People in the journalism trade (like me) are fond of quoting Thomas Jefferson’s statement that he’d rather have “newspapers without government” than “government without newspapers.” As a 25-year veteran of newspaper work, I’m inclined to agree—and this year has vividly proven Jefferson’s point. Power corrupts, public servants sometimes lie, and institutions hide their dirty secrets. To function properly, a democracy needs the impertinent watchdogs of the free press to challenge authority and hold it accountable. For proof of that, consider the contributions made by the winners of the 2017 Pulitzer Prizes for journalism, announced this week. Among them: the stories that finally brought Harvey Weinstein’s monstrous predations to an end.
With months of painstaking work, reporters from The New Yorker and The New York Times tunneled under the wall of threats, bribery, and fear shielding Weinstein’s secrets. Their stories led hundreds of women to come forward to name abusers in Hollywood, politics, and virtually every other field, triggering a chain reaction that is reshaping our culture. Another Pulitzer went to The Washington Post for exposing U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore as a serial predator of teen girls. The Post and The New York Times were honored for detailing and explaining Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. To help readers see and feel the terrible human cost of the heroin epidemic, The Cincinnati Enquirer sent 60 journalists to document its daily impact on addicts, their families, police, and paramedics. When most people think of “the media,” they visualize preening TV anchors, shouting pundits, and clickbait generators. But the real work of journalism is done by a dwindling army of nerdy, impossibly earnest reporters and editors in cluttered newsrooms. Every day, they dig out truths the powerful would prefer to conceal, applying the disinfectant of sunlight. There’s a reason their work is protected by the very first Amendment.
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