Gerber: Government, journalism and conflict

Gerber: Government, journalism and conflict

April 20th, 2014 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

It's not the role of the press to coddle government.

And last week's Pulitzer Prize announcements underscored that. The Guardian US and The Washington Post received the highest honor in American journalism, the Pulitzer for public service, for the papers' stories that exposed the National Security Agency's widespread secret surveillance of the phone records of U.S. citizens.

The Pulitzer citation praised the Post for "authoritative and insightful reports that helped the public understand how the disclosures fit into the larger framework of national security." It cited the Guardian for "aggressive reporting to spark a debate about the relationship between the government and the public over issues of security and privacy."

Because the information on which the stories were based came from Edward Snowden, now charged with espionage, critics have called the journalists traitors. Lawmakers in the United States and Britain have lashed out at these reporters.

On this side of the Atlantic, it seems to be the one thing Democrats and Republicans agree on. President Obama said that Snowden's leaks could have lasting consequences for national security.

Moments after the prizes were announced at Columbia University, Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y. and former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, tweeted this: "Awarding the Pulitzer to Snowden enablers is a disgrace."

At its heart, this is the basic conflict between journalism and government.

Newsgatherers say these reporters broke the most important story of a generation. They also agree that this work should be valued because a free press is the underpinning of a better society.

"It's precisely because a different kind of society - Putin's Russia, say - could never imagine this kind of journalism that we should value and honor it," David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, told Politico.

Whether you consider Snowden a hero or a traitor, it's hard to deny that he revealed essential information for Americans. We are living in an era of terrorism and are weighing what freedoms are worth abandoning for our safety.

And we have a right to weigh in on that discussion. Without Snowden and these journalists, the American people would have been voiceless in this debate.

Martin Baron, the executive editor of The Washington Post, told Politico his newsroom is "not intimidated by power" and "will take big risks in the service of the public interest."

That's exactly what a newspaper's role is.

There's plenty that government officials - whether in D.C., a state capital or city hall - don't want the public to know about or weigh in on. They don't want push back. They don't want to be questioned.

And newspapers by their very nature question what elected officials do and why. We're the watchdogs. We are the ones who take the time to pore over budget documents and arrest reports and attend school board meetings. We are the ones who aren't afraid to ask the toughest questions.

Journalism - whether on a big scale through Snowden's revelations or on a small scale - keeps our elected leaders in check.

•••

And speaking of important daily journalism ...

Here in Chattanooga, the Times Free Press newsroom was proud and humbled and, truth be told, a little giddy on Monday afternoon to get our own little piece of Pulitzer glory.

Speak No Evil, a project about inner-city violence, was named as a finalist in the local reporting category of the Pulitzer Prizes.

The committee cited reporters Joan Garrett McClane and Todd South, photographer Doug Strickland and multimedia reporter Mary Helen Miller "for using an array of journalistic tools to explore the 'no-snitch' culture that helps perpetuate a cycle of violence in one of the most dangerous cities in the South."

The Times Free Press was among two other papers honored in this category. The Tampa Bay Times won in the category for investigating squalid conditions in homeless housing. The Record, of Woodland Park, N.J., also was honored as a finalist for exposing how heroin has permeated the suburbs of northern New Jersey.

This is the best second place we could have hoped for.

We spent nine months on Speak No Evil. The Times Free Press may be a mid-sized daily newspaper, but we're committed to doing ambitious, important work that can compete with the best newspapers in the country.

And Speak No Evil was a project with lofty goals that deserved this recognition.

In some inner-city neighborhoods, lives are being senselessly lost in a cycle that seems never ending, spanning generations. The human cost is great, and so is the cost to society - to hospitals, prisons, police departments, court systems.

McClane and South pored over more than 300 shooting cases dating back to 2011 and discovered that in nearly 60 percent of unsolved shootings cases, witnesses who saw violent acts refused to cooperate with police. They interviewed more than 150 people, including the families of men whose killings have never been solved. In some cases, they put themselves in danger to report these harrowing stories.

The finished work was vivid, disturbing and nuanced. Miller's multimedia showed the anguish of mothers whose children's deaths were never solved. Strickland's photographs captured the heartbreak of grieving families and the tension between the police and those they are charged with protecting.

Just like with the stories about Snowden and I'm sure others on the Pulitzer winners list, our journalists faced enormous pushback while reporting Speak No Evil. In fact, they were told that they would never get people to talk about the code of silence that was allowing murderers to remain on the streets.

But they did. They persisted through all roadblocks, and our readers thanked us for it.

Teachers wrote us saying they wanted to use the stories to teach in their high school classes. One resident of East Chattanooga said she bought dozens of extra copies of the paper to share.

"I was so inspired by the newspaper's achievement I believe it ought to be 'required reading' in every junior high and high school in our region. It will become an invaluable tool for our city's progress and its future," one reader wrote.

So, in the end, Pulitzer recognition is great and all. But emails like that one from readers make all the work worthwhile.

Alison Gerber is editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@timesfreepress.com.