Dateline: New York


We sat in awe, humility and gratitude Monday as a century of American journalism rolled past in 12 minutes. The place: the great hall of the Low Library at Columbia University in Harlem, New York. The occasion: the capstone of 100 years of The Pulitzer Prizes, with the 101st awards for excellence in journalism, drama, visual art, music and literature. We were among the Class of 2017 at the awards luncheon who watched a video that flashed the greatest moments of courage, passion and honesty since Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, endowed the prizes that represent the very best of American arts and letters.

We could scarcely believe that we are one of those flashes as winners this year for editorial writing. When you see that Vietnam photo by Eddie Adams of the Associated Press, or the war correspondence from Ernie Pyle, or the investigative reporting by Woodward and Bernstein of The Washington Post, or the lovely sportswriting by Red Smith of The New York Times, an Iowa boy wells up.

And to think:

This is a golden hour in American journalism, one of so many.

“Last week was simply breathtaking,” said Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post, chairman of The Pulitzer Prize Board, in luncheon remarks. Seven days previous, The Post reported on President Trump offering classified information collected by Israel to Russia. Six days before, The New York Times reported that Trump asked FBI Director James Comey to drop his investigation into potential Russian collusion with the Trump campaign leading up to and including the 2016 election.

And then there were blockbusters following virtually every day, the American press holding the powerful to account in service of the public.

“It’s scoop after scoop after scoop,” Robinson said.

Not just from the two great papers of Watergate and Pentagon Papers fame. But the Charleston, W.V., Mail and Gazette, which took on big drug companies over opioid addiction in Appalachia. And the East Bay Times, which uncovered conscious negligence in a fatal nightclub fire in Oakland, Calif. And the Salt Lake Tribune, which unflinchingly stood up to the Church of Latter Day Saints over sexual abuse at Brigham Young University.

The Fourth Estate arises every time the American vision becomes obscured, from the days when Tom Paine wrote “Common Sense” leading up to the American Revolution, to the days when William Allen White of the Emporia Gazette asked, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” in his famous anti-populist screed, to today when the two great war horses of modern journalism — The New York Times and Washington Post — are locked in a battle to better each other through astounding reportage and skill told through every medium imaginable. Readers are responding with enthusiasm and subscription payments.

Of course, there is an Iowa angle to every story that so often is overlooked beyond the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

We look up to Lauren Soth, the legendary Des Moines Register editorialist who invited Nikita Kruschev to Coon Rapids to talk food and peace with internationalist Roswell Garst at the height of the Cold War. “Hungry people are dangerous people,” said Garst, the brilliant corn breeder and contemporary of Vice President Henry Wallace of Johnston. We think of Frank Miller, The Register’s front-page cartoonist, who drew a burned world riven in two by nuclear terror. And his mentor, cartoonist Ding Darling, the founder of the US Soil Conservation Service. And of course our mentor, Michael Gartner of Des Moines, who won the Pulitzer for editorial writing 20 years ago for The Daily Tribune of Ames. Gartner wrote, among other Story County issues, about a park in Ames named after his late son Christopher. If you don’t cry reading it you don’t have a heart. The Register’s Tom Knudson won for reporting on how the famine in Ethiopia was, at its root, a problem of soil conservation. Our late hero John McCormally of The Burlington HawkEye, while editor of the Hutchinson News in rural Kansas, was honored for suing the legislature over redistricting that unduly benefited rural areas at the expense of growing cities. We like to think that The Storm Lake Times writes in that tradition.

That is not to say that the press, in particular, does not have its challenges. The Fourth Estate — the check on the legislative, executive and judicial branches imagined by Jefferson — is under assault from the Commander in Chief for purveying what he describes as “fake news.” In Iowa, public records are harder than ever for the public to see. The digital revolution has left much of the press writ large in disarray as legions of reporters and editors have been discarded across the land in creative destruction. And, there is a digital army of ants eating at the foundations of informed debate that cast unwarranted clouds over the most credible reporting efforts.

Yet the press persists in the defense of the First Amendment and the very idea of the United States of America. Flashes of brilliance and courage and determination in the face of incredible danger, a shattered business model, outright persecution and obstructionism. From Ding Darling to David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post. From the Pentagon Papers published by The New York Times during the Vietnam War to the Panama Papers published by a team of 300 reporters cooperating with the Miami Herald from around the nation. From Tom Knudson of The Register to Tom Cullen of The Storm Lake Times.

These are great days for the running experiment in democracy founded on free speech, free thought and worship and a free press unlike any other in the world. From Storm Lake to Salt Lake to the East Bay to the Hudson and Potomac. A free press will protect a free people. It’s the American way.