This past Monday was the 89th anniversary of the first awarding of the Pulitzer Prize, one of the most respected awards in journalism. Named for Joseph Pulitzer after his death in 1911, the award symbolizes the integrity with which Pulitzer strived to imbue journalism during his lifetime.
After buying the faltering New York World newspaper in the early 1880's Pulitzer increased the readership from 15,000 to 600,000, making the paper and himself a dominating force in the news business. Later in his life as his interest in the pursuit of better journalism increased, Pulitzer offered to donate money to Columbia University to create the first ever school of journalism. Though the offer was turned down, money was left in his will to the University and his wish to see a school of journalism was later realized when a more receptive president took office at Columbia.
The Pulitzer is awarded for Investigative Reporting, Explanatory Reporting, National Reporting, Beat Reporting, Commentary, Criticism, Editorials, Breaking News, Music, Poetry, and many other categories. Ideally, the winners are looked upon favorably by their peers for their achievements, and thanked by their readers for their great public service. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work out that way.
This past reporting year has seen some very important information brought to the publics attention, and the people behind the pen have been called some pretty bad things: criminals, traitors, unpatriotic are just a few of the words that come to mind. I believe to the contrary, these people are hero's to society's most honorable cause: pursuit of the truth.
Hauled before a grand jury, and threatened with jail time, they knew what they were getting into. They had the scent of something big, and decided it was more important that the public be aware of these things secret, no matter what the personal consequence may be.
They were cautious and responsible, with one story being held back over a year in response to requests by the federal government due to operational security concerns. Names were withheld, and yet our security remains as strong as it ever has been, even more so now, because there are few things more threatening to a republics safety than an uninformed republic.
Dana Priest, writing for The Washington Post, was one of three recipients of the the Pulitzer Prize this year, for her exposé on the existence of highly secretive CIA prison camps all across Europe, in many cases without the knowledge or consent of the host countries. Even members of Congress who's legal responsibility it was to conduct oversight of the CIA and it's programs, many with the highest level of security clearances, had kept from them even the most basic information about the program.
The uncovering of the possibly illegal detentions by Priest and the Post resulted in new legislation being introduced in Congress to make explicit bans on torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners that would exist in this program and any other. The White House vehemently disapproved of the ban, and fought a losing battle to gain an exemption for the CIA. When President Bush signed the USA Patriot Act extensions into law, he boldly claimed later that the President was not bound by law, and could waive the torture ban it contained any time he sees fit.
"We never sat down, as far as I know, and came up with a grand strategy," said one former senior intelligence officer who is familiar with the program but not the location of the prisons. "Everything was very reactive. That's how you get to a situation where you pick people up, send them into a netherworld and don't say, 'What are we going to do with them afterwards?'"
Many ultra-conservative Republicans believe that Priest released classified information, and compromised national security by reporting on the CIA prisons. Priest did not reveal the names of any persons involved in the operation, and did not name any of the countries where the CIA prisons were believed to be operating. Later, as some country names came to light due to the tracking of CIA plane flights believed to be moving prisons abroad, at least one of the host countries claimed it was not informed of the existence of the prisons, and was livid with the revelation that a foreign intelligence service was operating a detention facility on its soil without its permission.
James Risen and Eric Lichtblau revealed to the public the existence of a domestic surveillance program within the United States that has been spying on US citizens and operating outside the legally binding requirements of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and the Fourth Amendment which forbids wiretapping without court-approved warrants.
"This is really a sea change," said a former senior official who specializes in national security law. "It's almost a mainstay of this country that the N.S.A. only does foreign searches."
The New York Times story behind the story was revealed through research combined with confidential and anonymous sources within the government itself, and again the journalists were accused of being traitors to their country, severely hampering an ongoing war, and revealing classified information in violation of the law. Despite the accusations, neither Priest, Risen, or Lichtblau have been arrested or charged with any crime.
Many named sources in the Domestic Surveillance story, including veteran members of the NSA, CIA and Defense Intelligence establishment expressed shock that the NSA would be tasked to intercept and examine communications on US soil in such a way. The NSA's mission statement from its own website states "The ability to understand the secret communications of our foreign adversaries while protecting our own communications -- a capability in which the United States leads the world -- gives our nation a unique advantage."
All private individuals, companies, and government entities, are forbidden by the Fourth Amendment from intercepting communications without a warrant issued by a United States court, subject to and restricted by suspicion and probable cause.
Intelligence experts not involved with the spy program, but intimately familiar with NSA operations, stated their belief that FISA was more than sufficient to conduct any and all operations which were described by the report, and that the spy program was indeed in blatant violation of the constitution and existing federal law.
Many members of Congress professed ignorance to the programs existence -- as with the CIA prison scandal -- even though they were responsible for, and entitled to, information on the program and its oversight. Despite a public furor over the program, Congress did little to address the legality of the program.
These three stories were judged by an independent panel to be worthy of journalisms highest award for finding and reporting on issues of imminent importance to the public, without regard to the personal consequences they may face for drawing the ire of government and authority, in the best spirit of Joseph Pulitzers prize for excellence in journalism.
The threats that journalists face today from governments who wish to punish them for reporting the truth is growing. Another Chinese journalist has been sent to prison on news of Yahoo!'s continued collaboration with the Chinese government in crushing political dissent for the third time in as many months. A disturbing parallel can be drawn between China's inhuman and unethical treatment of journalists who are not allowed to report any information that the government does not personally approve of -- and calls in the United States by ultra right-wing conservatives for the trail and imprisonment of Dana Priest, James Risen, and Eric Lichtblau.
Edward R. Murrow once said, "We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home." For truth, you won't find it any better than that. Without the freedom of journalism to reveal the truth, whatever it may be, the liars and the thieves will rule the day. We let them speak unchallenged at our own peril.
Technorati tags: Journalism, Yahoo, Pulitzer, China, Bush, Torture Much of the factual information has been gathered from third-party resources such as pulitzer.org, Wikipedia, The New York Times, The Washington Post, uruknet and others.
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