Conservative blowhard and CNN talking head William Bennett gave America’s top newspaper reporters a backhanded compliment on Tuesday when he complained that three 2006 Pulitzer Prize winners were “worthy of jail.”
Bennett was venting over the fact that Dana Priest of the Washington Post and the New York Times’ James Risen and Eric Lichtblau employed classified data to expose administration malfeasance. (Priest broke the story of the CIA’s network of “secret prisons” in Europe, and Risen and Eric Lichtblau exposed the story of the NSA’s secret domestic wiretapping program—a subject Risen treated at length in his book "State of War : The Secret History of the c=I.A. and the Bush Administration.) Even worse than employing classified data, Bennett said, was that these reporters had the temerity to publish their stories “against the wishes of the president, against the request of the president and others, that they not release it. They not only released it, they publicized it—they put it on the front page, and it damaged us, it hurt us.” “
As a result are they punished, are they in shame, are they embarrassed, are they arrested? No…I think what they did is worthy of jail.” For all this bluster, Bennett does (again, inadvertently), manage to make a point—one which some other commentators took to be a sign of good reporting, rather than Bennett’s silly suggestion of treason. But Bennett isn’t alone. Other conservatives, such as the Powerline blog (who called the Risen and Lichtblau piece “treasonous” and columnist Mark Steyn, who says that even though he’s ineligible to win a Pulitzer, he “wouldn't want the thing in the house” anyway), rail against the awards because they feel the reporters have hurt national security. Unsurprisingly, none of these conservative attackers felt compelled to explain why these leaks should be punishable by prison while, say, leaks lovingly dealt out to administration-friendly reporters like the Post’s Bob Woodward or the Times’ Judith Miller that dealt with no less secretive or sensitive matters should be celebrated.
Many in the media noticed a similar pattern to the awards, though their reactions were understandably proud, rather than censorious. The Washington Post’s Marc Fisher blogged that “The stories that won [the Pulitzer] prizes were reported and written for the best of reasons, the reason that drew most of us into this craft: To use the power of light to force the bad guys out of the shadows.” Marketwatch’s Jon Friedman put it more succinctly, noting that the stories “accurately reflected the nation’s growing discontent with President Bush.” Indeed, a Harris Interactive Poll published in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday contained the now familiar headline that George W. Bush had reached yet another milestone of presidential unpopularity, as a mere 35 % of adults surveyed now think Mr. Bush is doing an “excellent or pretty good” job as president, compared with 63% of Americans who said Mr. Bush is doing an “only fair or poor” job. It is stories like these that explain why.
Not included on Bennett’s punishable-by-prison list was an additional set of prize-winning stories that give lie to the fairy tale told to Americans by the administration’s apologists that, when examined in light of the available evidence, appear to be full of sound and fury and yet signify absolutely nothing—at least nothing that is also true. The ruins of right-wing Republican rule are everywhere on display. The Washington Post’s Susan Schmidt, James V. Grimaldi and R. Jeffrey Smith won the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for their wall-to-wall coverage of the Jack Abramoff scandal, which demonstrates the corrupt level to which the so-called “conservative revolution” has sunk. And then there’s the duo that share the National Reporting prize with the Times’ Risen and Lichtblau—the staffs of the San Diego Union-Tribune and Copley News Service, for breaking the story of the rampant graft and bribery that sent former Republican Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham to prison.
The Rocky Mountain News’ Jim Sheeler pulled down a prize for Feature Writing and photographer Todd Heisler won for Feature Photography with their heartbreaking look at a year in the life of a Marine Corps officer in Colorado who is tasked with informing families that their sons and daughters have died in combat in Iraq. The story and the pictures accompanying it, is one of the more heartbreaking reads in the rapidly growing body of literature to come out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and gives voice to the often muffled cries of the families left behind in the wake of the death the wars have sowed.
In the Explanatory Reporting category, the Washington Post’s David Finkel’s series on a U.S. funded program to promote democracy in Yemen took home top honors. Finkel’s two-part series exposed the sordid reality behind the Bush administration rhetoric of democracy promotion, demonstrating the messy reality it faces where the proverbial rubber hits the road.
Not to be denied, of course, were the heroic efforts in the wake—literally—of Hurricane Katrina by the staffs the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the Biloxi Sun Herald, respectively, who shared the prize for Public Service. (The Picayune also received the prize for Breaking News. These papers—publishing by hook, crook and Internet from the eye of the storm—captured the failure of their government to provide for their security in what turns out to have been a widely predicted emergency. God help up us if the conservatives who seek to intimidate the media into reporting only happy news about our government had succeeded in the case of Katrina. Americans would be even less prepared for its next disaster—or attack—as the reporters who tried to warn us might likely be in jail. Here’s to their courage, and let’s hope it is matched in the future by a commitment on the part of the stewards of our media institutions to fight this administration’s attempts to weaken the very qualities that make this country great—like the freedom to tell the truth, “without fear or favor.”
Eric Alterman is a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His most recent, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences was just published in paperback by Penguin.