Earlier this afternoon came the most anticipated announcement of the year among American journalists and journalism junkies, myself included: the winners of the 2014 Pulitzer Prizes. With it, news outlets everywhere are starting to report on the who’s-hot-who’s-not of the winners. The hottest, everyone seems to agree, is the prize for Public Service, which has been received jointly by The Washington Post and The Guardian US for their reporting related to Edward Snowden and the NSA surveillance leaks. This prize is not only much-deserved on the part of the journalists and publications involved but a testament to the continued importance of journalism in the American political system. Obviously, the NSA leaks are still a hugely controversial topic; there will likely never be a full resolution to the debate over the role of whistleblowers (or snitches) within the context of our national security. However, even if you believe that Snowden is a traitor or that the high level of NSA surveillance was a necessary evil, I think you can and should agree that this reporting was right to be honored with the most prestigious award in journalism.
First and foremost, this type of journalism is so great because it so effectively educates the public about current events. On awarding the prize for Public Service to The Washington Post, the Pulitzer Prize Board cited “insightful reports that helped the public understand how the disclosures fit into the larger framework of national security.” The NSA surveillance scandal was an enormously complex issue with plenty of hard-to-understand political implications, yet the type of reporting done at the Post by journalists such as Laura Poitras allowed much of the public to have an understanding that, while perhaps not comprehensive, was at least enough for people to form opinions and engage in meaningful discussion about the issue. Of course, this genre of journalism is not exclusive to huge nationwide scandals affecting millions of innocent Americans; it’s just as legitimate to report small-time corruption, local environmental issues, or any other relevant issue with the same combination of accessibility and urgency that’s being commended today. It’s a style of reporting that inhabits a space a step away from formulaic ultra-neutral newspaper journalism and a stride or two from impassioned op-eds. The result is readers who aren’t bored by the stories they’re reading but who are still getting the cold, hard facts they need with minimal bias.
This passage of information is especially important because it leads to greater political discourse. The Pulitzer Prize Board acknowledged this in their statement about The Guardian US. They wrote that the agency “help[ed] through aggressive reporting to spark a debate about the relationship between the government and the public over issues of security and privacy.” Indeed, as we all know, there was a huge debate after the breaking of the scandal that has persisted even until now. Most would agree that, regardless of one’s position within this debate, it was one that needed to happen. The dialogue about the roles of such figures as Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and of course Edward Snowden was also one that was right to occur. After all, the optimal balance between national security and free speech is anything but clear-cut. The public opinion on these and other often exceedingly complex issues can be a major impetus for political action on the part of politicians and bureaucrats, and it is likely that far less would have been done had journalists like Glenn Greenwald not encouraged the public to engage in these debates and voice their opinions. The lasting effects of this debate remain to be seen, to be sure, but in my opinion it is likely that we will end off better than we would have had the government attempted to quietly resolve the crisis with little public intervention.
I have noticed an idea that’s been circulating lately that the very real demise of the newspaper industry is somehow representative of a greater death of journalism as a whole. I don’t think that’s true. My reasons, most of which involve an increasing emphasis on online content by traditionally print publications, are out of the scope of this article. However, even if it is true, the journalism that’s been honored by this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Public Service is, in my opinion, reason enough for us to take action to reverse this trend. The immaculate reporting exemplified this past year in both The Washington Post and in The Guardian USA is part of a tradition that goes back to Watergate and My Lai and even as far back as the original Muckrakers of the late 19th century. This socially motivating journalism has improved our lives and held our government accountable for its actions and policies, whether or not those actions and policies have ultimately been determined to be detrimental. For all this, the fantastic reporting on the NSA by these two publications has been a public service as much as any government action. It deserves its Pulitzer tenfold.