St. Louis Post-Dispatch  Excellent Book Shows Newspapers Do Matter

Anyone wanting to understand the proud tradition of high-quality newspaper journalism will find Roy J. Harris Jr.'s Pulitzer's Gold a satisfying and instructive read, with an implicit warning about the future of journalism. Harris is a former Wall Street Journal reporter whose father, Roy J. Harris, was a Post-Dispatch reporter. His reporting, with that of George Thiem of the Chicago Daily News, won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1950 for exposing 37 Illinois newsmen on that state's payroll. Until The New York Times won its fifth for coverage of the victims of Sept. 11, the Post-Dispatch had won the most Public Service awards, considered the most prestigious of the Pulitzer Prizes. These awards are for meritorious journalism that benefits the public good. Thus, the New York Times won in 1972 for its coverage of the Pentagon Papers, which also triggered a landmark Supreme Court case guaranteeing the right to publish in virtually every case regarding national security. The Washington Post won in 1973 for its reporting on Watergate and President Richard M. Nixon's administration's attempted cover-up. The Boston Globe won in 2003 for its exposure of Roman Catholic priests who molested children and the way church authorities covered up the crimes.

Jump onto the Internet today and you can read of the supposed irrelevance of newspapers. They are eclipsed by instant news, which is often titillating tidbits that are swept away in a few hours by more of the same. As an implicit counterargument, Harris' carefully researched book tells the story behind each Public Service Award, from the New York Times in 1918 for publishing official documents of European statesmen relating to World War I, through the Wall Street Journal last year on corporate backdating of stock options for business executives. What is so obvious in Harris' telling of these stories is the invaluable contribution committed newspaper publishers and dedicated reporters and editors have made to the quality of civic and public behavior. Where would we be as a country had the Washington Post not uncovered the many crimes around Watergate? What would we not understand had the Sun-Herald of Biloxi, Miss., and the Times-Picayune of New Orleans not written so bravely and thoroughly of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina? The great question, not only for journalists, but for the citizens of the United States, is whether newspapers will continue to aspire to superior reporting and coverage in the face of the Internet, the incessant drumbeat of criticism and ridicule from the right and the seeming indifference of an increasingly larger share of the public to the important issues of the day.

Harris' book lays out the case for excellence in public service by all journalists, who Joseph Pulitzer believed were integral to a well-functioning democracy. The contrast with the short-sighted, self-absorbed blather that trashes newspapers, which are uniquely suited to pursuing long-term, in-depth investigative reporting, is quite stark. In short, democracy needs reporters and editors who can take a long, hard look at our common issues, unaffected by ratings, rumors, bling and profits. That's the challenge for publishers and senior editors that Harris raises in his excellent book.

–Reviewed by Repps Hudson for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch,  March 9, 2008