In the field of print and online journalism, there is no higher honor than the Pulitzer Prize. Originally conceived to honor journalism exclusively when it was founded by former newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, honors are now awarded in 22 categories, including the arts, literature, biography, history and photography.
On Tuesday, Anna Wolfe of the online news outlet Mississippi Today, became Mississippi’s seventh Pulitzer Prize winner for journalism in the award’s 106-year history.
At 28, Wolfe is the youngest Mississippi winner and second Mississippi woman to win the honor.
Hodding Carter II, editor of The Delta Democrat Times of Greenville, won the first Mississippi Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism for his moving editorials on the subjects of racial, religious and economic injustice in 1946, followed by the Vicksburg Post-Herald in 1954 for coverage of a devastating tornado and Ira B. Harkey, editor of the Pascagoula Chronicle, in 1963 for his editorials on Mississippi’s school integration crisis. The following year, Hazel Brannon Smith, editor and publisher of The Lexington Advertiser, became the first woman to win the Pulitzer for editorial writing for her pieces supporting the Civil Rights movement. The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson was awarded the 1983 Pulitzer for its advocacy of Gov. William Winter’s legislative campaign for public education reform, followed by The Sun Herald of Biloxi/Gulfport in 2006 for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Monday, Wolfe joined that esteemed group of journalists.
The common thread among the winners is the ability to expertly capture an important event under difficult circumstances – Post-Herald and Sun Herald won for their coverage of natural disasters – or expertly report or comment on issues that have a profound impact in our communities, often in the face of bitter criticism, threats of violence and actual violence. Two of Brannon Smith’s newspapers were dynamited and a cross burned on her lawn, for example.
Likewise, Wolfe’s reporting has also drawn criticism from powerful people close to the administration of former governor Phil Bryant, including state auditor Shad White, whose audit first uncovered the scandal and initially presented Bryant, who had appointed White to the auditor position, as the hero of the story.
Wolfe’s reporting exposed the depth of a sprawling $77 million welfare scandal, the largest embezzlement of federal funds in state history. Her reporting revealed for the first time how Bryant used his office to steer the spending of millions of federal welfare dollars — money intended to help the state’s poorest residents — to benefit his family and friends, including NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre, along with former pro wrestler Ted DiBiase Jr., college football legend Marcus Dupree and fitness trainer Paul LaCoste, personal trainer of current governor Tate Reeves.
Newspapers are naturally competitive, but when the Pulitzer Prize is awarded to a Mississippi journalist or newspaper, it evokes a sense of shared pride because it is a reflection of the mission we all share – to inform, enlighten and empower the community by revealing truth.
Government entities are often only as accountable and transparent as the local newspaper, through its diligent reporting, compels them to be. The average citizen lacks the time, training and perseverance to achieve that. Thus, there is no more important role for a newspaper.
We celebrate Wolfe’s Pulitzer Prize in the certain knowledge that a similar commitment is carried out daily by newspaper journalists throughout the state. Most will never enjoy the kind of acclaim that comes with a Pulitzer Prize. And not all stories will have the scope and impact of Wolfe’s. But the vast majority of local Mississippi journalists are guided by the same principles that likely guided Wolfe.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.
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