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Pulitzer Round-Up: Race, #MeToo, And The Ever-Present Trump Story

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The first non-classical or jazz musician to win a Pulitzer, Kendrick Lamar is pictured here arriving at the 2017 MTV awards.
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The 2018 Pulitzer Prizes are likely to be remembered as the Year of #MeToo, as courageous reporting on Harvey Weinstein and other predatory men sparked what may prove to be an enduring change in relations between the sexes. But the awards, announced Monday at Columbia University, covered a wide of subjects. And perhaps none of those is more difficult than race.

For The Boston Globe, the Pulitzers brought a near-win as well as a haunting voice from the past. The paper’s Spotlight Team was a runner-up in the Local Reporting category for its series on the city’s racial tensions, a painful part of our cultural DNA. And Patricia Smith, a lyrical African-American writer who left the Globe in 1998 after she was discovered to have fabricated characters and situations in her column, was herself a finalist in Poetry.

The Globe’s series, “Boston. Racism. Image. Reality.,” was a massive effort that explored the city’s troubled racial past and present from a variety of angles, including the nearly all-white Seaport District, our newest neighborhood; racial disparities in health care; and how African-Americans fare in higher education and in sports.

For those of us who urge news organizations to reconceptualize journalism as a form of civic engagement, the series was a landmark, sparking deep online discussion and forums at which members of the Spotlight Team met with members of the public. The Pulitzer judges called it “a poignant and illuminating exploration of the city's fraught history of race relations.” I thought it might win a Pulitzer, perhaps in the Explanatory Reporting category. And though it fell short, it should nevertheless lead to conversation and follow-up stories for some time to come.

Patricia Smith, for those of you who weren’t around during the Globe’s Summer from Hell in 1998, was one of two star columnists who left in the midst of ethical lapses — Smith and Mike Barnicle for writing fiction, and Barnicle for plagiarism as well. Barnicle has remained an outspoken presence during the intervening 20 years, in recent years as a talking head on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” Smith, though, largely disappeared from public view.

To her credit, Smith did the hard work of rebuilding her career. In 2015, The New York Times published a profile of Smith, by then a prize-winning poet as well as a professor at the College of Staten Island. Her selection as a 2018 Pulitzer finalist is for her collection “Incendiary Art,” described by the Pulitzer judges as a “searing portrait of the violence exacted against the bodies of African-American men in America and the grief of the women who mourn them.”

Although perhaps less well-known to those of us whose main interest in the Pulitzers is journalism, the most striking prize of all may have been the one awarded to the rapper Kendrick Lamar, who won in the Music category for his album “DAMN.” According to NPR.org, “It’s the first time in the prize’s history that it has been given to an artist outside of the classical or jazz community.” The Pulitzer judges called the album “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”

It is often said that the story of race is the story of America. At a time when our culture is becoming increasingly diverse, and when nearly half of our fellow Americans have made it clear that they fear that diversity, it’s heartening that the 2018 Pulitzers do so much to highlight it.

And congratulations to the Globe and to Patricia Smith.

The media and #MeToo

When considering the charged politics of gender in the workplace, it seems like the world began anew after the Times and The New Yorker exposed the violence-tinged depravity of the former entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein.

The list of once-powerful men who’ve been laid low since the Weinstein revelations is a long one, and includes Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Garrison Keillor, Louis C.K., Al Franken, and others. Locally, Tom Ashbrook of WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) would probably still be at the “On Point” mic were it not for #MeToo, even though an investigation of his behavior found that he was a bully, not a sexual harasser.

The Globe has done good work in reporting the #MeToo story (such as columnist Yvonne Abraham’s exposure of former Massachusetts Senate president Stan Rosenberg’s husband, Byron Hefner) and has itself run afoul of rapidly changing workplace mores (consider editor Brian McGrory’s decision not to identify reporter Jim O’Sullivan after he left the paper — a decision McGrory later reversed).

The revelations have slowed down recently. It’s important that the momentum not be lost. By honoring Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey at the Times and Ronan Farrow at The New Yorker with the coveted Public Service Award, the Pulitzer judges have reminded us of how essential their work has been.

We live in a political world

I have made it to nearly the end of this column without mentioning President Trump. You’re welcome. Still, the overarching drama of our time is the chaotic Trump presidency, and the diligence with which that story is covered matters is of paramount importance to the fate of our democracy.

At a time when much of the news media is under siege because of its declining economic prospects, the Times and The Washington Post have both the resources and the competitive drive to try to get to the bottom of Russian interference in the 2016 election. The papers have been excoriated by Trump himself as “failing” and “fake,” but the Pulitzer judges awarded them the National Reporting prize for their “deeply sourced, relentlessly reported coverage.” The Post also won the Investigative Reporting prize for a related story: its exposure of the Trump-backed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore as a probable child molester.

Every week, it seems, brings new evidence of confusion, falsehoods, and possible wrongdoing emanating from the Trump White House. The Times and the Post, fortunately, show no signs of backing down.

WGBH News contributor Dan Kennedy is the author of "The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century."

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