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Journalism at its very best

The Pulitzer Prize for public service shows newspaper courage still lives.

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Famously, The New York Times knew it would incur huge legal bills – and the possibility of editors going to jail – when it decided to publish the top-secret, stolen Pentagon Papers in 1971. Americans had a right to their government's own account of official deception underlying Vietnam policy, the Times proclaimed. Likewise, the next year The Washington Post faced serious political risks in pursuing Watergate coverage that the Nixon White House vilified.

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Less well-known, though, was the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's winning 1984 work identifying a fatal design flaw in products made by Bell Helicopter, the city's biggest employer, which launched a boycott against the paper.

Journalists are eagerly awaiting Monday's Pulitzer announcements. Many readers, though, may puzzle at the congratulations, when they feel that the balanced news diet that papers once took pride in delivering has veered toward the celebrity-centric and the salacious. Others note that great papers such as The Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times have been sold to owners whose efforts have yet to earn the public's trust.

Recent Pulitzer history, however, underscores America's many oases of journalistic courage, where dedicated editors still promote the reporter's drive to dig out the truth no matter the cost. Many journalists cite the 2002 work of The Boston Globe, exposing how leaders in the Roman Catholic Church sheltered priests who had abused young parishioners. The stories, written despite legal threats, were handled so brilliantly by the Globe's Spotlight investigative team that they roundly won praise from church members, shocked by what their leaders had done.

Monday's Pulitzer winners – and especially the public-service medalist – will be worth a close look. Whatever problems sap the strength of today's press, the ability and willingness of journalists to "carry on" boldly for their communities are worthy of our appreciation.

Roy J. Harris Jr. is the author of "Pulitzer's Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism." A former Wall Street Journal reporter, he's now a senior editor at CFO magazine.