Few reporters have ever had the kind of year that David Fahrenthold experienced in 2016. From exposing the Trump Foundation’s bogus and illegal practices to unearthing a tape on which then-candidate Donald Trump could be heard crudely boasting about sexual assault, Fahrenthold single-handedly defined large swaths of the presidential campaign.
Fahrenthold, a Washington Post reporter, was recognized for his efforts Monday with a Pulitzer Prize, which was surely among the least surprising Pulitzers in history. It represented the third year in a row that the Post had won in the National Reporting category, but the first time in 24 years that a Pulitzer had been awarded for covering a presidential campaign.
The Post’s win was also a victory for the power of the crowd. Fahrenthold made extensive use of his Twitter feed, uploading images of his notes as he attempted to document Trump’s charitable giving or lack thereof. One of his followers even tracked down a painting of Trump for which his foundation had improperly paid $10,000. The so-called art was found hanging in a sports bar at a Trump golf resort in Florida. In a tweet acknowledging his award, Fahrenthold thanked his Twitter followers:
And yet Trump is president, is he not? What is the purpose of journalism if not to expose wrongdoing and also effect change? By that measure, Fahrenthold’s reporting is not just a triumph of journalism but an illustration of its limits as well. Or is it?
In a post-election interview last December with Duke University professor Philip Bennett (himself a former Washington Post managing editor and Boston Globe foreign editor), Fahrenthold offered some nuanced insights into what journalism can and can’t do.
“There’s this idea that nothing matters with Trump,” Fahrenthold said. “I think a lot of journalists get depressed and think, well you know, ‘he’s shrugged off so many things that would have killed off Mitt Romney or would have killed off Hillary Clinton, and nothing matters.’ That’s not true. Things matter to him. He cares about his perception. And it matters to voters and readers. They care about this sort of stuff.”
Exposing the truth has to be its own reward. If members of the public decide to vote for someone despite damaging stories that have come to light, that’s their right. The animating idea of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to govern themselves — not to determine the outcome of an election.
Despite the economic challenges facing the news business, public-interest reporting at the national level remains healthy. Holding powerful institutions to account at the local level is another matter. Regional and local newspapers have been decimated — and as the media scholar Alex Jones observed in his 2009 book “Losing the News,” some 85 percent of accountability journalism is produced by newspapers. Thus it was heartening to see that local stories won several Pulitzers this week.
The splashiest local victory was the Public Service award, given to the nonprofit news organization ProPublica and The Daily News of New York, which revealed that the New York Police Department had abused its legal authority by banning hundreds of people from their homes and businesses because they had been accused of engaging in criminal behavior.
Not only was the reporting of vital importance, but so was the collaboration between a foundation-supported project like ProPublica and a good but financially struggling newspaper like The Daily News. It was a great example of how investigative reporting can survive at the local level even as newspapers themselves find it more difficult to go it alone.
Other local-news winners were the East Bay Times, for its coverage of the deadly “Ghost Ship” fire in Oakland, California; Eric Eyre of West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette-Mail, for his reporting on the opioid crisis; The Salt Lake Tribune, which exposed how sexual-assault victims at Brigham Young University were mistreated by school officials; and Art Cullen of The Storm Lake Times in Storm Lake, Iowa, whose editorials took on powerful agriculture interests.
The Globe falls short
After winning Pulitzers for three years in a row, including two last year, The Boston Globe was shut out this year despite having strong entries in two categories.
In Local Reporting, the Globe’s Spotlight Team made it to the finalists’ circle for its series “The Desperate and the Dead,” on the fate of mentally ill people who lost services after the psychiatric hospitals where they had resided were shut down. It was a harrowing piece of work that documented murders committed by dangerously ill people, police shootings, and a general breakdown caused by the state’s failure to replace the hospitals, as promised, with an adequate level of community-based treatment.
In Criticism, film critic Ty Burr was a finalist for a portfolio that included not just movie reviews but also an essay on the late “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles Schulz (on the occasion of a commemorative book), an appreciation of Carrie Fisher following her unexpected death, and an appraisal of Bob Dylan after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.