Peter Applebome, a reporter and editor whose journalism career spanned 40 years, was honored April 16 with the DeWitt Wallace Center’s Futrell Award for Outstanding Achievement in Communications and Journalism.
Below are Applebome’s full remarks from the awards ceremony:
Many thanks to Duke and the DeWitt Wallace Center for this award and to all of you who came out tonight. I’m here to announce that I’m following my dream to the NBA and… wait. No. That’s the wrong speech. I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking. Actually, I’m here to announce that Michael Cohen is also my lawyer. No, that’s the wrong speech, too. Sean Hannity. There are no words.
You know, any deadline worth having is one worth being driven crazy by, and I had to figure out how long I wanted to go on for and how much time I wanted to leave for questions. And, to be honest, this moment feels so big and messy and beyond belief, so rather than try to solve all the world’s problems, I’ve opted for a little less hot air from me and a little more opportunity for questions or discussion. You’re on notice.
So, for starters, big congratulations to Andrew, Julia, Sam, Riley and Aaron for their great work and bright futures.
And second, I’d like to thank the Futrell family, particularly Brownie and Susan, for their generosity and for the inspiration and guidance their work provides. At a time when journalists are desperately trying to reconnect with their communities, theirs is a remarkable story.
As many of you know, the Futrells are the former owners of the Washington Daily News in Beaufort County, North Carolina. In April 1990, their paper became the smallest daily newspaper ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. What they did was truly remarkable.
With no electronic databases and no Google, and with a staff of four reporters and a circulation of 8,736 in a small town where you had to depend on the goodwill of local advertisers to survive, they exposed that the city government for eight years had hidden from the public the fact that the local drinking water supplies were badly contaminated by a carcinogen.
The mayor tried to get state environmental officials to stop releasing public information about water test results to the Daily News. They refused. Within a matter of days, the town’s drinking water was finally declared unsafe. Water was trucked in by the Marines, and the city eventually cleaned up its water system. And more importantly, the laws changed, too. In 1989, communities of less than 10,000 persons were required to test their water, like larger communities. But they weren’t required to notify their residents or to fix the problem. After the reporting in Washington, the laws changed to protect small communities as well as larger ones.
“If people can’t see themselves and people like them in what passes for the news, why should they believe it? Why shouldn’t they believe it’s fake?”
Almost every part of this story feels remarkably relevant. Local journalism, as the world knows, is dwindling in America by the day. Total weekday circulation for U.S. daily newspapers – both print and digital – fell 8 percent in 2016, marking the 28th consecutive year of declines. Total weekday circulation for U.S. daily newspapers fell to 35 million, the lowest levels since 1945. In 1990, about 455,000 people worked at daily and weekly newspapers. By January 2016, it was down to 173,000.
The paper’s reporting broke through because state environmental figures publicized and stuck by the truth. Would that happen in North Carolina today? Or two years ago? Who knows. It had a nationwide impact because the EPA changed its regulations to protect the public. Would they today? I wouldn’t bet on it. And how many local newspapers have the guts and knowhow to do what the Daily News did? Not many then. Many fewer today.
So before we go further, a round of applause for the Futrells and their legacy.
As a friend and fan of so many of the previous Futrell winners, it means a lot to receive this and to see so many people who have been friends for years or decades. And thanks again for your presence here. You never know how these things will work out. When I wrote my first book, Dixie Rising, in 1996, one of my most memorable book tour events was at Duke. I had a very nice afternoon session with maybe 40 or so student leaders and, I think, history students, which was great. And then at night I was booked into… Page Auditorium. If I were a little sharper, it might have occurred to me that maybe the 40 or so at the afternoon meeting was about my ceiling, and Page did seem like an aspirational venue for a not-famous reporter who had written his first book. But, hey, whoever planned this must have known what they were doing, so I showed up. And looked around. And realized almost no one else had. Try to imagine what it’s like to stand on the stage at Page and look out at a vast sea of, oh, seven or eight people. Luckily one was my friend, John Shelton Reed, the great sociologist from UNC, and he had the presence of mind to suggest we find a small room to gather in, so we did and had a lovely discussion for an hour. Writing a book – writing anything – is a good way both to both inflate your ego and to realize how easy it is to deflate it with a pin prick. If you’re a book author and you’ve never been humiliated – well, you’ve never been a book author. Anyway, I can’t remember, did I thank you all for showing up?
And this also means a lot because, for whatever it’s worth, Duke absolutely led me on the murky path that became my life’s work. It’s a worthy but often unsatisfying effort to ask people how they ended up where they did – how they became a doctor, truck driver, undertaker or opera singer. But more often than not you get a lot of vague and indistinct impressions. But I know when I became a journalist, even if I didn’t quite know it at the time. And it was covering first the Duke Vigil, 50 years ago, a remarkable event that was commemorated and dissected over the past weekend, and then the subsequent unrest that seemed to happen every spring, including the Allen Building takeover in 1969.
But both in the vigil and the next spring it was beyond thrilling to be in the middle of events that were convulsing your world and those of everyone around you and to work with others to report it, make sense of it, figure out what it meant and what it didn’t. Try to imagine being 18 years old in 1968 and trying to make sense of the King assassination and of 1,500 Duke students — in a place only a few years removed from segregation — sitting silently on the quad 24 hours a day for four days, trying to push Duke into a new era.
I’m no biblical scholar but I can still remember the passage from Corinthians that began the analysis piece I wrote that took up the whole back page of the special edition we did on the Vigil: “Lo I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep. But we shall all be changed in a moment. In the twinkling of an eye.” Bill, are we allowed to fact-check the Bible? I’m not sure if the world changed in a moment – some of the issues Duke faced then, it seems to face today — but it did feel that way.
Duke back then didn’t have so much as a journalism course, but it did have The Chronicle, in all its messy, decadent glory. Visiting the third floor of Flowers, it still looks pretty messy and decadent. Very little in my education was more important to me than the camaraderie and stimulation of my Chronicle friends like Clay Steinman, Tom Campbell, Bob Ashley and Ann Pelham who are here, even if, to tell the truth, I was something of a screw-up and probably not on anyone’s list of the Chroniclers most likely to do this for a living. Man, some of it was AWFUL. I know I’m further dating myself here, but I cringe when I think back on a tone-deaf, utterly heartless meditation on Jimi Hendrix’s death (my position was more or less better to burn out than to fade away – easy for me to say). I remember with dread a review of a play by Beckett – or was it Pinter? – I knew absolutely nothing about or the really dumb Face to Face columns I wrote with the late Richard Smurthwaite that consisted of us, as Appleface and Smurthface, to the best of my memory, interviewing each other about interviewing each other or something equally profound. But I also still remember working on the third floor of Flowers until dawn on that analysis piece about the Vigil, feeling that giddy blend of exhaustion and exhilaration as the sun came up and you felt you were actually getting where you wanted to go or the incredibly kind note I got from a faculty member I didn’t know, who said my column comparing the Allen Building takeover to the Theater of the Absurd made him proud to teach at Duke. That meant so much in making me think I could actually do this.
And the essence of the illumination was very simple: Listen to people tell their stories, whether it was the housekeepers we took for granted who, when I was a freshman, made our beds every day for about a dollar an hour, or what life at Duke was like for the handful of black kids making their way at an all-white institution or the white working-class world of Durham just beyond our Gothic Bubble that could have been halfway across the state. I’ve been incredibly lucky to do that for a living. First at the late great Ypsilanti Press in a blue-collar sliver of America where I got my first job, and then at the Corpus Christi Caller, which seemed like the least likely place I’d ever spend much of my life, and then at the Dallas Morning News, and then with some of the best journalists who’ve ever lived at Texas Monthly Magazine or The New York Times.
I’d like to thank Daniela Flamini for the nice and accurate piece she wrote for the DeWitt Wallace Center website. And I’d like to expound a little on it. Because I think the connection between hard-nosed reporting and vivid storytelling and on-the-ground reporting has never been more important. As every one of you knows, this is a really hard time for journalism, for democracy and for the country. I had an extended nervous breakdown last year about whether to take the Times’ buyout. On the one hand, it made economic sense for me. On the other, it seemed and seems like an insane time to get off the field, or at least until I decide on a Plan B to get back on. There’s the decimation of advertising and the economic model that supported journalism for most of the last century. There’s President Trump’s attempt to delegitimize journalism and the degree to which authoritarians around the world have adopted the label of “fake news” as a way to rebrand real news as fake and fake news as real. There’s the tribal nature of the country and the media in which increasingly we get news only from our favored ideological silo. There’s the carnival fun house nature of the internet, in which it’s hard for even discerning readers – which most readers are not – to tell what’s legitimate reporting and what’s not. Kudos to Bill Adair for being well ahead of the game in taking on the idea of fact-checking and truth squad-ing reporting and public statements. There’s the insane, exhausting pace of modern digital journalism in which institutions like The Times have to be all in on every big story. You’re judged, in part, on whether you or the Post or HuffPost got its alert up first, and everyone is at the mercy of pageviews and clicks. There’s the decimation of local journalism and reporting at statehouses and courthouses all around the country. There’s the consolidation of media in the hands of corporations like Sinclair Broadcasting.
And one casualty of that is the bond between journalists and their audience, the notion of a shared culture. There are lots of ways to do journalism and at their best they complement each other. I’m in awe of the great investigative reporters like Eric Lipton, David Barstow, Walt Bogdanich or Mike Schmidt at The Times or David Farenthold and so many others at the Post or locally, Joe Neff, who recently went from the N&O to the Marshall Project. We need them more than ever. But we also need narrative storytellers who can dig deep to tell stories that help us understand how we live, who we are as a people, what’s driving the cultural devolution we see around us. I must confess I waste too many nights watching CNN and MSNBC. There are lots of smart, accomplished people there, but it’s all disembodied talking heads explaining, arguing and orating, usually from Washington and New York almost entirely about one story – Trump and Russia and the long tail of Mueller’s investigation. There’s no better way to make sure people are alienated from the media than to reduce what we do to bloviating from New York and Washington. If people can’t see themselves and people like them in what passes for the news, why should they believe it? Why shouldn’t they believe it’s fake?
Some of you probably know Bill Ivey, who was head of the County Music Foundation in Nashville, then head of the National Endowment for the Arts, and then founded the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy, at Vanderbilt University. He has a book coming out called “Rebuilding An Enlightened World: Folklorizing America.” It’s in part a pushback to the upbeat worldview popularized in particular by Stephen Pinker that if we tune out the daily news, human civilization remains on an upward trajectory of peace, freedom and expanding tolerance. Ivey, like others looking at the way democratic values are under assault all around the globe, takes a much darker view that, in fact, the tenets of the Enlightenment, a belief in rationality and scientific analysis that have provided the underpinnings of Western assumed wisdom for the past 300 years are under assault around the globe. He writes:
“We have lived as though the official vocabulary of modern society and government — reason, science, law — frame all understanding, shape all behavior. But if our real life of culture and community is in a sense, ‘off the books,’ in a space of oral tradition beyond the hegemony of official rules, formal learning and scientific evidence – we must step back and consider the way we see ourselves, understand other people, assess motives and engage alternate realities.”
“I don’t think there’s any substitute both for the nitty gritty of local reporting at a smallish newspaper or, more importantly these days, the immersion in places on the outside looking in at American prosperity.”
Ivey’s field is folklore, and since we all use the hammer we have on hand for the nails we confront, he sees folklore — “the hidden submerged culture lying in the shadow of official civilization” — as the lens for making sense of where we are. That sounds a lot like reporting to me. And since that’s my hammer, I think one of the great tasks we face is to relearn how to listen, inhabit hidden spaces, tell people’s stories, help us knit back together at least some of the social fabric that’s so frayed now.
That said, it’s being done sometimes spectacularly, particularly by The Times and Post. One example that got a lot of attention was the 7,000-word profile and then the podcast on The Daily that Farrah Stockman of The Times did of Shannon Mulcahy, a 43-year old worker at a steel bearing plant in Indianapolis. Campbell Robertson a few weeks back did a remarkable, heartbreaking story on blacks leaving integrated evangelical churches because of our toxic political divide. I loved a story Sheryl Stolberg did during the election on black working class voters in Philadelphia with many of the same frustrations as Trump voters. Stephanie McCrummen of the Washington Post won a richly deserved Pulitzer today for her reporting on Judge Roy Moore in Alabama. She didn’t begin it by digging through records or court files. She did it by going to Alabama and talking to people until she began hearing enough about Moore and young girls that she began to think there was something there, so she dug deeper and deeper. She listened. And she learned.
And it’s certainly not just The Times and the Post. There’s Between Coasts, an online magazine offering showcase “for stories from the Flyover.” It’s being done increasingly at podcasts and radio shows like Radiolab or This American Life. There’s the fledgling Report for America, which has the goal of training 1,000 journalists and installing them in understaffed newsrooms by 2022.
I have no idea if Report for America will work or how much of this reporting really breaks through. Maybe it does, or maybe we’re now trapped in this endless loop of outrage and counter-outrage, the shouting on Fox versus the shouting on MSNBC, the endless loop on your Twitter feed, those news alerts that keep pinging on your phone. I’d say one of the limitations we face, even at a place with such remarkable resources as The Times, is just the endless, relentless torrent of news and the insatiable appetite the web has for the next viral moment. So at the Times National Desk in the second half of last year, we went from Charlottesville, to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, to the Las Vegas shooting, to the California wildfires, to the Texas church shooting, to more California wildfires, to Roy Moore, all against the endless din of Trump, Trump, Trump. It was exhausting. Each day’s news blotted out the sun. It made us feel like we were living in the fog of war in which it was hard for stories off the news to get the attention they deserved. If an Eli Saslow or Dan Barry piece falls in the forest, but no one reads it, has it made a sound? I don’t know.
But along with analytics, along with data, along with fact-checks, along with pageviews, SEO, optimized URLs and headlines with the right keywords for search, we really need to recommit to on-the-ground, empathic, deeply reported stories that connect with and to real people. Because if we don’t do that, we’re just disembodied talking points to be used by one side or the other side.
Two final thoughts for the students and prospective journalists here.
1. Not to go full bore “old fart” on you, but I got my first job at the aforementioned Ypsilanti Press in a blue-collar town between Ann Arbor and Detroit that’s ridden the ups and downs of the auto industry ever since. It’s not a glamorous place. It’s known mostly for being the home of Eastern Michigan University, a spectacularly phallic water tower in the middle of town and as the setting for a classic psychology text, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, about three inmates at the long-since-closed psychiatric hospital who all thought they were Jesus. It was full of people from Kentucky who had moved north looking for factory jobs to the point it was known as Ypsitucky. The music was country. The votes were Democratic, but the culture was conservative. It’s the kind of place that moved right just enough to help elect Trump. I covered local politics and labor relations and piddly local elections in neighboring towns like Milan, Belleville and Saline. I won my first journalism award reporting on the scene at a blue-collar bar that began the night with everyone watching the Detroit Wheels of the World Football League and ended with us watching Richard Nixon resign from the Presidency. It was the real world, and I’m glad I worked there.
The career path in journalism used to begin in places like Ypsilanti or Rochester or Corpus Christi or Fresno. Now every prospective journalist I meet seems to be looking for something in New York, Washington, Boston or San Francisco. I’m not an absolutist. I certainly get the appeal of being in a cool place in the center of the universe where all your friends are. And if you can get a job in New York at the Journal or Bloomberg or HuffPost, the kind of places where young Dukies seem to land with impressive regularity, more power to you. But I don’t think there’s any substitute both for the nitty gritty of local reporting at a smallish newspaper or, more importantly these days, the immersion in places on the outside looking in at American prosperity. I don’t think it’s an accident that journalists are being slammed for not capturing the places between the coasts and off the interstates at a time increasingly they choose not to work there.
2. One day at my second job, I was walking on the beach in Corpus Christi, Texas, looking for sharks. There had been an infestation of sharks along the coast, and – this was back when there were slow news weeks – it had become a national story. All of a sudden, instead of a shark in the water, I saw a bear walking along the beach. The bear was wearing a safari jacket packed with pens and notepads and those old Kodak film canisters. And upon closer scrutiny, it turned out that it wasn’t a bear at all, but a fierce, bearded, scary-looking character named John Crewdson who was an NYT corresponding in Houston, who later won a Pulitzer for reporting on the border. I began doing some stringing for him and then much more after I moved to Dallas. After a long circuitous courtship, that led me to a job and career at The Times. I could not have asked for a more challenging, energizing, stimulating or satisfying one. Everyone’s career is a mixture of luck and timing and talent and happenstance, and I’m incredibly lucky my encounter with Crewdson let me to a 31-year run at The Times.
In the last decade I’ve taught journalism three times, once at Princeton and twice at Vanderbilt. Each class was a delight, but after getting my students excited about on-the-ground reporting and perhaps a career in journalism, I had to end the class on a realistic note: Do you really want to do this? And if I had to answer that question today, I wouldn’t say yes. I’d say, “Hell, yes.” It’s harder to make a living than it once was. Your chances of working for 31 years at The Times and being able to send your kids to Duke? Ehhh, probably not as good. I get that. But there are more and more interesting ways to do this than there ever have been – podcasts, blogs, online startups, video, fact-checks, whiz-bang graphics, data journalism, nonprofit sites like the Texas Tribune or the Connecticut Mirror. There are more ways to experiment with and reinvent voice and storytelling than ever before – Vox, Axios, Vice, The Bitter Southerner, FiveThirtyEight, the Grist as well as the Times, the Post and the Journal.
And journalism has never been as important as it is now. I had a wonderful gig writing my column four years ago when I had the opportunity to go back to editing as a deputy national editor. And the story that drew me back, a story that really first hit home for me in what was going on in North Carolina, is the story we all need to focus on every day – the terrifying withering of democracy in America. Weaponized gerrymanders. Voting rules that are all about voter suppression. The attempt to rig the census to undercount non-citizens and the Hispanic population. The normalization of lies and fabricated news and statistics. The attempt to undermine legitimate news operations and undermine democratic norms. It comes down to this fundamental question: Which are we more committed to — elections that are free and fair, or elections that produce partisan outcomes we prefer? Whoever came up with the name and the mission, the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy, got it just right.
Now more than ever, journalism is part of the problem – it’s embattled and under siege like never before, and it’s absolutely essential to finding the solution. There has never been a better or more important time to do this, and I’m beyond honored for this recognition of my tiny role in trying to do it right.
Scroll through the gallery below to see photos from the awards ceremony. All photos by Kevin Seifert.