MJ School honors a century of prize-winning journalism
The School of Media and Journalism celebrated the Pulitzer Prize Centennial on Feb. 20 by highlighting six North Carolina newspapers that have won the prestigious prize for meritorious public service.
These newspapers took on the Ku Klux Klan, corrupt preachers and politicians and exposed threats to the environment, drinking water and millworkers. Although later honored by their peers for their efforts, at the time the journalists were shunned by their neighbors, stalked by private investigators and even received death threats because of their work.
“We are honored to have with us representatives from around the state that have won this award,” Dean Susan King told the audience of about 200 faculty, students and community members gathered in Gerrard Hall. “These papers have served their readers with accurate, hard-hitting journalism that not only informs the public but also holds power to account,”
Telling the stories behind the prize were representatives from The Tabor City Tribune, The (Whiteville) News Reporter, The Winston-Salem Journal, The Charlotte Observer, The Washington Daily News and The (Raleigh) News & Observer.
Rusty Carter, son of the late Horace Carter, said that the publisher of The Tabor City Tribune was greatly inspired by his time at Carolina, especially being editor of the Tar Heel, and the liberalism of Frank Porter Graham, the UNC system’s first president.
The Tribune’s relentless pursuit of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s resulted in the trials and convictions of about 100 Klan members.
“He put himself at some peril,” Carter said, adding that his father began carrying a gun after receiving several death threats. “I think he kind of liked that, to tell the truth. People talk about how brave he was, but he was a lot more stubborn than he was brave.”
Les High, editor of The News Reporter, represented his grandfather, Leslie S. Thompson, publisher when the newspaper shared the 1953 Pulitzer Prize with The Tabor City Tribune.
“What they did took a lot of courage. They were on the cusp of losing their lives and the livelihood as well,” High said.
The Klan was so pervasive in the community, “you didn’t even know if the police were on your side,” High said. “But there were a lot of good people in Whiteville, and when the newspapers put the case to the people, they really stepped forward and supported them. Over a two- to three-year period, we won them over.”
Threats to the environment
When Betty Mitchell Gray reported that the water supply of her small town of Washington was contaminated with carcinogens, “the Chamber of Commerce was not my friend,” she said. “At no time did the city deny that the water contained these chemicals. What they denied was that the chemicals were harmful.” The state health director disagreed and shut down the town’s water system.
The newspaper’s publisher was good friends with the mayor at the time, “but at no time did he come in and say, ‘Stop this — you’re making my friend look bad’,” Gray added. “And the Chamber came around eventually.”
Pat Stith, one of two News and Observer investigative reporters who exposed health risks associated with the disposal of hog waste, said he got interested in the story because of one question: How much does a grown hog poop?
When he found out the answer was four times as much as a person and that one corporate hog farm could house up to 10,000 hogs, he began to realize the immensity of the environmental impact of all these small city-size farms. Add the takeover of small family farms by big corporations, the odor generated by the farms, a regulator who accepted favors from the industry and a politically connected multimillionaire pork producer and you have the makings of a nine-part series.
Stith said the “Boss Hog” series, published in February 1995, might not have received a Pulitzer Prize “if it hadn’t rained.” In June 1995, torrential rainstorms in the eastern part of the state caused hog waste to overflow or burst from lagoons and flood into rivers. “It was a real frog-floater. It rained like crazy,” he said. The next year, a 10-year moratorium on hog farms was passed by the state legislature.
In Winston-Salem, the environmental threat came from strip miners in the 1970s. Following up on a tip, Journal features reporter Arlene Edwards Thompson began to investigate who was buying up so much land in the area. “The fact that they wouldn’t tell her anything made her mad,” said editorial page editor John Railey. Her reporting uncovered the fact that the same company was buying land in other areas, with the intention of using it for strip-mining.
“By spring of that year, the company began pulling out,” Railey recalled. “I believe those stories kept strip-mining out of North Carolina as a whole.”
Preacher for profit
Reporters and editors at The Charlotte Observer discovered how difficult it can be to investigate a private enterprise when it took on televangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker and the PTL Club.
“It was organized crime wrapped in pseudo religion,” said Rick Thames, executive editor of the Observer. Over more than a decade, investigative reporters worked with few public records and dealt with the Bakkers fighting back through their popular TV show. Eventually Bakker was convicted, served almost five years in federal prison and still owes an estimated $6 million to the Internal Revenue Service. The Observer also won a Pulitzer for its investigation of brown lung in textile workers.
The panel took questions from the audience about how they found their sources, how to pursue a dangerous or controversial story and the status of journalists today.
“I’ve never seen a level of hostility toward journalists as I do now,” Thames said.
But Stith countered that American reporters, “on our worst day, are so much better off than journalists in other parts of the world.”
Panelists agreed, though, that the best journalists pursue stories, not prizes. “For the most part, they are on a noble mission. That’s what a free press in this society does,” Carter said.
Sometimes those missions seem eerily similar to the past. “We’re talking about white supremacy and environmental regulation today,” Railey said. “History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”
King wrapped up the event with a quote from Horace Carter, whose Pulitzer Prize resides in the School of Media and Journalism: “The greatest work of life is to serve mankind, and journalism is one way to do that.”