The urgent necessity of public-interest journalism
“In a time when this country’s highest powers have taken it as their business to demean the work of journalists,” the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates recently said, “it is particularly significant when we honor those who have taken up the tools of journalism to challenge corrupt power wherever it may reside.”
In that spirit, the Sidney Hillman Foundation last week announced the winners of the annual Hillman Prizes, which will be awarded on May 7 at a ceremony in New York. Since 1950, the prizes are given in recognition of outstanding journalism in service of the common good. This celebration of a free and independent press is particularly timely at a moment when the White House is waging war on the First Amendment and, according to PEN America, the United States has fallen below the top 30 countries in the world in press freedom.
Each of this year’s honorees (I served as a judge alongside Coates and four other journalists) has done invaluable work to expose uncomfortable truths about these turbulent, often troubling times. The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer’s incisive commentary, especially on issues of race, has made him one of the Trump era’s most indispensable voices. The reporters who led NBC News and MSNBC’s broadcast coverage of Trump’s controversial family separation policy “helped bring national awareness to the Trump Administration’s policy and, ultimately, its reversal.” While Serwer and the NBC team have fostered a greater understanding of the hideous cruelty of this administration, the rest of the winners have brought vital attention to important stories that, amid the focus on Trump, might otherwise have been overlooked.
In the web journalism category, the prize was awarded to Reuters’s Joshua Schneyer, Michael Pell, Andrea Januta and Deborah Nelson for their exposé on the living conditions in privatized military housing, “Ambushed at Home.” On visits to 16 military bases, the Reuters team discovered families living in slumlike squalor, with hazards ranging from peeling lead paint and black mold, to mice and roaches, and even collapsing ceilings. After Reuters uncovered these deplorable conditions — revealing the discrepancy between the reality of veterans’ treatment and how we say we respect and value the military — lead abatement programs were implemented at Fort Knox, Ky., and families were moved out of mold-infested homes in Mississippi and North Carolina. As former director of the National Center for Healthy Housing Rebecca Morley said, the reporting spurred “more action than laws that have been on the books for 20 years.”
This was also a banner year for women at the Hillmans (despite male journalists still reporting and producing the majority of U.S. news). In addition to MSNBC’s Julia Ainsley and Reuters’s Januta and Nelson, female journalists won in each of the remaining categories. The prize for newspaper journalism went to the Miami Herald’s Julie K. Brown and Emily Michot for their investigation into the secret plea deal that Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, during his tenure as federal prosecutor, negotiated with serial sex abuser Jeffrey Epstein. In the wake of the Herald’s three-part series, titled “Perversion of Justice,” a federal judge ruled that prosecutors had broken the law by concealing the agreement from Epstein’s victims.
ProPublica reporter Hannah Dreier won the prize for magazine journalism for “Trapped in Gangland,” which revealed the human costs of law enforcement’s botched crackdown on the gang MS-13. Dreier exposed Trump’s propaganda about MS-13 as a raging threat to middle America while revealing the true threat of a gang that terrorizes Latino teens on Long Island in the face of police incompetence and indifference. Dreier’s powerful reporting inspired readers to raise $35,000 to help a Long Island teenager facing deportation to El Salvador and even prompted the Department of Homeland Security to open a civil rights investigation.
And in the book category, Anna Clark was honored for “The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy.” Residents of Flint, Mich., have now been without clean water for five years. The book thoroughly and humanely examined the factors that led to the crisis, including systemic racism and what Clark identifies as an “apartheid approach to city building,” and a breakdown of democratic decision-making. Her book is an urgent warning to other cities with deteriorating infrastructure that could lead to similarly devastating problems.
Today, journalism is under attack from a hostile president and from profit-seeking corporations. In some cases, the public is losing trust in journalists’ integrity. Yet while the media are far from perfect, this year’s Hillman Prize winners remind us that public-interest journalism can still change lives and spur desperately needed reforms. They demonstrate the resilience of an institution that is vital to democracy. And they should inspire a renewed commitment from all Americans to protecting the free and independent press from those that seek to demean it.