Restoring my faith in American journalism

My friend Tom Winship died last week, and I'm going to miss my regular talks with him about the state of American journalism. Tom was the longtime editor of The Boston Globe, taking it from a so-so paper to a great one. Though he retired from the newspaper, he never retired from his love of journalism and his involvement in it.

We would have talked in Washington next month, in the corridors of the annual convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, as former ASNE presidents do, clucking about some of the recent misadventures in our profession, and lauding its victories and triumphs.

Like many professions, journalism has its imperfect practitioners and there are many things we could do better. I flinch at recent instances of plagiarism. I deplore the invention of quotations, events, and even characters that has cost some journalists their jobs in recent times. I anguish about the over-use of anonymous sources. I bridle at tasteless media intrusiveness into the tragedy and private lives of others. And I positively sizzle at the uninformed, loud-mouthed blather of some of those cable-channel talking heads, who purport to be conducting responsible journalism.

Despite all this, thousands of conscientious journalists across the country are providing comprehensive coverage of city, state, and federal government agencies, business and politics, community news, and all the other minutiae that intelligent citizens need to conduct their affairs. Skilled Washington correspondents are providing expert national coverage. Foreign correspondents, often at considerable risk, offer superb coverage of the war in Afghanistan, tension in the Middle East, and events around the world.

Tom Winship would certainly have asked me about my stint on the Pulitzer jury for journalism earlier this month, and the quality of this year's nominations.

As I write this, Pulitzer judges are pledged to secrecy until the awards are announced early in April. But while remaining true to that pledge, they can talk in general terms about the quality of this year's work, without indicating which papers the submissions came from, or how they fared.

There are 14 categories in which the Pulitzer Prizes for newspapers are awarded. They range from investigative reporting to international reporting to commentary and photography. For three days, at Columbia University in New York, panels of invited editors and senior journalists sit, usually five to a category, reading submissions. If there is a nomination from a judge's own newspaper, he or she must recuse himself or herself from the discussion and does not vote. The juries submit three recommendations to the Pulitzer board, which makes the final selection.

My category this year was editorial writing. There were 83 nominations. Each nomination is limited to 10 editorials. So each of us on my panel dutifully read 830 editorials in the three days. That's a good crash oversight of what the press is doing.

To win a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, a writer, or team of writers, must display "clearness of style, moral purpose, sound reasoning, and power to influence public opinion." The editorials we read, selected by their newspapers as the cream of the crop, most of the time did that with excellence. They reaffirmed my faith in American journalism.

There were editorials on the Sept. 11 terrorist attack that sought to understand, to calm, to soothe, to inspire. There were editorials that brought clarity to our problems abroad, and to our economic problems at home. There were editorials that campaigned thunderously against malfeasance in government; against workers who drew pay for work they didn't do; against fraudulent voting, intoxicated judges, and sexual abuse in foster homes; and other scandals. And often there were positive results: a crooked mayor who resigned; a bad judge disbarred; children saved from pederasty.

There may be some bad newspapers and some less-than-ideal journalists. But millions of Americans can be confident they are being well-served by newspapers that dig, cover issues in depth, and are vigilant on their behalf.

Once, years ago, Tom Winship called me to seek reassurance as he was about to be interviewed by one of our national newsmagazines. "Why," I asked him, "are you nervous?" "Well," he replied, "I'm not sure they'll get it right." That's a sad commentary from one journalist about to be interviewed by another member of his own profession.

My recent viewing of hundreds of Pulitzer submissions convinces me that a lot of journalists are getting it right. Tom Winship would be pleased.

• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1965. He is currently editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.

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