Not just the usual suspects

THE COMMERCIAL DISPATCH

Columbus, Miss.

The Commercial Dispatch of Columbus, Miss., on journalism and Pulitzer Prize winners:                    

Each year, when the Pulitzer prizes for journalism are announced, the usual suspects emerge — The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe and a few other newspapers with the talent, time and resources to pursue stories relentlessly. The stories that earn these media giants Pulitzers are most often familiar topics, dealing with issues of national, even international, importance.

But each year, as you scroll through the list of winners, other more obscure journalists and newspapers are found among the Pulitzer Prize winners since the first awards were presented 100 years ago.

This year’s Pulitzer for editorial writing provides no better example of this. The award went to Art Cullen, who along with his brother, started the Storm Lake (Iowa) Times in 1990. With a circulation of just 3,000, the twice-weekly Times is likely among the smallest newspapers to ever win such a prestigious award.

Cullen was plucked from obscurity out of an impressive list of editorial writers throughout the country. He won for editorials that confronted the state’s most powerful agricultural interests, which include the Koch Brothers, Cargill and Monsanto, and their secret funding of the government defense of a big environmental lawsuit. In a state as reliant on agriculture as Iowa, where big corporate agribusiness companies wield enormous power and influence, Cullen’s editorials — grounded in news reporting by his 24-year-old son, Tom — were not always well received and, no doubt, the small newspaper suffered the consequences of its unpopular stand.

But in demanding transparency from local government, Cullen served his community honorably and fulfilled the highest calling of his profession. If media does not hold our elected officials accountable, there is often no one who will.

While the issue Cullen tackled may not resonate far beyond Iowa, his example is a reminder to journalists everywhere. Good journalism is not the exclusive domain on big newspapers. Every day, throughout the country, journalists are working to serve the public interest by keeping them informed, calling attention to issues and holding elected officials accountable.

In an age when unpopular reporting is often dismissed as “fake news,” Cullen’s Pulitzer is an inspiration to thousands of unsung, largely unnoticed, journalists across the country who work diligently each day to serve their communities, even in the face of criticism.

It is important work and most of it never receives the sort of recognition it deserves.

Sometimes, though, it is.

Art Cullen is simply the latest example.