Pulitzer: The minds behind the prize

mosaic-2016-spring-tmbOne by one they took the microphone, their stories – while different in their approach – were unmistakably the same in substance. The single word they shared? “Passion.”

It is that deep desire for the truth, to get the story and get it right that drives them. And it is no coincidence that the Pulitzer Prize is the reward they all share.

For 100 years, the heart of that story has not changed. Yes, the faces are different, even the platforms, but the passion for the story has been at the very heart of the awarding of the Pulitzer Prize for its century of existence.

To celebrate the centennial of the Pulitzer, Alabama Humanities Foundation joined the Alabama Press Association as a partner, helping bring some of Alabama’s own Pulitzer Prize winners together in a special way. A National Endowment for the Humanities Campfire Initiatives grant to AHF enabled the partnership and brought these talented journalists to a new platform – a stage – where they told the story behind the story.

At APA’s Journalism Summit in Tuscaloosa Feb. 19, college students aspiring to become journalists sat side by side with veteran newspaper executives from around the state to hear the inspirational stories of how these reporters and writers with Alabama roots staked their claim on the nation’s highest journalistic achievement.

It featured the Tuscaloosa News reporting team of Tommy Deas, Aaron Suttles, Michelle Lepianka Carter, Jason Morton, Stephanie Taylor and Mark Cobb; Hank Klibanoff, co-author of The Race Beat: The Press, The Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of America; and Joey Bunch, reporter for the Denver Post.

“It was like the perfect storm. Our partnership with the Alabama Humanities Foundation made it possible for us to assemble an all-star cast of speakers, all natives of Alabama and all Pulitzer Prize winners,” said APA Executive Director Felicia Mason.

“Whether presenting a program on their own or part of a panel, these journalists touched on every possible emotion in their presentations. The students got to see a very human side of journalism that they will never get in the classroom,” Mason said. “They heard about real-life events and how these journalists conveyed the stories to their readers. If I had to use only one word to describe any of these programs, it would be powerful.”

AHF Executive Director Armand DeKeyser couldn’t agree more. “This is what journalism is all about, and we experienced it right along with these inspiring journalists. What better way to celebrate 100 years of journalism’s top prize than with the Alabamians who won it? Powerful, indeed.”

The Tuscaloosa story

It was an unlikely reporting team from the Tuscaloosa News made up of a sports editor, a sportswriter, entertainment editor, a magazine editor and a city hall reporter who won the Pulitzer in news for their coverage of the deadly and devastating tornado that ripped through the city in 2011.

They had heard the weather had the potential to turn bad that day, but tornadoes are a common scenario in that part of the state. Deas had gone home to check on his wife, who was recovering from surgery. He was watching television as the storm approached. “I could see how close it was to the stadium, and then the electricity went off.”

A battery-powered radio told him the next few horrific moments. It was an EF-4 intensity, one of the most powerful tornados. It was one to one and a half miles wide when it touched down and instead of bouncing back up as they normally do, it stayed on the ground, destroying whatever was in its path.
Deas immediately headed to where he thought the scene would be, not anticipating the enormity or the devastation. “It was like a lawn mower had gone through. It looked like a war zone. I couldn’t go any farther,” Deas said.

As a sports reporter, he used the tool he knew – Twitter – to tweet what would become the first news of what had transpired. Twitter could get the news out, and it was then that he realized how much reach this platform really had.

By the time he got back to the office, he had messages from BBC Australia, CNN – “messages from around the world,” he said. “Instantly, the world knew what was going on here because they saw our tweets.”
Suttles “stood paralyzed in my driveway as it went over.” But as a reporter, the awe didn’t last long. “Reporters are nosy. I wanted to know what was going on.” He drove to 15th Street in downtown Tuscaloosa. “I didn’t recognize where I was.” The emotions of that moment were replaced by “reporter instinct kicking in and started tweeting immediately. I didn’t realize I was the first reporter on the scene.”

The tornado never jumped. “It was a complete path of destruction,” Suttles said, and he used Twitter to give the “real time flow of information back and forth.”

From her vantage point taking cover in a mall store and then shooting photos from the parking lot as the tornado ripped through 15th Street, all the response Carter and others could muster was a “collective Oh, my God!” As she witnessed and recorded what was happening, the realization was as forceful as the storm. “Our lives would never be the same.”

She, too, described it as “a war zone. Unrecognizable. We just started shooting. You helped people when you can, but our job was to capture what we could. We shared the stories to make the world aware of what was going on.”

To entertainment writer Morton, that day seemed like any other day a tornado was predicted or even touched down. “It’s like a traffic jam on football weekends. It’s a pain, but you get around them.”
He was assigned to go to the hospital. The tornado had passed within 50 to 100 yards of Druid City Hospital. “It looked like a monster had crawled through town. It was awe inspiring.”

At Hobby Lobby, employees huddled in a back closet “against the one wall that remained,” he said. Using Facebook and Twitter, he cautioned people not to come to that area of the city. “We really connected to the populace,” he said, noting that they were able to tell their followers where they could volunteer or where to get water.

Taylor, a public safety reporter, was stationed near 15th Street and McFarland Boulevard. “I thought I was at Ground Zero that day,” she said. Her tweets helped connect people with resources for people in need, a generator for an oxygen tank, for example.

Morton is a city hall reporter. He described the two and a half hour trek that was usually a 15-minute drive to the press conference. The smell of natural gas, the constant sound of running water, 4-wheeler vehicles – they were all a part of setting the scene. He tweeted as he went. “I realized in that moment how much people need us. They rely on us. We became relevant. Information was being consumed in real time.”

As for winning a Pulitzer Prize for the work, he motioned to his colleagues and said, “We would give it back in a moment for everybody to have their lives back. It was the most horrific thing I have ever seen.” Tuscaloosa “looked like it had been carpet bombed.”

The role of race

Hank Klibanoff has seen his share of tragedy in his reporting and writing career. Now a professor at Emory University, he continues the passion for his craft by teaching and inspiring college students to search for the truth in the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Case Project about unsolved, unpublished and unpunished civil rights murders.

Klibanoff won the Pulitzer Prize in History for the book he co-wrote about the role of newspapers and television as they covered issues of race. He talked of the game changing, 1964 Supreme Court decision in Times vs. Sullivan, when the nation’s high court ruled that actual malice had to be proven in libel cases. Prior to that provision, reporters were reluctant to report the misdeeds of public officials for fear of a libel suit.

The ruling is believed to have opened the door to genuine coverage of the Civil Rights Movement.

Klibanoff’s brainchild these days is bringing out the truth from those tumultuous times so that photos like “White Only” water fountains don’t define the Civil Rights Movement. “I worry that students really think that is what the Civil Rights Movement was all about.”

The movement was not a series of “minor inconveniences,” as he described it. “It was about something so much more.”

He drew parallels between the photos of Osama bin Laden and Sam Bowers. With bin Laden, “you know you are looking at the face of evil.” With Bowers, looking like a smartly dressed Sunday School teacher from the 1960s – which he was – one might never conclude he was Imperial Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi and responsible for the murders of Civil Rights leaders. His conviction came 32 years later.

He talked of “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss and Bobby Frank Cherry, the men behind the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 that killed four little girls. Retribution came decades later.

Or James Ford Seale, who worked in the sheriff’s office in Mississippi, who helped abduct two black teenagers in 1964, tied them to a tree and whipped them with reeds. Following the savage beating, they were thrown in the trunk of a car, driven to a river, where they tied an engine block and a railroad tie to them and threw them in the water while they were still alive. “It was 2006 before this case came to justice,” Klibanoff said.

The burning of a bus carrying freedom riders in Anniston, beatings, bombings, murders – “This is terrorism.”

He recounted the story of Isaiah Nixon, who had the courage to vote in a primary election in Georgia on September 8, 1948. He was shot three times in front of his wife with his six kids watching. “ ‘Fall, Isaiah, fall,’ ” his wife told him. He refused.

After his death, his wife and children moved to Jacksonville, Florida, and upon returning for a visit, they could not find his grave. Klibanoff’s students were so intrigued by the story, they followed it to that cemetery at the end of a dirt road in Montgomery County, Georgia. Quite by accident, or maybe fate, a student spotted the first letters of his name and Sp – the abbreviation for September – etched in a stone marker covered by leaves that had blown back to reveal them. There it was … Isaiah Nixon … Sp 8, 1948.

Nixon’s daughter Dorothy was only 6 at the time, and she had never been able to see her father’s grave. But she was able to through the investigative work of these students.

Klibanoff doesn’t really see the discovery as justice served, but it does bring some closure to these cases, he said. “To me, the resolution is when she got on her knees and touched her daddy’s name for the first time.”

A story’s soul

For the Denver Post, Joey Bunch tells the stories that are “hard stories to tell.” In 2012, he won the Pulitzer for his coverage of the Aurora, Colorado, shootings. James Holmes, the shooter, was a graduate student who opened fire in a darkened movie theater.

His first purchase of the arsenal he would take into the movie theater that fateful day was a smoke bomb he bought on the internet. He was inside the theater, went out a side door, propped it open and returned with his weapons. First, he threw the smoke bomb, then bullets flew for 90 seconds, wounding 70 people and killing 12 others.

Bunch interviewed one of the survivors, a high school football player shot through the neck. As the teen lay in a hospital bed, he told Bunch, he understood that people get upset, and it motivates them to commit horrific acts. But, he added, “Don’t they know they won’t always be upset, but these people will always be dead?”

“My job is the sad story,” Bunch said. That’s why he went to Newtown, Connecticut, where 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed 20 children between the ages of six and seven and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As a journalist, “My duty is to tell this story.”

Although painful to experience, these stories must be told. It took him more than a year to come to terms with his own experience in telling the story of these children’s funerals. He said he still hears the piercing wail of the mother at the casket of her daughter, the teacher who stood in the door to protect her children.

“Good journalists don’t have the luxury to turn away.”

Story by Carol Pappas