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Interview with Pulitzer Panelist Roy Harris

Posted by sjbutterfield on September 12, 2008

Thursday afternoon I had the opportunity to sit down with Roy Harris, author of the book “Pulitzer’s Gold,” a history of the service Pulitzer, and a resident of my hometown of Hingham, MA. Harris penned the book as a tribute to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where his father was involved in winning four service Pulitzers. 

Harris and I spoke in the always comfortably air conditioned and sedate lounge of Mark Twain Hall, where some “Cops” investigation blared away in the background on the prominently displayed television. Though we began our conversation by discussing interesting aspects of Harris’s personal career, the discussion quickly moved to his book and how it reflects why journalism, in Harris’s opinion, will endure. 

“If you look at it, it’s not like journalism changes every 10 years,” Harris told me with enthusiasm. “You’ve still just got the reporter, supported by editors, even in the age of video and blogging.” 

Harris said he believes journalism has also repeated itself, in a way, as he feels perhaps the watershed moments of journalism occurred in the early 1970s with the Watergate and Pentagon Paper scandals, while he believes that more recently the New York Times’ coverage of 9/11, and its series “A Nation Challenged” and the ensuing coverage of the woeful medical care at Walter Reed hospital were high marks for this decade. 

Harris said he feels his book is not just relevant to journalism buffs. “If you look at each decade and what prizers were won, you get a great snapshot of American history,” he said. It’s hard not to agree, as Harris and I discussed everything from the first service Pulitzer, awarded to the Times for its coverage of World War I, to more recent events like the Boston Globe’s coverage of the Catholic priest scandal earlier this decade. 

Harris and I did talk a little about his own exploits. His justification for why he never found himself receiving a Pulitzer; his biggest stories never materialized, another element he stressed one must accept in reporting. Harris mused on his time covering all of the potential problems with the 1984 olympics in Los Angeles, though, as it turned out, the games went off without a hitch and all of the chatter about traffic, smog, and terror was unfounded. 

On the whole it’s fairly remarkable to step back and think that we all just brushed up against the most celebrated figures in journalism. Roy Harris was certainly approachable and warm.

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Pulitzer Prize Panel

Posted by sjbutterfield on September 11, 2008

Wow, what a group. Thursday morning saw former Pulitzer winners Jacqui Banaszynski, Steve Fainaru, James Grimaldi, Jeff Leen, Mike McGraw, James Steele, Seymour Topping and author and Pulitzer researcher Roy Harris discuss their personal stories as well as the sustained significance of the Pulitzer, journalism’s most hallowed honor.

Harris, author of the book “Pulitzer’s Gold” may have hit it best when he quipped “if you’re humbled to be in this company, you’re not alone.”

Banaszynski kicked off the panel by relating the story behind her Pulitzer, which she won for covering AIDS in the heartland in the late 1980s. She revealed how the story had touched even her highly conservative rural Wisconsin mother, showing the power a personally touching story can have on even obdurate hearts and reflecting how journalism can transcend bias.

The large Fred Smith Forum in the new Reynolds Institute was packed with attentive listeners of all kinds, as dozens of foreign dignitaries joined students and professional journalists in lending their ears to the seasoned panelists. Five of the panelists were MU grads, including Washington Post writers Fainaru and Grimaldi, who serendipitously both graduated in 1984. All had clearly earned their merit as reporters, as they casually tossed around first hand reports of covering stories from the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal to exposing the cocaine trade.

Further, all of the panelists presented an optimistic picture of the future of journalism. Topping, the former Managing Editor of the New York Times and clearly the statesman of the group, himself a ’43 MU grad, gave parting words of encouragement, telling aspiring journalists that with hard work and diligence they can achieve great amounts, despite the difficulties journalism is facing in the modern era.

Steele, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair perhaps spoke best to the lasting meaning of the Pulitzer, saying “it’s a message to other people that these are the things you should be doing and the things that you should keep doing.”

Harris, for his part, spoke to the progression of journalism as it relates to the Pulitzer, explaining that the founding of the prize gave journalists some much needed legitimacy in a time where they were considered to be yellow scam artists. Harris described the establishment of the prize as “elevating the profession,” and elaborated that “you can really trace the advancement of American journalism through the advancement of the Pulitzer prize.”

At the end of the panel, the audience was certainly wowed. Two themes to take away: yes, we should be humbled, there was some serious star power in that room, but also, more importantly, the ability to make a difference is within our grasp, most of that panel was at one point very much in the shoes of a freshman journalism student, it’s all happening.

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