CAMBRIDGE, MA. When the team of Washington Post investigative reporters gathered in their editor’s office to put the finishing touches on a groundbreaking series on egregious housing violations in the nation’s capital, one thing caught their attention: all the people in the room were women. In a measure of how far women have come in the top ranks of journalism, it didn’t seem out of the ordinary to them. It was all in a day’s work.
The dogged reporting skills of Debbie Cenziper and Sarah Cohen earned them one of journalism’s highest (and most lucrative) honors, the $25,000 2009 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, awarded Tuesday night by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. The investigative editor for the Post series was newspaper veteran Barbara Vobjeda and their Metro researcher was—you guessed it—a young woman named Meg Smith.
“We noticed it at the end. We were all huddled in Barbara’s office and looked around the room and saw all women,” recalled Cenziper, who came to the Post eighteen months ago after a five-year stint at the Miami Herald. While there, she won a 2007 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting for a year-long series on housing corruption—a series that was also a Goldsmith prize finalist that year. “I’ve always worked for very strong, very competent women. So it’s not new for me,” said the thirty-eight-year-old Cenziper. Her older colleague Cohen, an expert in database reporting who shared in the Post’s 2002 Pulitzer for investigative reporting and was a 2007 Goldsmith finalist, agreed.
The prominence of women in political and investigative journalism today was affirmed several times over Tuesday evening, as women for the first time dominated the winning Goldsmith awards in political journalism, handed out at the annual Harvard Kennedy School ceremony. New Yorker writer Jane Mayer got the Goldsmith trade book prize for The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, and PBS senior correspondent Gwen Ifill received the Goldsmith Career Award for Excellence in Journalism.
In presenting the career award, Shorenstein Center director Alex S. Jones noted that Ifill, who has just published The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, was “a breakthrough in her own right—as a woman, as an African American and—most of all—as a respected professional journalist whose sense of fairness and objectivity has made her the choice to moderate two vice-presidential debates.”
“I always wanted to be a journalist,” said Ifill, who cut her teeth at Boston and Baltimore newspapers before moving to Washington, D.C. to cover politics for The Washington Post, The New York Times, and NBC News. In 1999, she joined PBS as a senior correspondent for the nightly NewsHour and as moderator of the weekly political analysis roundtable. She recalled that her high school guidance counselor had discouraged her from even applying to Simmons College in Boston, but that her tenacity since then had taught her “how much extra credibility you can get by exceeding expectations.”
Ironically, when Ifill was asked why her new book on race in politics largely focuses on the recent success of African American men, she said it was because there “are a lot fewer women (politicians) at the breakthrough level than men…We’re not quite there yet.” (Video of the ceremony and her talk can be seen at the Shorenstein Web site.)
The Washington Post team of Cenziper and Cohen noted in an interview that, at their paper, gender has become largely irrelevant as more and more women have risen to power—including new managing editor Elizabeth Spayd (in January, she became the first woman in that post in the paper’s history) and publisher Katharine Weymouth, granddaughter of the Post’s legendary leader, the late Katharine Graham. The Post’s investigative journalism ranks, once largely male (think Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward), have increasingly included women reporters in recent years. Veteran national security reporter Dana Priest won Pulitzers in 2006 and 2008 for her investigative work, and was also a Goldsmith finalist in both years. Jo Becker, who was at the Post for about seven years before joining The New York Times, shared last year’s Pulitzer for national reporting with Barton Gellman for a Post investigative series on former Vice-President Dick Cheney. The duo earlier won the 2008 Goldsmith investigative reporting prize for that series. And Susan Schmidt, now at The Wall Street Journal, won the 2006 Pulitzer for investigative reporting (and was a Goldsmith finalist as well) as part of a Washington Post team that unearthed congressional corruption involving Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff.