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The truth will out: the Pulitzer Prize in the Trump era

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Rick Fulker
April 11, 2017

The Pulitzer Prizes were an opportunity for journalism in the United States to recall its core values at a time when they are under threat. It turns out, people do still care about the truth, writes DW's Rick Fulker.

Newspaper covers
Image: DW/M. Soric

The Panama Papers, a man with post-traumatic stress syndrome, the war on drugs in the Philippines and the influence ofbig corporations on agriculture are among the stories whose reporters were awarded the Pulitzer Prize on Monday. Two of the journalists recognized were prominent during last year's presidential election: David A. Fahrenthold of "The Washington Post" for his coverage ofDonald Trump's charitable foundation and Peggy Noonan of the "Wall Street Journal" for her focus on American virtues during the divisive campaign.

Never before has an acting American president called the mainstream media the "opposition party" or "the enemy of the American people." For roughly a year, activists on the far right in the US - included among Donald Trump's supporters - have even used an imported German word from the Nazi era, "Lügenpresse" (lying press) to describe most of what is considered mainstream journalism.

David Fahrenthold
David Fahrenthold revealed that Trump used proceeds from his charity to purchase a portrait of himselfImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/The Washington Post/B. J. Mount

In September 2016, a Gallup survey indicated that only 32 percent of those questioned had "a great deal" or "a fair amount" of trust in the media. It was a new low but it came atop a long-term trend: For the past decade, less than half of the American populace has trusted the media, partly because they believe it reflects corporate interests and is opinion-driven. Trust has been further eroded in the age of updated-by-the-second social media.

The Trump effect

So clearly this is not all about Donald Trump, yet the current US president remains at the center of media developments in a time of convulsive change. The firm mediaQuant recently estimated that Trump received $817 million worth of free media coverage in one month, compared with an average of $200 million per month for Barack Obama when he was president. The current president clearly has an ability to generate media activity by making provocative - and often clearly untrue - statements.

Rick Fulker
DW culture editor Rick Fulker

Franklin D. Roosevelt profited from radio coverage, John F. Kennedy looked better on television than his opponent Richard Nixon, and Barack Obama understood the internet and its potential to generate grass-roots enthusiasm. Now, Trump owes his victory to the disruptive quality of one of the recent developments in the media scene: social media.

He also owes it to targeted disinformation. It is known, for example, that the states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylania, which delivered the critical number of electoral votes for the president, were targeted by false news items, potentially including those from foreign sources.

Turning the corner?

Yet after years of declining revenues and staffs, major news outlets are currently seeing an upturn in their fortunes. Viewer numbers of cable news outlets like Fox and CNN are skyrocketing, and the "Trump Bump" has led to soaring subscription rates among newspapers. The "New York Times" signed up more than half a million digital subscribers last year and has measured nearly a third more internet traffic to its site compared to a year ago. The "Washington Post," known for its aggressive coverage of Trump before and after the election, expects to hire more than 60 journalists in the coming months.

After the President's relentless attacks on what he has called the "fake news" media, a February 2017 poll from Quinnipiac University found that 52 percent of Americans trust the news media more than they do Trump. And contributions to ProPublica, a noncommercial consortium of investigative journalists, have risen.

Photo by Daniel Berehulak
Photographer Daniel Berehulak revealed the grim reality of the drug war in the PhilippinesImage: The New York Times/Daniel Berehulak

Grass-roots investigation and international reporting

What statement do the Pulitzer Prizes make about all this? A marked "Trump effect" cannot be seen here, either pro or con. One of the prizes went to The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which included Germany's "Süddeutsche Zeitung," for uncovering the parties evading taxes in the Panama Papers scandal. Clearly that Consortium does not embody some corporate interest.

Lynn Nottage
Pulitzers were also awarded in the field of literature, such as to Lynn Nottage for her play "Sweat," focusing on the trials of working-class peopleImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/B. Matthews

When the "New York Daily News" and "ProPublica" reported on people being forced from their homes due to alleged criminal activity, the story led to changes in New York City law. And no amount of words could have conveyed the horror of the Philippines' war on drugs more than the photos of Daniel Berehulak. His photos of murdered addicts reveal truths that no whitewashing can diminish and no authority can spin.

"Democracy Dies in Darkness" is the "Washington Post's" motto in the Trump era. Another of this year's Pulitzer winners, the cartoonist Jim Morin of the "Miami Herald," plays on a story from American folklore: George Washington, as a boy, was so honest that he could not lie to his father about chopping down a cherry tree. In Morin's cartoon, Trump, bearing an axe in a forest of felled trees, says, "I can tell all the lies I want because enough people don't care about the truth."

The Pulitzer Prizes - and perhaps the public in America and worldwide - disagree.