Profiles in Journalism

The Boston Globe's Charlie Savage is awarded a much-deserved Pulitzer Prize, illustrating what real political journalism is about.

Published April 16, 2007 8:36PM (EDT)

(updated below - updated again)

The Pulitzer Prize Committee today recognized the work of one of America's few truly excellent political journalists:

Charlie Savage of The Boston Globe won for national reporting for his revelations that President Bush often used "signing statements" to assert his controversial right to bypass provisions of new laws.

Even for months after The New York Times first revealed -- back in December 2005 -- that the Bush administration had been secretly eavesdropping on Americans in violation of FISA for the prior four years, there were virtually no journalists writing about the Bush administration's theories of lawlessness which gave rise to that specific lawbreaking. And there were virtually no journalists who recognized or described just how profoundly radical that behavior was.

But as I've noted many times, Savage was one of the very few journalists in the country who understood, investigated and reported on the radical theories of executive power embraced by this President. And once he began reporting on those abuses, he was relentless in his efforts to draw public attention to the administration's conduct.

On March 24, 2006, Savage published an article -- entitled "Bush Shuns Patriot Act Requirement" -- which was the first article to report on Bush's issuance of a signing statement in connection with Congress' renewal of the Patriot Act. It was in that signing statement where the President expressly proclaimed the power to ignore legal requirements imposed by Congress requiring the FBI to report on its use of National Security Letters -- the very provisions which, it was revealed just last month, the FBI has been systematically ignoring as it spies on American citizens. As Savage wrote in that article: "The statement represented the latest in a string of high-profile instances in which Bush has cited his constitutional authority to bypass a law."

For those of us -- mostly bloggers -- who were urgently focused back then on the issue of this administration's claimed power to break the law, articles like that were as rare as they were encouraging. In How Would a Patriot Act?, published last May, I excerpted a substantial portion of Savage's March 24 article and then wrote:

This Globe article is an important milestone. It is one of the first truly comprehensive articles by an establishment media outlet to recognize the fact that the president has expressly seized the power to break the law and is exercising that power enthusiastically and aggressively, in numerous ways.

Savage's April 30, 2006 article was a comprehensive report of Bush's chronic use of signing statements, and it became the seminal article on this topic. The article began by reporting that "President Bush has quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office," and that article almost single-handedly forced the issue of signing statements and the lawlessness they signify (in the hands of the Bush administration) to the public fore.

Several other articles by Savage throughout 2006 -- when so few journalists even recognized the breadth of the administration's radical executive power theories -- were superb examples of adversarial journalism, including this article (detailing Dick Cheney's decades-long quest for an imperial presidency) and this one (the first article to report that "when President Bush last week signed the bill outlawing the torture of detainees, he quietly reserved the right to bypass the law under his powers as commander in chief").

As Media Matters documented back in May, Savage's reporting was ignored almost completely by his more celebrated colleagues in political journalism. In mid-2006, Savage's articles finally prompted Senate Democrats to complain vocally about Bush's signing statements. That, in turn, led to hearings being held on that topic by the Senate Judiciary Committee, and -- thanks almost exclusively to Savage's reporting -- the President's unprecedented use of "signing statements" as yet another lawbreaking weapon has now become a well-known item on the long list of abuses demonstrating the Bush administration's contempt for the rule of law.

I first learned about Savage's winning of a Pulitzer Prize today in the midst of working on a post about this item from The Politico by Ben Smith -- entitled "The Hair is Still Perfect" -- which "reports" that "John Edwards' campaign for president spent $400 on February 20, and another $400 on March 7, at a top Beverly Hills men's stylist, Torrenueva Hair Designs." The Politico goes on to note that Barack Obama "gets his cut cheap and frequent" and then links to the You Tube clip played endlessly by right-wing tough guys of John Edwards brushing his hair. Needless to say, Drudge quickly linked to the Edwards Hair report.

Both incidents, set next to one another, reminded me of the e-mail sent to me recently by Politico Editor-in-Chief John Harris, in which he boasted in the most pompous and condescending tone possible:

In its eight weeks, has made news with many stories, and attracted a lot of public notice. . . . Although we are a new publication, Politico has several reporters and editors who have been in this profession for two decades or more. They know that what counts is reputation over the long haul, not any individual story or any uproar du jour on the blogs. . . .

In your case, much of your criticism comes from a distinct ideological perspective. That's fine, but surely you must appreciate that not everyone acts with your degree of ideological motivation. In the case of people at Politico, our motivations are simpleb

Charlie Savage -- with whom I have had some minimal interaction -- is a rather humble and unflamboyant traditional reporter, as seemingly detached from the Beltway morass as Harris is plugged in, who understands the basic role and function of journalism and fulfills that role admirably and with great effect. When our nation's media stars were sitting around laughing at how much political danger there would be for Democrats if they dared to stop The Leader from listening in when Osama calls, Savage was reporting on the extraordinary and radical efforts by our government to formalize the power to break the law.

That is real political journalism -- which, it is worth remembering, is still performed in this country in isolated and noble instances. And in those cases where one finds real journalism, it is difficult to avoid wondering how much better off our country would be if our press corps were not so dysfunctional, corrupt, vapid, and barren.

UPDATE: Savage's reaction to the news that he won a Pulitzer is now included in the AP report linked above:

"This is a great honor, and I view it as a great moment not just for myself but for the Globe as an institution," Savage told The Associated Press. "The Globe for a while was throwing it out on the front page when a lot of people were ignoring it, and that took a lot of courage."

It is certainly true that national journalists were almost uniformly ignoring Savage's work. But by stark (and now-familiar) contrast -- and as Savage himself recognized -- large numbers of bloggers immediately recognized the significance of those reports and wrote about them extensively.

UPDATE II: The Boston Globe's article on Savage's prize contains this quote:

"What Charlie does and the reason he won this richly deserved Pulitzer is because he covered what the White House does, not just what it says," Globe Editor Martin Baron told his staff as they hoisted champagne and cheered Savage this afternoon in the newsroom.

Previously, reporting on "what the government does, not just what it says" was the basic function of political journalism. But these days, journalists who actually do that are so rare -- they stand out so conspicuously -- that they win Pulitzer Prizes for it.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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