette won for its balanced coverage of the court-ordered integration of Little Rock's Central High School, even though encouraging citizens to obey the law led segregationist readers to switch to the rival paper.