FORMER KANSAS CITY STAR AND CURRENT SACRAMENTO BEE JOURNALIST MELINDA HENNEBERGER SHARES WHY JOURNALISTS STILL MATTER.
By: Richard Prince, Journal-isms
When the average American thinks of journalists, it's not of the still-unpunished white cop who terrorized Black women in Kansas, and the columnist who kept the case before readers in 19 of her columns last year. That would be Melinda Henneberger (pictured), then of the Kansas City Star, now of the Sacramento Bee.
There is also the Black investigative reporter (Corey Johnson) who led a team that found that Black people working at a smelting plant in Tampa, Fla., were having lead pumped into their blood. One of his biggest hurdles, Johnson said, was “trying to convince Black folks that I was not the FBI” because “there's so much bad history of white institutions using Black professionals to get in there, and to do the community in.” Johnson overcame that hurdle.
Or in Texas, where the editorial board of the Houston Chronicle used the tools of journalism to expose how government officials' efforts to suppress the Black and brown vote through baseless claims of voter fraud have real-life consequences.
One Black grandmother lives in fear that she’s going to prison because she mistakenly cast a vote when she wasn’t eligible. "In this fervor to find any sort of voter fraud they targeted her. There are real victims to . . . this campaign of of misinformation," according to Luis Carrasco, who was a member of that board.
The editorials noted that such tactics aren’t new. "You know going back to post-Reconstruction. You had groups in Texas that wanted to ensure that Black and brown voters . . .didn’t go to the polls."
All of these journalists won the Pulitzer Prize this year and they and other winners recently gathered by Zoom at the Journal-isms Roundtable. Seventy people were on the Zoom, with another 172 watching on Facebook.
"I thought yesterday's was one of the most powerful roundtables, I have attended, which is saying something," Fergus Shiel, managing editor of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, messaged. "It was unexpectedly moving because all the stories revealed awful human rights abuses that had similar root causes, dysfunction, virulent racism and inequality. They shared a central nexus: failed regulation and impunity based on wealth and race causing horrific human suffering. I felt listening that I was ricocheting from avoidable tragedy to avoidable tragedy — embedded in willful laxity by various authorities. I loved one of the reporter’s description of their work as 'blunt and airtight.' It was a clarion call. I thought it was revealing the way that each and every one spoke of the need for perseverance and time to unravel deep seated issues.
The fact that the serial abuser, and probably murderous, Kansas policeman had yet to be prosecuted was the single most shocking fact. The way the NYT had mapped the violent road stops and cross referenced them with tax data was remarkably telling."
What those in attendance witnessed might be a new chapter in the life of the Pulitzer Prizes, which were established in 1917. "You know, I just took over this job a little more than a month ago, and I think that the Pulitzer brand and the Pulitzer winners can hopefully be much more active in a couple of areas," Marjorie Miller, the Pulitzers' new administrator, told us. Miller suggested that the Pulitzers "take this show on the road and get into places that are maybe open to hearing from us, and what we do and what you do. Such a move might demonstrate "why journalism is a key to democracy, and that's one of the reasons that I was so happy to see so many local winners, because journalism is a key part of the democratic process, which is under threat everywhere, including the United States. . . . One thing that is really misunderstood across the country is, what is journalism?
"What is deeply reported journalism, and how is it done? "And these are the people who are . . . doing some of the best work, but not all of the best work, in the country. . . .
"If we could find ways to get into communities, that either are news deserts or they're very, very skeptical of journalists and journalism, and what we do, and viewed as the enemy or the Man or whatever, and try to break down some of those barriers."
Kevin Merida, a Pulitzer board member as well as executive editor of the Los Angeles Times, called thinking in that direction an effort “to demystify the Pulitzer prizes, but also to use the board and the Pulitzers as a catalyst for inspiring other work. . . . It's always a big moment, you know, to win a Pulitzer prize, or to be a finalist, . . . but we also know that that's really just an emblem, because there's so much work that's being done that may not win a Pulitzer. . . ." The prizes are “really just a catalyst to celebrate the work, call attention to it, to share best practices . . . and really make it more important in the public mind."
Henneberger, for one, agreed. She messaged afterward, "What a great group, every one of whom I loved hearing from. And I agree that if people could hear from us what our work is really like, and why we do it, then maybe we could change a few more minds."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Washington Post journalist Richard Prince occasionally submits his column "Journal-isms" to "Media Matters." Prince's "Journal-isms" originates from Washington, D.C. To check out Prince's complete "Journal-ism's" columns log on to: http://mije.org.