Newsrooms erupted in applause across the country as the 2019 Pulitzer Prizes for journalism, letters, drama and music were announced Monday afternoon; among the winners were Herald alums Rebecca Ballhaus ’13 and Peter Kovacs ’78 P’10, who received prizes for their contributions to journalism.
In addition, Jackie Sibblies Drury MFA ’10 won the prize for drama, and Professor Emeritus of Literary Arts Forrest Gander received the Pulitzer’s poetry award.
Herald alums snag two Pulitzers for team reporting
The prize recipients were announced on Monday at the Columbia Journalism School by Pulitzer Prize administrator Dana Canedy.
Ballhaus, a reporter at the Wall Street Journal and former Managing Editor of The Herald, received the Pulitzer in National Reporting alongside other members of the Wall Street Journal’s staff. The award recognized their work revealing President Donald Trump’s payoffs to silence two women who claimed to have affairs with him and investigating other actors in those stories, including Michael Cohen. Ballhaus was waiting with other journalists in the newsroom when she first heard she had won. “Our livestream was actually a little bit delayed, so we heard the cheers ring out from the other side of the newsroom before it actually came up on our stream — we felt like it was hopefully going to be good news.”
Kovacs, the editor of The Advocate and former Editor-in-Chief of The Herald, described a similar scene from Louisiana: “I was in the New Orleans newsroom … people jumped up and down and hugged each other.”
“It’s really nice to see this kind of work rewarded,” Ballhaus said, emphasizing the importance of investigative journalism.
Both Ballhaus and Kovac’s projects were team efforts to produce powerful investigative work. Ballhaus found herself on “one of the most supportive teams I’ve ever worked with,” she said. “It was really such a privilege to be able to work with reporters who had been covering this for longer than I had and have just been doing great reporting in general for much longer.”
Under Kovacs’ leadership, the Advocate’s staff won the prize for local reporting for “a damning portrayal of the state’s discriminatory conviction system, including a Jim Crow-era law, that enabled Louisiana courts to send defendants to jail without jury consensus on the accused’s guilt,” according to the Pulitzer Prize website. The Advocate was also a finalist in the Editorial category. With Kovacs’ guidance, The Advocate has expanded to cover three markets in Southern Louisiana — New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Lafayette.
The team examined a law in Louisiana that required only ten out of twelve jury members find a defendant guilty for that person to be convicted. “What we discovered was that … the current practice dated to Jim Crow,” Kovacs said. The Advocate’s reporting began with a series called “Tilting the Scales,” which found that this jury law “essentially eliminate(s) the voices of dissenting jurors.” In their investigation, The Advocate team reviewed 3000 cases from every courthouse in Louisiana — “Louisiana is a big state, unlike Rhode Island,” Kovacs said. The Advocate’s reporting educated legislators and the public, who then voted to amend the Louisiana constitution to end the non-unanimous juror practice in November 2018.
Both Kovacs and Ballhaus cited the The Herald as the launchpad to their journalistic careers.
“I think about (my time at The Herald) all the time … It was what first taught me how a newspaper works, what good reporting is and how to be part of a team,” Ballhaus said. “I really miss The Herald and I think it’s doing great things now.”
“You learn a lot running something like (The Herald) when you’re 21 years old,” Kovacs said, adding that his time at The Herald taught him about budget management, collaboration between writers and working with the local community. “All that was very valuable … That’s essentially what I do now.”
“I don’t think journalism is dead like people want to think it is” Kovacs said. And to student journalists, he said: “If you believe that you can do this, you should pursue it. You’re never going to believe in yourself more than you believe in yourself (now).”
Professor Emeritus wins prize for elegies to late wife
Professor Emeritus Forrest Gander won the Pulitzer in Poetry for his book “Be With,” a series of elegies that grapple with his grief over the sudden death of his wife, poet C.D. Wright. The book’s title is a phrase that comes from the dedication to Gander in Wright’s posthumously published “ShallCross,” according to the New Yorker. Wright was a professor of literary arts at the University from 1983 until her death, and a lecture series is now held each fall in her name. Young poets and writers had come to the University seeking their guidance and mentorship over the last thirty years.
“Every memory you have is connected to someone else, and every book that defines you is something that you talked about and shared with someone else, so when that person is gone, it’s like the world just retreats from you,” Gander said in an interview with Poetry Northwest.
MFA alum awarded Drama prize for off-Broadway script
Jackie Sibblies Drury MFA ’10 came to the University to earn a masters in playwriting after completing her bachelor’s degree at Yale. On Monday, her play “Fairview” won the Pulitzer prize for drama.
Fairview’s plot follows an African American family preparing for a birthday dinner. But underneath the storyline, her script comments on race, privilege and judgement in America.
“The characters in Jackie Sibblies Drury’s outstanding, frustrating, hilarious, and sui generis new play (directed with dynamism by Sarah Benson, at the Soho Rep), perform, for the most part, behind a one-way mirror,” wrote New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als in July 2018.
“You begin watching by feeling mildly amused, then uneasy, then annoyed, then unsettled,” Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times.
In 2013, Drury cited Rhode Island and classes at the University as influences in an interview with Brown Alumni Magazine.
Fairview, which premiered off-Broadway at Soho Rep last year and played at Berkeley Rep immediately after, will return to the stage in June at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, according to Playbill.