Pulitzer Panel:
Neill, Carter and Daniels discuss public service

 

The roles and responsibilities of media organizations in covering news and serving their communities were discussed by a trio of North Carolina publishing legends in a Pulitzer panel Sept. 5 in Elon University's McCrary Theatre. Details...

Pictured, from left, Rolfe Neill, formerly of the Charlotte Observer; Horace Carter of the Tabor City, N.C., Tribune; and Frank Daniels Jr., formerly of the Raleigh News & Observer, were led in their discussion by University of North Carolina president emeritus Dr. William Friday. The program, enjoyed by a capacity crowd of 650 faculty, students and community members, was taped for a November broadcast on UNC-TV. The opening was a four-minute informational video tribute to the panelists, produced by Communications faculty members Brad Hamm, Don Grady and Ray Johnson.

"Public service is defined by the person who is doing it," said Neill, who served as publisher of The Charlotte Observer from 1975-1988. The newspaper received a Pulitzer in 1988 for uncovering the misuse of funds by the PTL television ministry, which led to the downfall of TV evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. "One of the oldest suggestions in journalism is to 'follow the dollar,'" he said. "It really is the red thread that leads you to the truth ... (they were misappropriating) the people's dollars - dollars they had faithfully mailed to PTL."

Neill said newspapers have a duty to spotlight areas of injustice, waste and misconduct if they are to fulfill their obligation of public service, even in the face of possible lawsuits and community backlash. "You always are going to incur a certain price," he said. "sometimes at the cash register, sometimes in friendships ... If you do your work well and don't fire until you have your facts, you won't have much problem with lawsuits."

Carter risked his life in his news crusade, but he said the gains his community made from his reporting about the Ku Klux Klan's activities in Columbus County in the 1950s were worth the personal threats and alienation he suffered because of his coverage. In 1953, the Tribune was the first weekly paper in the country to win the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its hard-hitting front-page editorials about the Klan.

"It's amazing how little support we had from the community," Carter said. "Merchants were afraid they'd lose business (if they advertised with the Tribune), and the Grand Dragon came to see me twice and said they were going to put me out of business." But this small-town editor remained adamant that maintaining pressure on the Klan was the right thing to do. "I said at the time, 'This we've got to fight, because these are a vigilante people, and we can't have vigilantes running the country.'"

Solid reporting on the state legislature led to the News & Observer's Pulitzer Prize-winning series on the dangers of hog waste in eastern North Carolina in 1996, said Daniels, who was the N&O publisher from 1971-1996. Well known for his commitment to civic journalism and the rights of public access to government meetings and records, Daniels said, "State government is the story in Raleigh. You have to be there every day. You have to know all the people. It's basic reporting you do every day, and it leads to tips. So much gets done that's out of the light in government. It's up to us to cover it. The state depends on us to be the first light, the first touch, the first information. "

That coverage and a tip picked up by news veteran Pat Stith, Daniels said, led to the series on hog waste. "The laws were changed in the '80s," he said, "which changed the way hog farms were regulated" in North Carolina. Reporters from the News & Observer found that the rapid expansion of the hog industry in North Carolina, through tax breaks and favorable laws, resulted in a growing list of environmental problems the industry was slow to address.

Neill admitted that newspapers face a series of challenges, including dwindling subscription numbers. "We are unable, generally, to entice young people to buy a newspaper," he said, citing the availability of instant news on the Internet as a primary competitor. He said about 60 percent of the homes in Charlotte receive the Sunday edition of the Observer, compared with 75 percent as little as 10 years ago. Still, he said newspapers are indispensible in setting the political tone for their communities and motivating elected officials and bureaucrats.

"We're going to see North Carolina - a state that used to be one of the most homogeneous in the country - becoming a true United Nations," he said. "Newspapers have a vital role to play in helping people understand this."

 

Sidebar: The three speakers

The three North Carolina journalists on the panel each represent a newspaper that was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

Horace Carter's news stories and editorials exposing the Ku Klux Klan won a share of the 1953 prize. The citation reads "For their successful campaign against the Ku Klux Klan, waged on their own doorstep at the risk of economic loss and personal danger, culminating in the conviction of over one hundred Klansmen and an end to terrorism in their communities." Carter founded the Tribune in 1946, and is still writing many of its columns and editorials. "We're just a little drop in the bucket, a little town with 2,500 people and 4,000 circulation," he said. Yet he put his life on the line to illuminate hatred and bring it down. "We all belong to the church and the Rotary Club," he said. "Our paper is kind of like a letter from home."

The Raleigh News & Observer, led by Frank Daniels Jr., won the award in 1996 for the reporting and writing of Pat Stith, Melanie Sill and Joby Warrick on a series investigating the environmental and health risks of waste-disposal systems used in North Carolina's hog industry. He has been chairman of the American Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation, and president of the North Carolina Press Association and the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association. He served as chairman of the board of The Associated Press from 1992 until 1997. The News & Observer was owned by his family for more than 100 years. After the sale of the N&O in 1995, he stayed on briefly as the new owner, the McClatchy chain, made its transition. Also at that time, Daniels joined four other men in the purchase of The Pilot, the newspaper that serves Pinehurst, Southern Pines and the area of North Carolina's Sand Hills. He has been and is active on a number of public and/or private boards and is the current chairman of the Smithsonian Institution National Board.

The Charlotte Observer, led by its publisher Rolfe Neill, won the award in 1988 for investigating and "revealing the misuse of funds by the PTL television ministry through persistent coverage conducted in the face of a massive campaign by PTL to discredit the newspaper." Under Neill's leadership, the Observer also won the award in 1981 for its series titled "Brown Lung: A Case of Deadly Neglect." Neill began his journalism career at a weekly paper in Franklin, N.C. He left a position with the Charlotte Observer in 1961 to work with suburban papers in Miami. He later became an assistant to the publisher of the New York Daily News, then became the editor of the Philadelphia Daily News and served as vice president and director of Philadelphia Newspapers Inc. before returning to Charlotte and the leadership of the Observer; he retired from the positions of chairman and publisher in 1997. He has been and is active on a number of public and/or private boards, and is a trustee of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

 

 

 

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