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FROM THIS EPISODE

Extending a Lifeline

For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

The Pulitzer Prizes are the Academy Awards of journalism.

At a time when the profession is under assault from all sides, the awards remind us that first-class journalism is still being practiced in newspapers, and that they are a crucial part of American life.

The Pulitzers announced yesterday put a premium on investigative reporting, the kind that uncovers the abuses, corruption and failings of government officials and corporate fatcats. The prizes also recognized stellar reporting, under harrowing circumstances, about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

The Times-Picayune of New Orleans and the Sun Herald of Gulfport, Mississippi, were awarded Pulitzers for public service, still the highest goal of any newspaper. The 240 staff members of the New Orleans paper, who were forced to abandon their headquarters as flood waters surged around them, were also given a Pulitzer for breaking news.

In its own story today about awards, the Times-Picayune reported that with much of New Orleans "still in ruins, and with dozens of staff members among the tens of thousands of residents who lost homes and possessions in the storm, the celebration was more subdued than what normally attends the achievement of journalism's pinnacle."

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the Times-Picayune reminded us today, the newspaper never ceased publishing. The staff continuously updated their online editions of the paper, which became a vital source of news for more than one million dispersed residents.

The Pulitzer board cited the Times-Picayune for "its heroic, multifaceted coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, making exceptional use of the newspaper's resources to serve an inundated city."

The board praised the Sun Herald, 80 miles east of New Orleans, for "providing a lifeline for devastated readers, in print and online, during their time of greatest need."

Yesterday was also a good day for the Washington Post, which received four Pulitzers: One went to a trio of reporters for their investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and another went to Dana Priest for her articles about the CIA's secret prisons overseas and other revelations about America's conduct in the war on terror.

The New York Times took home three Pulitzers, one of them for revealing President Bush's secret domestic wiretapping program.

The Times also won for stories on the fractured and unjust Chinese legal system. The Pulitzer for commentary went to Times columnist Nicholas Kristof for doggedly calling attention to the genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

The Times shared its national reporting prize with the San Diego Union-Tribune and Copley News Service, which disclosed that Republican Congressman Randy Cunningham of California had taken enormous bribes while in office. The stories led to his prosecution and imprisonment.

The Times reported today that executive editor Bill Keller told the staff the Pulitzer board had recognized reporters who stood up to power, "often with substantial consequences."

"This is all work that changed the discussion, changed lives and maybe saved some lives," Keller said.

Leonard Downie Jr., The Post's executive editor, was quoted as saying that holding the government accountable "is the most important work that a newspaper can do," especially now, when the government is doing so much in secret.

On NewsHour with Jim Lehrer last night, Jay Harris, a Pulitzer board member and former publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, said the press did its job as watchdog "remarkably well this year."

"We learned a great deal about the balance between the war on terrorism and civil liberties, a great deal about domestic eavesdropping," he said. "And, finally, we learned, sadly, a great deal about corruption in government."

This is the work that newspapers do best. Try to imagine, for a moment, life without them.

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.

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