2016 Toner Prize Celebration with President Obama
2016 Toner Prize Celebration with President Barack Obama
March 28, 2016
LARRY KRAMER: Okay everybody, I’m back. I’m sorry I was rude last time – I didn’t introduce myself. I’m Larry Kramer, I’m one of the trustees at Syracuse University, I’m a former Newhouse student and most recently was the publisher and president of USA Today.
That still, however, hasn’t provided me with enough light to read my notes so I’m using this. The Toner event’s grown every year since its arrival in Washington. Thanks primarily to three things: the immense generosity of the program’s supporters, the measure of people’s concern about the state of journalism, and a show of affection for Robin. So we’re all excited to be here again about this. I’m truly really honored to get things rolling tonight by introducing my very dear friend, a woman who inspired students and the staff of the Newhouse School of Public Communications since 2008 as our fearless leader, distinguished journalist, and a very dear friend of mine, Dean Lorraine Branham of the Newhouse School.
LORRAINE BRANHAM: This mood lighting is lovely, but it makes it hard to see up here. Good evening everyone and on behalf of the Newhouse School and Syracuse University, welcome. We’re so delighted you could be here with us tonight. I know you’re anxious to get to our keynote speaker, but I would me remiss if I didn’t take a moment to congratulate the Syracuse Men and Women’s Basketball team. (applause)
Yes, indeed, we’re going to the Final Four. Okay, now back to the business at hand. Chancellor Syverud, members of the Board of Trustees and our other distinguished guests, thank you for joining us for the annual Robin Toner Awards ceremony. Most of you know that the Toner Prize was created to honor the late Robin Toner, a Newhouse alumna who was the first woman national political correspondent for The New York Times. Every year, we gather to award the Toner Prize to an outstanding political reporter and celebrate the importance of high-quality, fact-based political journalism, the kind for which Robin was known. And in this political year, perhaps the craziest political year any of us have ever seen, we’re reminded on a daily basis not only of the importance of this kind of work, but also of the critical need for it. Now perhaps more than ever before, we need rigorous and relentless political journalism. We need journalism that educates and informs. We need thoughtful analysis. We need journalism that serves democracy.
The work of tonight’s honoree, who you will meet shortly, exemplifies that kind of journalism. I think robin would be pleased. Before I turn over the microphone, I’d like to thank some of our friends and supporters, starting with Syracuse University trustee John Chapple, whose initial gift helped to launch the Toner endowment. The Toner Program would not exist were it not for him. I also have to thank SU trustee Larry Kramer, who you just met, who has supported the program financially and also by emceeing tonight. I’m also delighted to recognize a three-year financial commitment by The New York Times, where Robin worked for a quarter of a century, as well as the extraordinary support for the Toner Program by the Ford Foundation and the Kaiser Family Foundation. We are grateful also for the generosity of longtime sponsors such as Bloomberg, Pharma, the Knight Foundation, Google, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, SKDKnickerbocker and Lake Research Partners. We also want to welcome some new sponsors to our stable of supporters including NPR, Wells Fargo, Jenner & Block, The Democracy Fund…Finsbury and the Walton Family Foundation. Now let me introduce to you Drew Altman, the president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which focuses on national family health issues and global health policy. Prior to joining the foundation, Dr. Altman was commissioner of the Department of Human services for the state of New Jersey. Just as the Newhouse program honors Robin for the tradition of quality she upheld in advance in political reporting, Kaiser honors her for another aspect in her career, with the Robin Toner Distinguished Fellowship in Health Policy Reporting. Kaiser is among the co-hosts of this evening’s event.
DREW ALTMAN: This is our torch. (Laughs) Thank you so much. When I was in government, one of you major newspapers called me a nice guy trapped in a deadly serious face. But I’m smiling uncontrollably tonight because this is a truly wonderful evening. We’ve long had our own Toner Fellowship at Kaiser Health News. It’s currently held by Julie Rovner. At KHN, we just lost another beloved journalist, Peggy Girshman, so at Kaiser we have both Robin and Peggy in our hearts tonight. In other years, I’ve talked about Robin and what she’s meant to us in health journalism. But tonight, I’m not going to talk about Robin because I want to say just a word about Peter this year. A lot of people in big institutions have to come together to make an evening like this happen. Syracuse University deserves enormous credit. But the secret has been Peter, whose commitment to this won’t flag and who just won’t take no, ever, for an answer. Those of you who know Peter know that he can be a delightfully stubborn ass. He’s been awesome. I remember when Clinton health reform was in its final days and on life support, Peter wrote a piece in The Globe suggesting that it was not yet quite dead. And it was right after that, just two days after that, Robin and Robert Pear and Adam Clymer, who’s here, wrote a long piece in The New York Times pronouncing it totally dead. Peter took a lot of heat, as you would imagine, at The Globe about that. And as always, Robin was right and Peter was wrong. But you know Peter not only stuck to his story– he invited Robin to lunch. So actually if you think about it, Clinton health reform was a success. It didn’t cover 20 million people as President Obama has, but it brought Robin and Peter together and it brought all of us together tonight. Maybe health reform isn’t always divisive. So Jake and Nora, you should truly be proud of your dad. I am and we all are and the President came tonight to recognize Robin. What could possibly be better than that?
And now it’s my great pleasure to introduce Kent Syverud, the distinguished chancellor of Syracuse University, which unlike the presidential candidate of the same color, truly does own the brand orange. It’s my privilege to introduce Chancellor Syverud of the Final Four, Syracuse Orange.
CHANCELLOR KENT SYVERUD: Good evening, everybody , and welcome on behalf of Syracuse University to the presentation of the Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Peporting. I also want to thank the Gosselin family, Robin’s family – Peter, Jake and Nora for enabling this to happen and John Chapple for the support that made it happen. And I thank Lorraine Branham, the great dean of our Newhouse School of Public Communications. And also here tonight is Charlotte Grimes, long-time administrator of The Robin Toner Political Reporting Program at Syracuse. Robin Toner was a great journalist with dual degrees from SU. She exemplified the high ideals of the Newhouse School of Public Communications and she lived out the passion for citizenship that represents the spirit of our Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Robin was taken all too young from all of us. The Toner Prize is a testament to her ideals. with us are a group of students from the Newhouse School at Syracuse University charged with carrying on Robin’s vision. They could hardly have a better role model on earth than Robin Toner. I’d like all the Syracuse students here to stand and be recognized. (Applause)
We are so greatly honored by the presence of our keynote speaker tonight. And first, on behalf of Syracuse fans everywhere, I have to offer a tongue-in-cheek apology: We are sorry we blew both of the President’s brackets. Syracuse has a rich history of interaction with American Presidents. Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Cinton – all served at pivotal moments in our history and all brought their perspective to bear from their great office to our students. in 1957, John F. Kennedy, as a young senator, came to Syracuse to deliver a commencement address. Speaking in old Archbold Stadium, now the site of the Carrier Dome, Senator Kennedy described American politics as an abused and neglected profession. He spoke with passion about the nobility of elected office at its best. He called on the graduates to apply their talents to the public domain, to solve the great problems of our time. The challenge that that speech in Syracuse in 1957 has been met by President Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States.
As many of you know, 44 is a number that is sacred at Syracuse University. It was a number carried with great honor by Jim Brown. It was a number carried with great honor by Ernie Davis, the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy. And it was a number carried with great honor by one who is here tonight, and will be honored in seven weeks at commencement by an honorary doctorate in humane letters, my friend Floyd Little. American politics now seems more bruising than anything Floyd Little confronted on the gridiron. Despite that, President Barack Obama carries himself with a reaffirming great, with a dignity that is a reminder to us of the gravity and stature of his office. He calmly steered us through moments of national crisis. As Syracuse Univesrity graduate, Vice President Joe Biden has said of our president, “This man has courage in his soul, compassion in his heart, and a spine of steel.” Ladies and gentleman, the President of the United States of America.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Good evening, everybody. And thank you, Chancellor Syverud, for those wonderful remarks and reminding me of how badly my bracket is doing. (Laughter.) Congratulations, Syracuse. You guys are doing great. (Applause.) I want to thank Robin’s wonderful husband, Peter, and their incredible kids, Jake and Nora, for organizing this annual tribute to her memory. And I want to thank all of you for having me here this evening. A Washington press dinner usually means ill-fitting tuxes, celebrity sightings, and bad jokes. So this is refreshing.
And it is a great honor to be here to celebrate the 2015 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting. In this political season, it is worth reflecting on the kind of journalism Robin practiced — and the kind of journalism this prize rewards.
A reporter’s reporter — that was Robin. From her first job at the Charleston Daily Mail to her tenure as The New York Times’ national political correspondent — the first woman to hold that position — she always saw herself as being a servant for the American public. She had a sense of mission and purpose in her work. For Robin, politics was not a horserace, or a circus, or a tally of who scored more political points than whom, but rather was fundamentally about issues and how they affected the lives of real people.
She treated the public with respect — didn’t just skim the surface. Few reporters understood the intricacies of health care policy better. Few could cut to the heart of a tax reform plan more deeply — and analyze how it would affect everybody, from a struggling worker to a hedge fund manager. Few could explain complicated, esoteric political issues in a way that Americans could digest and use to make informed choices at the ballot box.
Robin’s work was meticulous. No detail was too small to confirm, and no task too minor to complete. And that, too, she saw as her responsibility — the responsibility of journalism. She famously developed her own fact-checking system, cleaning up every name and date and figure in her piece — something most reporters relied on others to do. And it’s no wonder then that of her almost 2,000 articles, only six required published corrections. And knowing Robin, that was probably six too many for her tastes.
And this speaks to more than just her thoroughness or some obsessive compulsiveness when it came to typos. It was about Robin’s commitment to seeking out and telling the truth. She would not stand for any stray mark that might mar an otherwise flawless piece — because she knew the public relied on her to give them the truth as best as she could find it.
Of course, these were qualities that were harder to appreciate when her lens was focused on you. She held politicians’ feet to the fire, including occasionally my own. And in her quiet, dogged way, she demanded that we be accountable to the public for the things that we said and for the promises that we made. We should be held accountable.
That’s the kind of journalism that Robin practiced. That’s the kind of journalism this prize honors. It’s the kind of journalism that’s never been more important. It’s the kind of journalism that recognizes its fundamental role in promoting citizenship, and hence undergirds our democracy.
As I’ve said in recent weeks, I know I’m not the only one who may be more than a little dismayed about what’s happening on the campaign trail right now. The divisive and often vulgar rhetoric that’s aimed at everybody, but often is focused on the vulnerable or women or minorities. The sometimes well-intentioned but I think misguided attempts to shut down that speech. The violent reaction that we see, as well as the deafening silence from too many of our leaders in the coarsening of the debate. The sense that facts don’t matter, that they’re not relevant. That what matters is how much attention you can generate. A sense that this is a game as opposed to the most precious gift our Founders gave us — this collective enterprise of self-government.
And so it’s worth asking ourselves what each of us — as politicians or journalists, but most of all, as citizens — may have done to contribute to this atmosphere in our politics. I was going to call it “carnival atmosphere,” but that implies fun.
And I think it’s the kind of question Robin would have asked all of us. As I said a few weeks ago, some may be more to blame than others for the current climate, but all of us are responsible for reversing it.
I say this not because of some vague notion of “political correctness,” which seems to be increasingly an excuse to just say offensive things or lie out loud. I say this not out of nostalgia, because politics in America has always been tough. Anybody who doubts that should take a look at what Adams and Jefferson and some of our other Founders said about each other. I say this because what we’re seeing right now does corrode our democracy and our society. And I’m not one who’s faint of heart. I come from Chicago. Harold Washington once explained that “politics ain’t beanbag.” It’s always been rough and tumble.
But when our elected officials and our political campaigns become entirely untethered to reason and facts and analysis, when it doesn’t matter what’s true and what’s not, that makes it all but impossible for us to make good decisions on behalf of future generations. It threatens the values of respect and tolerance that we teach our children and that are the source of America’s strength. It frays the habits of the heart that underpin any civilized society — because how we operate is not just based on laws, it’s based on habits and customs and restraint and respect. It creates this vacuum where baseless assertions go unchallenged, and evidence is optional. And as we’re seeing, it allows hostility in one corner of our politics to infect our broader society. And that, in turn, tarnishes the American brand.
The number one question I am getting as I travel around the world or talk to world leaders right now is, what is happening in America — about our politics. And it’s not because around the world people have not seen crazy politics; it is that they understand America is the place where you can’t afford completely crazy politics. For some countries where this kind of rhetoric may not have the same ramifications, people expect, they understand, they care about America, the most powerful nation on Earth, functioning effectively, and its government being able to make sound decisions.
So we are all invested in making this system work. We are all responsible for its success. And it’s not just for the United States that this matters. It matters for the planet.
Whether it was exposing the horrors of lynching, to busting the oil trusts, to uncovering Watergate, your work has always been essential to that endeavor, and that work has never been easy. And let’s face it, in today’s unprecedented change in your industry, the job has gotten tougher. Even as the appetite for information and data flowing through the Internet is voracious, we’ve seen newsrooms closed. The bottom line has shrunk. The news cycle has, as well. And too often, there is enormous pressure on journalists to fill the void and feed the beast with instant commentary and Twitter rumors, and celebrity gossip, and softer stories. And then we fail to understand our world or understand one another as well as we should. That has consequences for our lives and for the life of our country.
Part of the independence of the Fourth Estate is that it is not government-controlled, and media companies thereby have an obligation to pursue profits on behalf of their shareholders, their owners, and also has an obligation to invest a good chunk of that profit back into news and back into public affairs, and to maintain certain standards and to not dumb down the news, and to have higher aspirations for what effective news can do. Because a well-informed electorate depends on you. And our democracy depends on a well-informed electorate.
So the choice between what cuts into your bottom lines and what harms us as a society is an important one. We have to choose which price is higher to pay; which cost is harder to bear.
Good reporters like the ones in this room all too frequently find yourselves caught between competing forces, I’m aware of that. You believe in the importance of a well-informed electorate. You’ve staked your careers on it. Our democracy needs you more than ever. You’re under significant financial pressures, as well.
So I believe the electorate would be better served if your networks and your producers would give you the room, the capacity to follow your best instincts and dig deeper into the things that might not always be flashy, but need attention.
And Robin proves that just because something is substantive doesn’t mean it’s not interesting. I think the electorate would be better served if we spent less time focused on the he said/she said back-and-forth of our politics. Because while fairness is the hallmark of good journalism, false equivalency all too often these days can be a fatal flaw. If I say that the world is round and someone else says it’s flat, that’s worth reporting, but you might also want to report on a bunch of scientific evidence that seems to support the notion that the world is round. And that shouldn’t be buried in paragraph five or six of the article. (Applause.)
A job well done is about more than just handing someone a microphone. It is to probe and to question, and to dig deeper, and to demand more. The electorate would be better served if that happened. It would be better served if billions of dollars in free media came with serious accountability, especially when politicians issue unworkable plans or make promises they can’t keep. (Applause.) And there are reporters here who know they can’t keep them. I know that’s a shocking concept that politicians would do that. But without a press that asks tough questions, voters take them at their word. When people put their faith in someone who can’t possibly deliver on his or her promises, that only breeds more cynicism.
It’s interesting — this is a little going off script. But we still have our house in Chicago, and because Michelle, me and the kids had to leave so quickly, it’s a little bit like a time capsule, especially my desk — which wasn’t always very neat. So I’ve got old phone bills that I think I paid — (laughter) — but they’re still sitting there. And for a long time, I had my old laptop with the AOL connection. But there’s also these big stacks of newspapers from right before the election. And every time I go back, I have occasion to look back and read what I said at the time. And Lord knows I’ve made mistakes in this job, and there are areas where I’ve fallen short, but something I’m really proud of is the fact that, if you go back and see what I said in 2007 and you see what I did, they match up. (Applause.)
Now, part of the reason they match up is because in 2008, during the campaign, people asked me really tough questions about whether they’d match up. And we had to spend a lot of time worrying about whether what I said I could deliver on, and whether we believed it was true. And there was a price if you said one thing and then did something completely different. And the question is, in the current media environment, is that still true? Does that still hold?
I think Robin understood this because she asked those questions. She asked me some of those questions.
One of the reasons I ran for this office was to try and change the tone of our politics in Washington. And I remember back in early 2008 — eight years ago this month — Robin wrote a story wondering whether I could; whether it was even possible. At the time, I probably thought the piece was fairly cynical. And while I still believe Americans are hungry for a better politics, as I’ve said several times now, one of my great regrets is that the tone of our politics has gotten worse. And I won’t take all the responsibility for it, but I’ll take some. We all own some of it. I’ll take my share. But Robin asked that question. She cast a critical eye from the very beginning. And that was useful. Still is.
As I believe that that for all the sideshows of the political season, Americans are still hungry for truth, it’s just hard to find. It’s hard to wade through. The curating function has diminished in this smartphone age. But people still want to know what’s true.
Think about it. Hollywood released films about getting stuck on Mars, and demolition derbies in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and you even had Leo DiCaprio battling a grizzly bear. And yet it was a movie about journalists spending months meticulously calling sources from landlines, and poring over documents with highlighters and microfiche, chasing the truth even when it was hard, even when it was dangerous. And that was the movie that captured the Oscar for Best Picture.
I’m not suggesting all of you are going to win Oscars. But I am saying it’s worth striving to win a Toner. (Applause.)
So, look, ultimately I recognize that the news industry is an industry — it’s a business. There’s no escaping the pressures of the industry and all its attendant constraints. But I also know that journalism at its best is indispensable — not in some abstract sense of nobility, but in the very concrete sense that real people depend on you to uncover the truth. Real people depend on getting information they can trust because they are giving over decision-making that has a profound effect on their lives to a bunch of people who are pretty remote and very rarely will they ever have the chance to ask that person a direct question, or be able to sort through the intricacies of the policies that will determine their wages or their ability to retire, or their ability to send their kid to college, or the possibility that their child will be sent to war.
These are folks who trust you when you tell them that there’s a problem in their schools, or that their water has been poisoned, or that their political candidates are promoting plans that don’t add up.
That’s why the deep reporting, the informed questioning, the in-depth stories — the kind of journalism that we honor today — matters more than ever and, by the way, lasts longer than some slapdash Tweet that slips off our screens in the blink of an eye, that may get more hits todays, but won’t stand up to the test of time. (Applause.) That’s the only way that our democracy can work.
And as I go into my last year, I spend a lot of time reflecting on how this system, how this crazy notion of self-government works; how can we make it work. And this is as important to making it work as anything — people getting information that they can trust, and that has substance and evidence and facts and truth behind it. In an era in which attention spans are short, it is going to be hard because you’re going to have to figure out ways to make it more entertaining, and you’re going to have to be more creative, not less. Because if you just do great reporting and nobody reads it, that doesn’t do anybody any good, either.
But 10, 20, 50 years from now, no one seeking to understand our age is going to be searching the Tweets that got the most retweets, or the post that got the most likes. They’ll look for the kind of reporting, the smartest investigative journalism that told our story and lifted up the contradictions in our societies, and asked the hard questions and forced people to see the truth even when it was uncomfortable.
Many of you are already doing that, doing incredible work. And in some ways, the new technologies are helping you do that work. Journalists are using new data techniques to analyze economics and the environment, and to analyze candidates’ proposals. Anchors are asking candidates exactly how they’re going to accomplish their promises, pressing them so they don’t evade the question. Some reporters recently watched almost five hours of a certain candidate’s remarks to count the number of times he said something that wasn’t true. It turned out to be quite a large number. So talk about taking one for the team. That was a significant sacrifice they made.
This is journalism worth honoring and worth emulating. And to the young aspiring journalist that I had a chance to meet before I came on stage, those are the models you want to follow.
As all of you know, I just came back from Cuba, where I held a press conference with President Castro that was broadcast all over the country. So in a country without a free press, this was big news. And it was a remarkable thing that the Cuban people were able to watch two leaders — their own, and the leader of a country that they’d grown up understanding as their archenemy — answer tough questions and be held accountable. And I don’t know exactly what it will mean for Cuba’s future. I think it made a big difference to the Cuban people. And I can’t think of a better example of why a free press is so vital to freedom. (Applause.)
In any country, including our own, there will be an inherent tension between the President and the press. It’s supposed to be that way. I may not always agree with everything you report or write. In fact, it’s fair to say I do not. (Laughter.) But if I did, that would be an indication that you weren’t doing your job.
I’ll tell you — I probably maybe shouldn’t do this, but what the heck, I’m in my last year. (Laughter.) I had an in-depth conversation with President Putin a while back about Syria and Ukraine. And he had read an article in The Atlantic that Jeff Goldberg had done about my foreign policy doctrine. And he said, well, I disagree with some of the things that you said in there. And Jeff is a remarkable journalist who I admire greatly, and all the quotes that were directly attributed to me in there I completely agreed with. I said, well, but some of the things that were shaped may not fully reflect all the nuance of my thoughts on the particular topic that President Putin was mentioning. But I pointed out to him, of course, that unlike you, Vladimir, I don’t get to edit the piece before it’s published. (Laughter and applause.)
So you are supposed to push those in power for more evidence and more access. You’re supposed to challenge our assumptions. Sometimes I will find this frustrating. Sometimes I may not be able to share with you all of the context of decisions that I make. But I never doubt how much — how critical it is to our democracy for you to do that; how much I value great journalism. And you should not underestimate the number of times that I have read something that you did, and I have called somebody up and said, what’s going on here? Because as Bob Gates told me when I first came in — I think it was my first or second week — I said, well, what advice do you have, Bob? You’ve been around seven presidents. You’ve served in Washington, in the administration. He said, Mr. President, the only thing I can tell you for sure is that you’ve got about two million employees, and at any given moment in any given day, somebody, somewhere, is screwing up. (Laughter.)
So you help me do my job better, and I’m grateful for that. Because the point of politics, as Robin understood it — certainly as I’ve tried to understand it throughout my tenure in this job — the point of politics is not simply the amassing of power. It’s about what you do with that power that has been lent to you through a compact, with a citizenry, who give you their proxy and say “I’m counting on you” to not just make my life better, but more importantly, to make my kids’ lives better, and my grandkids’ lives better. Who will we help? How will we help them? What kind of country do we leave to the next generation?
My hope is, is that you continue to ask us questions that keep us honest and elevate our democracy. I ask that you continue to understand your role as a partner in this process. I say this often when I speak to Democratic partisan crowds: I never said, “Yes, I can.” I said, “Yes, we can.” And that means all of us. (Applause.) If we can keep supporting the kind of work that Robin championed, if we cultivate the next generation of smart, tough, fair-minded journalists, if we can all, every single one of us, carry on her legacy of public service and her faith in citizenry — because you have to have a certain faith to be a really good journalist; you have to believe that me getting it right matters, that it’s not just sending something into the void, but that there’s somebody on the other end who’s receiving it, and that matters — if you continue to believe that, if you have faith, I have no doubt that America’s best days are ahead.
So thank you to Robin’s family. Congratulations to this year’s winner. And thank all of you. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America. (Applause.) Thank you.
LARRY KRAMER: Okay, how about that speech. (Applause.) From his mouth to God’s ears. Um, so, we’re going to go into this final part of the program, it’s a short part, but it’s the prize part. This year’s Toner Prize winner joins a very eminent group of previous winners, many of whom are here, including Dan Balz and Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, Molly Ball of The Atlantic and Craig Harris of The Arizona Republic. Now what I’d like to do is introduce Adam Clymer, a retired New York Times political editor, and a very close friend of Robin’s. A major league curmudgeon, I might add. And a pain in the ass to several presidents. And he’s also a finalist judge in the prize and he’s here to tell us a little about the entries this year and to introduce Nora and Jake to tell us who won.
ADAM CLYMER: Sorry the only lights are in front of me, give me a second. Chancellor Syverud, friends and admirers of Robin Toner. It’s been an honor for me to be, for six years, a finalist judge for the Toner award. The prize, as you’ve heard, is a tribute to the political reporting my friend Robin did so often for The Times – emphasizing policy and not horse races. You’ll hear more about this year’s winner in a moment. The winning entry was among many of this year’s 134 entries that dealt with dark money – a sinister term popularized by our 2013 winner Jane Mayer. And the best of those entries, including the winner – but not limited to it – told us more than where the money came from and where it went. But whether it actually succeeded in maintaining or changing public policy. The good news is sometimes it didn’t. Anyway, that is what Robin in particular would’ve wanted to know and to report. This year’s winner was the first ever to be a unanimous choice. So for me and the other four finalist judges, the judging process was not difficult. But you should know that a lot of hard work went before the final judging. That unsung work of sorting entries and recruiting preliminary judges – 39 of them listed in your program, I believe – was done as has been mentioned, by Charlotte Grimes, Knight professor emerita, and by Audrey Burian at the Newhouse School. Audrey and a few of the preliminary judges are here, so I’d like to ask you all to stand so that your work gets some applause. (Applause.)
Finally, it’s my distinct pleasure to introduce one of my friend Robin’s proudest accomplishments, her daughter Nora.
NORA GOSSELIN: Good evening. Jake and I take turns presenting the actual Toner Prize and, as this year it’s Jake’s turn, I was left with the huge task of speaking for our family. Faced with the same task last year, Jake talked about what this program has meant to the two of us in the past. Tonight, I want to talk about what I think it will mean in the future. And to do so, I would like to begin at the end.
Each year, Jake and I end our speeches with some variation of an expression I believe to be beautiful and true – that twe are eternally grateful for the program, for the expansive and enduring newsroom family — many of you sitting in this room tonight — that has carried us through by the sheer force of your convictions. But this year, as — it’s hard to believe– we’re beginning our adult lives, I want to amend my statements of mere gratitude. Because this program, and what it stands for, are not simply things to be grateful for. They’re things that Jake and I and every one of us need and need to fight for. On a personal level, Jake and I look to you all for what it means to be Mom’s children as adults. We’re both trying to figure that out, especially now that we’ve left home. You pass on wisdom about what she held most dear. How to be ferocious in seeking the truth but also compassionate in listening to those often unheard. How to be independent in one’s work but also invested in a team of family. When this program began, Jake and I were 12 years old, and these things, these were intangibles that our parents often lectured to us about, but that we couldn’t possibly understand just yet. Seven years later, these lessons of the craft my mom so loved, embodied by the people she cared for, make more sense to Jake and I because of you. We begin our adult lives deeply inspired by them.
But at once the purpose of this program is much deeper than the two of us. It’s even bigger than this immediate and tightly knit newsroom family. It’s about the world. It’s about reclaiming the idea that there exists a set of facts easily and often lost in the noise that, like it or not, binds us all.
Two decades ago, my mom wrote about a just-finished health reform fight. She said reality often seemed to be just another subject for debate in the health care struggle. But it has a way of reasserting itself once the shouting is over. We need programs like this and work like yours . So lean against the shouting and perhaps quietly, persistently insist upon the facts. So this year I want to thank you all not just for the lessons you have taught Jake and I but also for what each and every one of you do each and every day to ensure that reality is not another subject for debate. We’re grateful. The world should be too.
JAKE GOSSELIN: Thank you. As Nora said, the purpose of this prize is to recognize the kind of fact-based reporting which defined my Mom’s career. This year’s winner embodies these values and more. His submission, which included an expose on ConocoPhillips influence in congressional chambers, an investigation into why bipartisan infrastructure legislation consistently fails, and an analysis of why some traditionally Democratic states are turning red, caught the eyes of our judges due to its breathtaking reporting and excellent writing. But what truly made his entries stand out from the pack was that in the words of our judges, he quote “looked at areas that affect people’s lives.”
As the president said, my Mom began her career at a small local paper, the Charleston Daily Mail. She spent most of her time there covering the coal mining industry and the miners who worked for it. In fact, the first story she wrote that gained national attention was covering a strike held by their local part of the United Mine Workers. And though she rose quickly from paper to paper, she never forgot the bonds she formed during these first years in West Virginia. Her commitment to fact-based reporting was informed in part by a deep sense of empathy she developed during this period. For the people behind the politics. Even in the heat of the dramatic elections she subsequently covered, she never forgot that these were the people she was fighting for.
This year’s winner’s decision in the midst of a wild campaign season to focus on the issues that affect people’s lives is one that I can say without a doubt my Mom would’ve admired and respected. The kind of journalism he practices is the kind my mom prized above all else. It is truly a privilege to present this year’s Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting to Alec MacGillis of ProPublica. Thank you. (Applause.)
ALEC MACGILLIS: Um, thank you so much, Jake. This is a tremendous honor for me and ProPublica. I’ve been at this work for 20 years now. I started at a two-person, weekly paper in Winsted, Connecticut. Kind of like Robin, in West Virginia. That was Ralph Nader’s hometown. I worked my way up from there, and through all that time, I’ve never gotten a prize like this. Much less one that was overseen by the Secret Service. So it’s very exciting and also a little overwhelming. It’s also a bit strange for me to be in this very grand building. The last time that I was here, in fact the last time that Rachel and I were down for an evening from Baltimore where we live, was 16 months ago when we attended the big celebration to mark the 100th anniversary of the New Republic. Along with President Clinton and Justice Ginsburg. It was a grand event.
A few weeks after that dinner, the magazine exploded in staff revolt as I and many others walked out of the office en mass. So to the Newhouse School and ProPublica, take that as a warning. I want to thank Robin’s family. Peter’s second job reporting was in my home county in Western Mass., but this is the first time that I’ve gotten to meet him and Nora and Jake. And it was great to do so. Also the selection committee and the Newhouse School, once again, congratulations on the big win last night. I want to thank the guest of honor for making the trip over tonight. We first met on the trail back in 2008 when he had to take a detour from campaigning in Ohio for the memorial service after an awful campus shooting in Illinois. And I was the pool guy assigned to come along for that. I remember being struck that when we were flying to rejoin the pack in a Gulf Stream jet and were chatting over breakfast, that we eventually broke off the conversation to read the papers. Like all the papers – – The Times, The Journal, the FT, deep into the business sections. That was impressive. However, that does not get him off the hook for his administration taking so long to respond to our FOIAs. (Applause)
I want to thank my editors at ProPublica, Larry Roberts and Steve Engelberg, (applause) who are both here tonight. And also others at the organization like Robin Fields, Dick Tofel and Eric Umansky. I also want to thank the many editors at my previous stops, who gave me opportunities and improved my work. I’m so fortunate to have had their guidance. Some of them are here tonight. Thinking of Diane Webber, Mike Pride, Bill Marimow, John Fairhall, Bill Hamilton, Steven Ginsberg, Kevin Merida, Richard Just, Rachel Morris and Frank Foer – or should I say, Frank Foyer. A little in-joke there.
I also need to thank another editor, my father, Don MacGillis. He’s the original role model. And I need to thank my wife, Rachel Brash. As many of you know, being married to a journalist is not easy. I couldn’t do it without her.
So I’ve got to admit that I was surprised to get the call about this political reporting award because I spent most of the last year pretty far from the big political story of the year, which was of course the start of the campaign. And there was plenty of good reporting on that by the people in this room. Larry suggested that we apply anyway. Thank you, Larry. What I should have kept in mind was that the prize was in memory in someone who showed how broad the definition of political reporting can be. That it’s not just about the campaign. And it’s not just about policy, either. It’s about pulling it all together. The elections, and the actions in office, and the implications for real people. The Flint crisis is a political story and an even better one would have been exposing it before it took its toll. How Appalachia responds to the collapse of the coal industry is a political story. How a $3-billion transit line for West Baltimore, where in live in Baltimore, was killed on the verge of construction last summer is a political story. But it was barely told as it was happening, even when Baltimore was allegedly higher on our radar of concern. And that’s just 40 miles from here.
I’m well aware that I’m in a privileged space, working in the non-profit, donor-supported realm. Thank you, donors. I understand the market pressures that lead to a more narrow approach. To start covering the campaign two years ahead of time, to send hundreds of people to one debate after another. People like the horse race, I like the horse race. I even sometimes bet on actual horse races because I live in Baltimore.
But this isn’t a matter of absolutes, it’s a matter of degree. Of shifting the balance. We have agency. We have so many models for defining political reporting more broadly. There was the Chico Harlan piece in The Post last year about the workers at the Chinese-owned factory in Alabama that are humiliated by their low pay. There were Abby Goodnough stories about Obamacare in Kentucky. There was Nick Confessore’s piece today in The Times, which is a fantastic piece about Trump and the Republicans. There’s all this stuff being done by the political economics wiz-kids that make me feel really old.
This is a pretty crazy stretch we’re in right now. High-quality, reality-based reporting suddenly seems awfully important. And I think we’re rising to the challenge in some ways. We seem to be to calling things more for what they are, which is a big step. But what’s happening now also shows why it’s important to broaden the lens, so we can better understand what’s happening out there. We all know the deal. Across the country, 1 out of every 4 reporting jobs was lost in the past decade. 12,000 of them. Over the same period, the number of reporters here in Washington has doubled.
There are important stories to be told here of course. To cover the government as it actually exists now, in advance of the next election. To hold the officials accountable. To scrutinize the influences working on them. To explain how things have gotten to be so broken in Washington, which has played such a big part in fueling the alienation that’s out there. But if we’re going to figure out this great disconnect, between places like this that are more prosperous than ever, and places that really are not, we need to be out there more too. Not just talking to voters, but looking for the stories of the problems in their lives and towns, that simply aren’t being captured anymore because of those coverage gaps.
And here’s the thing – there’s real demand for those kinds of stories. I was amazed by the response to my piece in The Times about anti-welfare sentiment in poor areas of the country. There’s a hunger to understand what’s happening. There’s an appetite for that kind of political reporting. The kind that Robin Toner showed us how to do. Thanks again.
LARRY KRAMER: We want to congratulate Alec. It was a wonderful piece of journalism. And I also want to congratulate ProPublica, which has really done a fantastic job over the last 8 or 9 years of really leading us and to make sure we don’t forget what investigative reporting is.
This has been a wonderful night. I want to thank the President of the United States for a terrific speech. I think we owe a debt to the Gosselin family, who have done a tremendous job as well. And the Syracuse family, many of whom are sitting out there today, for doing a great job too. And finally the men and women of our hoops team who helped to provide a terrific weekend as well, and I’m sure you’ll be watching next weekend in Indianapolis for the women and in Houston for the men.
Meanwhile, for the final word of the night and for benediction, let’s bring Jake back up.
JAKE GOSSELIN: There is an immense amount of work that goes into making this event happen each year. And so before we finish, I just want to single out a few people in particular who have been absolutely essential to this program’s success. Syracuse University and the Newhouse School have been amazing partners over the past seven years. And I want to thank Chancellor Syverud and Dean Branham in particular, for keeping this program alive and allowing this program to grow into what it is today.
I want to thank our fantastic judging panel, especially Tom Brokaw, Adam Clymer, Paul Delaney, Pam Fine and Maralee Schwartz, for their hard work and dedication in combing through our now hundreds of submissions each year.
I want to thank this program’s many sponsors and supporters. Especially John Chapple, who’s a loyal friend to my Mom and who’s generosity is the reason this program began in the first place. I want to thank the President and his senior staff. I know I speak for my family and this entire room when I say having him here tonight was an honor and privilege beyond words. I want to thank Arthur Sulzberger, Dean Baquet and The New York Times. You were my Mom’s family as much as I was. And having your support for this program means more than I can say. And I want to thank the unsung heroes of this program and this event – Luke Miller, Charlotte Grimes, Audrey Burian and my dad, who as was said earlier, is the life and soul behind these events. (Applause)
The amount of work he has put into this program for the past seven years, while working and raising two kids by himself is genuinely awe-inspiring. And as his son and as a supporter of this program, I am incredibly grateful. Finally, I want to thank all of you. These events don’t happen unless we have the people to fill these seats. And while many of you are new to this event, many of you have been coming to this event since I was 12 years old.
As Nora said so eloquently, this program holds a special place in both of our hearts. And it doesn’t happen without all of you. So for that, I thank you all. I hope to see you again next year. Goodnight.