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Four Brown alums win 2006 Pulitzers

Katrina, domestic eavesdropping coverage garner journalism's top prize

Brown alums played central roles in exposing two of the most significant and controversial national stories of the past year, and four were rewarded for their efforts when they were named 2006 recipients of journalism's highest honor - the Pulitzer Prize. Peter Kovacs '77, Stephanie Grace '86 and Mary Swerczek '98 shared an award for public service journalism given to New Orleans' Times-Picayune as well as a prize for breaking news reporting for coverage of Hurricane Katrina. James Risen '77 of the New York Times was awarded a Pulitzer for national reporting with Eric Lichtblau for their story on the National Security Administration's secret domestic eavesdropping program.

According to the Pulitzer Board's Web site, the stories written by Risen and Lichtblau "stirred a national debate on the boundary line between fighting terrorism and protecting civil liberty." The story prompted protests from U.S. government officials, who argued the coverage compromised the eavesdropping program and diminished the government's ability to protect the American people.

The Times initially responded to government officials' concerns by holding the wiretapping story for nearly a year before publishing it in December 2005. The decision to publish was ultimately based on further reporting that revealed significant government concern over the program's legality, Risen told The Herald.

Despite criticism stemming from the decision to publish, Risen said he believes the paper "performed a public service" by publishing the story. "That's what journalism is supposed to do."

"It's always a balancing act between civil liberties and national security," Risen said of the accusations that the disclosure endangered the country. "Our job is to publish stories (and) let the American people decide."

The Pulitzers awarded to the Times-Picayune and its staff similarly reflected an appreciation of the journalists' commitment to informing the public.

After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans last year, Grace told The Herald the newspaper "really had a watchdog function, and that's, I think, the core of what we're supposed to be doing."

Times-Picayune reporter Mary Swerczek '98 cited the "great job" the paper has done in reporting on everything from problems with Bush's claim that officials could not have prepared for the hurricane to the shortcomings of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' levees.

"It's only the press that does that - that finds out that stuff," she said. "It's so important that the newspapers keep on top of the government."

But the Times-Picayune was honored for more than its investigative reporting after the hurricane. The paper's Pulitzer for public service recognized its "heroic, multi-faceted coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, making exceptional use of the newspaper's resources to serve an inundated city even after the evacuation of the newspaper plant," according to the Pulitzer Board's Web site.

Grace said of the ordeal, "Our first obligation was to keep publishing ... to keep going and provide information."

When its plant flooded, the paper had to find some way to get information to New Orleans residents who had no other reliable source of information. "People were so hungry for news," Swerczek said. Most had no television, and thousands were displaced and trying to access reliable information about what was happening in New Orleans from places like Houston and Dallas.

The Times-Picayune was one of few reliable news sources. Many television stations made such grave factual errors they were essentially reporting fiction, according to Grace. The Times-Picayune's connection to the city and its residents transformed it into an invaluable lifeline for many. "Our people were the first to see the levee breaks," Grace said of the paper's reporters.

"The future of the city was in doubt," she said. "The newspaper kept functioning when the government didn't."

But the newspaper was functioning in the same city others were fleeing. "It was chaos," Grace said.

Much of the paper's staff stayed in New Orleans until rising waters forced them to evacuate in delivery trucks. Production relocated to Baton Rouge, where the paper had to operate without everything from printing presses to payroll. Even food was difficult to find. "Half of us would go interview people, and half of us would try to find pizza," Grace said.

Managing Editor Peter Kovacs '77, who was recently named chairman of The Herald's board of directors, orchestrated the evacuation from New Orleans and the relocation to Baton Rouge. "We had to re-invent every system we had for everything we ever did while reporting on the biggest story of our collective lives," he said.

At the same time, the staff had to patch their personal lives back together. Some were overwhelmed by the stress of not knowing whether their homes or their children's schools were still standing, Kovacs said.

"Personally and professionally I think it was the most challenging thing I've ever done," Kovacs said.

But Internet access made a huge difference, he said. By publishing news in blog form on the Internet, the paper communicated information to displaced readers around the country desperate for news about their city. Soon Americans across the country were visiting the Times-Picayune site, and, Kovacs said, "We were able to be the tellers of the story to the rest of the country."

Though the chaos subsided in the aftermath of the storm, the paper's obligation to report new dimensions of the Katrina story to its readership continued. As a devastated New Orleans struggled to get back on its feet, the amount of aid money flowing in provided an "invitation to corruption," he said. The amount misallocated due to corruption is far surpassed by the amount squandered on poorly run programs, Kovacs said. Still, most of the aid money "hits the target," he added.

"It's important for us to be on top of (the distribution of aid money) and to be the leading investigators," he said. But he acknowledged the challenges facing journalists willing to fulfill the role of public watchdog.

"Doing investigative journalism is about being able to stand the heat in the kitchen - it's not for the faint of heart," Kovacs said.

Risen's Pulitzer-winning experience also put him in difficult and controversial territory, but he said it was worth it.

The press is far from exempt from the scrutiny it upholds as its own mission, Kovacs said. Criticism, he added, whether from government officials or citizens with patriotic intentions, is just part of the process.

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