Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Foreshadowing a Pulitzer?

Maybe, maybe not.

But the occasion for this headline is the fact that at 3 p.m. EST on Monday, this year's crop of Pulitzer Prizes will be announced. One of the finalists is reportedly the Chicago Tribune, presumably for the wonderful series the newspaper published last summer on the case of Carlos De Luna of Corpus Christi, Texas, who was executed despite what now is clear and convincing evidence of innocence.

(You can see the "unofficial" list of Pulitzer Prize finalists by going here. You can read more about the De Luna story by going here.)

But I digress.

I was inadvertently reminded that it's Pulitzer Prize season by a piece Gregory Mitchell wrote today about the Tribune's recent decision to reverse its editorial position and come out in favor of abolishing the death penalty. Mitchell is the editor of the trade publication Editor and Publisher.

He writes:

Chicago Tribune Comes Out Against Death Penalty -- And Few Protest

For several years now, the Chicago Tribune has published numerous articles-- many of them award-winning -- exposing the many faults in the administration of capital punishment in its home state and the nation. Some of them helped inspire a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois.

All the while, the paper's editorial page continued to support capital punishment. That changed 3 weeks ago with an editorial opposing the death penalty. Relatively few newspapers have gone that far and public opinion continues to back capital punishment -- although support drops when people are given the option of "life without parole."

Today, the Tribune's public editor, Timothy McNulty, reports that his paper's surprise editorial has drawn surprisingly little black from readers. Here is the 1st part of his column.

Individuals change their minds often, but a change of mind for a newspaper's editorial position, especially one that has stood since at least 1869, is far less common.

When the Tribune's editorial board came out in opposition to the death penalty three weeks ago, the newspaper might have expected a rise out of readers and politicians previously aligned with traditional thinking that favored capital punishment.

"The evidence of recent years argues that it is necessary to curb the government's power," the editorial declared, overturning its previous arguments. "It is time to abolish the death penalty."

There was barely a ripple, a few heartfelt letters to the editor, a few calls, and almost all accepting and welcoming the new attitude.

Abolition of the death penalty isn't on the political radar at the moment, and if any readers were surprised, they may have assumed the newspaper already opposed the death penalty. 8 years ago, reporters Maurice Possley, Steve Mills and Ken Armstrong began detailing the abuses, and their reporting led then-Gov. George Ryan to impose a death-penalty moratoriumin 2000. Gov. Rod Blagojevich has maintained it since.

Tribune writers continue to lead on national stories about death-penalty abuses. Cornelia Grumman, an editorial writer, won the Pulitzer Prize for her series of editorials on the injustice of the death penalty. While here and in other states the same arguments are put forward by both sides of the debate, the Tribune's editorial board looked at them afresh, but also with the overwhelming evidence that the death penalty is not applied fairly and is too open to mistakes that cost innocent lives.

(source: Greg Mitchell (gmitchell@editorandpublisher.com) is editor. He is co-author, with Robert Jay Lifton, of the book about capital punishment,"Who Owns Death?", published in 2000)

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