The Pulitzer season is a time for inspiration and reflection. Inspiration because those and other awards each year remind us of how important public service reporting is, and also that American news outlets—even those struggling financially—continue to do it. A case in point is The Philadelphia Inquirer, which won the Gold Medal for its series about violence in the city’s schools. In Alabama, the Tuscaloosa News staff didn’t let a power outage stop them from covering a deadly tornado, publishing from another plant 50 miles away, and online. The awards also remind us that age and experience are not always prerequisites to powerful truth-telling. Exhibit A is 24-year-old Sara Ganim of the Harrisburg Patriot-News, who disclosed the child molestation allegations against Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach, months before other news organizations. Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists in recent years also have reflected the changing media landscape, with relatively new for-profit publications—The Huffington Post and Politico—and nonprofit news organizations—ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s California Watch—recognized for outstanding journalism.

The prize season is also a time for reflection upon less inspiring trends. From 1985 to 2012, the number of entries for the Pulitzer in the Gold Medal public service category (The New York Times won in this category in 1972 for the Pentagon Papers, and The Washington Post won in 1973 for Watergate) dropped 42 percent, from 122 to 71; explanatory journalism entries decreased by 40 percent, from 181 to 109; and the investigative reporting category had a decrease of 30 percent, from 103 entries to 72. This is surely a result of declining newsrooms.

As we all know too well, the number of full time independent reporters has been drastically decreasing. According to Len Downie and Michael Schudson in their 2009 report, “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,”
we lost approximately a third of the nation’s newspaper reporters and editors in the United States between 1992 and 2009, from 60,000 editorial employees to about 40,000. Meanwhile, between 1980 and 2010, the number of public relations specialists and managers doubled, from roughly 45,000 to 90,000, according to Robert McChesney and John Nichols in their 2010 book, The Death and Life of American Journalism: “Even as journalism shrinks, the ‘news’ will still exist” they wrote. “It will increasingly be provided by tens of thousands of well-paid and skilled PR specialists ready and determined to explain the world to the citizenry, in a manner that suits their corporate and government employers.”

My own response, in part, to these developments has perhaps been in character: massive research. Back in 2005, I began reporting for a book of journalism history—on the origins and trajectory of public relations and propaganda, the deadliest deceptions by government and companies, and the truth-telling capacity of journalists and their news organizations over the past century.

And that last curiosity led me to explore national “moments of truth” in contemporary US history—moments in which news organizations, through their deep reporting, exposed egregious abuses of power and shaped history. The idea was to look to the past to inform and to inspire the future.

In my lifetime, roughly since 1950, independent journalists have fearlessly reported such abuses. For example, the anti-Communist demagoguery of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s; the institutionalized racism and injustice in the South and the Civil Rights struggle to combat it between 1954 and 1968; the gross misrepresentations and even civilian atrocities during the Vietnam War; the wholesale illegalities and breaches of faith broadly known as the Watergate scandal; the various excesses of corporate power over many decades, in which millions of Americans suffered financially or died from dangerous substances and products; and the various improper, illegal, or extra-legal uses of US power in post-9/11 America. It is no exaggeration to note that the course of history itself was altered by this kind of independent scrutiny of those in power. Of course, such reporting took guts, time, and money—the kind of expensive, unswerving commitment to uncovering the truth that is somewhat harder to find these days among major metropolitan newspapers and television networks.

Charles Lewis , a former 60 Minutes producer who founded The Center for Public Integrity, is a MacArthur Fellow and the founding executive editor of the new Investigative Reporting Workshop at the American University School of Communication in Washington.