First things first: congratulations to Globe reporter Charlie Savage on a much-deserved Pulitzer Prize. On Monday, the 31-year-old Savage won in the national-reporting category; he was honored for exposing President George W. Bush’s unprecedentedly frequent and expansive use of presidential signing statements, which effectively assert Bush’s right to ignore new laws — like the 2005 torture ban — that he’d rather not follow.
Every reporter dreams of seeing their work make a tangible difference on an issue of import, and Savage certainly accomplished that. Last year, for example, Savage’s stories led Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), then the Senate Judiciary Committee chair, to file legislation that would limit the use of signing statements, and to hold hearings on the subject. His reportage also prompted a public rebuke from the American Bar Association. No wonder Bush’s use of signing statements has come to symbolize his administration’s contempt for any sort of oversight. (Savage’s book on this subject — Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy — is slated for September publication by Little, Brown and Company.)
All that said, Savage’s Pulitzer win also brings up some bigger issues that merit discussion. Anyone who follows the newspaper industry knows that dailies across the US are scaling back their institutional ambitions, and anyone who follows the Globe knows that it’s very much a part of this trend: while the Washington, DC, bureau (where Savage is based) remains intact for now, the paper closed down its foreign bureaus earlier this year.
Some media observers take a sanguine view of these developments. Here’s how Jeff Jarvis, director of the interactive-journalism program at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism and author of the BuzzMachine blog, put it in a 2005 post arguing that newspapers should focus exclusively on local coverage:
How about national and international news? Well, that’s a commodity. People already know it from the internet and cable news and sending the 15,001st reporter to the political conventions instead of just picking up wire stories really doesn’t add much or justify the expense or ego involved. So let the AP give you an already-edited digest of national and international news, if you want. Or if you’re Gannett, produce it all on one desk in Washington. Then get rid of the wire desks and save more money.
Savage’s win highlights the poverty of such reasoning. Plenty of national-news organizations (the Times, the Post, Newsweek, CNN, etc.) could have broken the signing-statement story. None of them did — and if not for the Globe, it might never have been reported. Excellent regional papers like the Globe might benefit financially by reducing their own sense of mission. But the journalistic implications of such reductions shouldn’t be sugarcoated.
“It’s really important for our society that we maintain a diversity of newsgathering thought in Washington,” Savage tells the Phoenix. “Sometimes, it takes a bit of an outsider perspective to recognize that something that’s been going on in the past is worth talking about. And I hope that as the industry contracts, and we go through this painful transitional period, we come out on the other side with regional papers having their Washington newsgathering operations intact.”