We owe a debt to dogged journalists

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newspaper pile/Susan Crowell column
(Metro Creative Graphics)

“Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together.”
— Joseph Pulitzer, 1904

By Susan Crowell
editor@farmanddairy.com

In a journalist’s world, April 10 is a big deal. It’s the birthday of Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian immigrant who became a newspaper publisher in 1872 at the age of 25. Six years later, he capped a series of business deals and became the owner of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

As publisher, he immersed himself in every detail of the newspaper, and pushed investigative articles and editorials lambasting public and private corruption. In the early 1880s, he purchased The New York World, and continued his journalistic crusades in NYC, and built The World into the largest circulating newspaper in the country. Among other accomplishments, he pushed and raised public support for passage of antitrust legislation and regulation of the insurance industry.

You all recognize the name for the awards that bear his name — and it’s on his birthday that the modern awards are announced. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first Pulitzer Prizes.

When the Pulitzer Prize announcements started filtering through my social media streams on Monday, my interest escalated. The prizes usually go to the big newsrooms, the LA Times, New York Times, the Wall Street Journals of the world. This year, the biggie (in my mind) for investigative reporting went to a relatively small newsroom reporter, Eric Eyre of the Charleston Gazette-Mail, for his coverage of the opioid crisis in West Virginia.

The Pulitzer judges said Eyre’s reporting was “courageous,” “performed in the face of powerful opposition, to expose the flood of opioids flowing into depressed West Virginia counties with the highest overdose death rates in the country.”

He was getting ready to leave the newspaper’s building and head back to the state capitol to, well, do his job, according to The Poynter Institute, when a former co-worker called to tell him he won. The award announcements are livestreamed, but Eyre didn’t think he had a chance at winning.

In true working-class form, Eyre and his co-workers were too busy to think about the possibility of the win. They had to send someone out to the local Kroger’s to buy two bottles of cheap champagne for the celebration.

But the other prize that caught my attention was the Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing, presented to Art Cullen of The Storm Lake Times, Storm Lake, Iowa, circulation 3,000. The award lauded Cullen’s editorials that were, as the judges put it, “fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.”

Wait a minute: He rails against the farm organizations in Iowa? Whoa! That’s one gutsy editor.

Read the feisty editorials that earned Art Cullen a Pulitzer.

The prize recognized Cullen’s editorials in the wake of a lawsuit by the Des Moines Water Works against 10 drainage districts in the northwestern Iowa counties of Sac, Buena Vista (where Storm Lake is located), and Calhoun over alleged violations of the Clean Water Act, specifically “the discharge of nitrate pollutants into the Raccoon River,” the utility’s chief source of water.

The counties fought the lawsuit, but Cullen wanted to know who was paying for the defense.

According to the Des Moines Register’s account of the award, “The editorials covered a fund organized by the Agribusiness Association of Iowa, which was being used for the three counties’ legal defense. Donors’ names were being kept secret…. The Storm Lake Times insisted on knowing who they were… The fund was later disbanded, and the lawsuit was dismissed in March.”

Of course, Cullen’s editorials angered many readers, advertisers and even his friends. But, as Cullen told the Register, “I felt that the public deserved to know where the money is coming from. When you know where the money is coming from, you know who is pulling the strings.”

My hat is off to both Eric Eyre and Art Cullen, both passionate about their communities and their profession, reaching higher in the search for truth. But particularly to Art, whose work was not, and probably is still not, wholly embraced.

“We are reluctant to admit that we owe our liberties to men of a type that today we hate and fear — unruly men, disturbers of the peace … in a word, free men. … Freedom is always purchased at a great price, and even those who are willing to pay it have to admit that the price is great.”
— Gerald W. Johnson
U.S. journalist (1890-1980)

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