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When approximately 1,300 students began fall classes at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, most were well aware that they have access to some of the best journalism faculty in the country.
What they might not know, however, is that the Cronkite faculty includes five Pulitzer Prize winners. They range from the former executive editor of The Washington Post to the former head of The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team, memorialized in the movie by that name.
“Having these extraordinarily talented professors on our faculty is a tremendous asset for our students,” said Christopher Callahan, dean of the Cronkite School. “Every day, they roll up their sleeves and work side-by-side with our students, teaching, guiding and inspiring them to create impactful journalism.”
ASU Now spoke to all five Pulitzer winners about their careers and what led them to journalism’s top prize and then to the Cronkite School.
Sarah Cohen became Cronkite’s most recent Pulitzer Prize-winning faculty member when she joined the school last October as the Knight Chair in Data Journalism.
While she might be the new Pulitzer winner on the block, she is not new to the practice of journalism. Cohen enjoyed a 25-year career in news, most recently leading a group of New York Times reporters who focused on data- and document-driven investigations. Prior to the Times, she was database editor at The Washington Post. She also served as the first Knight Chair in computational journalism at Duke University and is the immediate past president of Investigative Reporters and Editors, a 5,000-member training organization for journalists.
In her new role, Cohen teaches graduate and undergraduate data journalism classes at Cronkite and assists with data-driven projects in other programs, such as Cronkite News, the news division of Arizona PBS.
The move to the western U.S. has been pleasantly surprising.
"It's been a treat to leave the East Coast for the first time in my life," Cohen said. "There's a different sense of what's important outside the East Coast corridor."
Making the transition easier is the fact that she’s working with several former colleagues, including fellow Pulitzer Prize winner Leonard Downie Jr., who hired her at The Washington Post and worked with her from 1999 to 2009.
While at the Post, Cohen shared in the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 2002 for a project that exposed the failures of the District of Columbia’s child protective services to prevent 229 deaths. The series, "The District's Lost Children," also won the grand prize in the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award. Five years later, she was a Pulitzer finalist for public service for a series that uncovered waste and duplication in federal farm-subsidy programs.
Students are now Cohen's main focus, and she wants to teach them the skills that made her a standout journalist and editor.
"It's exciting to teach the fundamentals of investigative journalism to a new generation," Cohen said. "It will help keep the powerful accountable for another generation."
It would be hard to find a more decorated journalist than Leonard Downie Jr., the Weil Family Professor of Journalism at the Cronkite School. During his 17 years as executive editor of The Washington Post, the newspaper won 25 Pulitzer Prizes, including three Gold Medals for public service.
Downie started as an intern at the Post in 1964 and went on to report on local courts, law enforcement and mortgage fraud. He later served as the paper’s London correspondent and as deputy metro editor during the Watergate scandal. He became managing editor in 1984 under then-executive editor Ben Bradlee, eventually succeeding Bradlee as executive editor.
During his time at the paper, Downie presided over coverage of major stories that ranged from the Pentagon Papers and the Senate Watergate hearings to the impeachment proceedings against former President Bill Clinton and the Iraq War.
Downie made his first mark at the paper just two years into the job. In 1966, he was nominated for a Pulitzer for a seven-part series on corruption and dysfunction in Washington, D.C., courts, which led to an overhaul of the system.
“The reaction to the series was swift, and legislation through Congress abolished the court,” Downie said. “That experience showed to me the power of accountability journalism.”
Accountability journalism is what Downie preaches and teaches to his students today, and it’s also the name of his signature class. He defines the term as “holding accountable everybody in society who has power and influence over others.”
Downie disputes the notion that he headed newspapers at a time when journalism was at its peak.
“It was a golden era in that it was a privileged time, which is to say there was no internet and there was a monopoly of news by newspapers and the three broadcast networks,” he said. “Today’s journalism is just as strong, and there’s more investigative journalism going on than ever before.”
Downie began teaching at Cronkite after retiring from the Post in 2009. In addition to his Accountability Journalism course, he leads a seminar for students around the country who participate in the national News21 investigative reporting program. He also mentors students pursuing investigative work in Cronkite News and is a featured speaker at several school events each semester.
Each incoming class of Cronkite students gets their first exposure to Downie in a Principles and History of Journalism class, during which Downie describes coverage of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers with the kind of detail only possible from having been there.
Outside class, Downie monitors the progress of many of the students he has come into contact with, offering career advice and job recommendations.
“Seeing them develop is very, very rewarding,” he said.
Cronkite faculty member Steve Doig attributes his career to a high school football injury and a stint in the Army.
“I really owe my career to the service,” he said. “My first few years of college were spotty, and I was sort of adrift. The Army gave me strong direction and ultimately my career, which I didn’t know or want before. I’m the perfect example of someone who discovered journalism later in life.”
Doig said he was recruited to play football at Dartmouth College, but he tore his right thigh muscle, ending his sports days and leaving him feeling rudderless. He dropped out of college and promptly was drafted by the U.S. Army. After a 10-week crash course at the Defense Information School in Indianapolis, he became a combat correspondent during the Vietnam War. His work earned him a Bronze Star.
After being discharged, Doig returned to Dartmouth to finish his studies and decided to make journalism a career. He spent 19 years at the Miami Herald, serving as a research editor, pollster, science editor, columnist, federal courts reporter, state capital bureau chief, education reporter and aviation writer. In 1993 he shared a Pulitzer Prize for public service for a newspaper series, “What Went Wrong” in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew. The series exposed how weakened building codes and poor construction patterns contributed to the extent of the disaster, Doig said.
“This was one of those, ‘Don’t get mad, get even’ stories,” said Doig, whose own house was severely damaged. “It ended all the finger pointing and made everyone start looking at solutions." As a result of the story, Doig said building codes in the area were strengthened so they could brace for natural disasters in the future.
Doig said his “superpower” as a journalist was “dealing with numbers and data.” He became one of the country’s foremost data journalists and an early advocate of computer-assisted reporting.
These days, Doig’s superpower is teaching data journalism online, which he does from his new home in Seattle. He said he finds teaching online surprisingly personal. “You can get to know students very well through online,” he said. “I’m still able to pass on the tools and techniques of what I’ve learned over the years.”
His Pulitzer is not something he often brings up with his students — or anyone else, for that matter.
“The Pulitzer in some cases is happenstance. If Hurricane Andrew didn’t hit, we wouldn’t have won,” he said. “But it’s like my son said, ‘Once you become a Pulitzer, you know what the first line of your obituary will be.’”
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jacquee Petchel got her start as a reporter for The State Press, ASU’s student newspaper. After graduating from the Cronkite School, she spent six years as a reporter for The Arizona Republic before moving to the Miami Herald, where she began to do investigative work.
Petchel was part of the team that won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize Gold Medal for public service for the post-Hurricane Andrew investigation to which Doig also contributed. Later she was a member of the team that received the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news for coverage of the federal raid that removed 6-year-old Elián González from his relatives’ home in Miami and returned him to his father’s custody in Cuba.
Petchel also has experience in television news. She was senior producer of investigations at WCCO-TV in Minneapolis and executive producer of investigations at WFOR-TV in Miami. Before joining the Cronkite School in 2013, she led the investigative team at the Houston Chronicle.
As executive editor of the Carnegie-Knight News 21 investigative journalism program, Petchel works with top Cronkite students and others from around the country each year to produce a major multimedia investigation into a topic of major national import. The projects, which have ranged from voting rights to hate crime, have won numerous top journalism student awards. In addition, Petchel has led two school-wide projects that resulted in documentaries on opioid and heroin addictions that have earned top professional journalism awards.
“At Cronkite we are doing our best to ensure that investigative reporting does not die, and moves forward with a new generation of journalists to tell those stories in a different variety of ways,” she said.
Returning to Cronkite after a long career as a professional journalist is “a way to give back to my alma mater because my alma mater has been so instrumental in my success,” Petchel added. “My great pleasure is to give back to students from what I learned at this very place decades ago.”
Walter V. Robinson said Michael Keaton’s character in the 2015 Academy Award-winning film “Spotlight” wasn’t loosely based on him.
“I’d say it was tightly based on me,” he said with a laugh.
During 34 years at The Boston Globe, Robinson spent seven years at the helm of the “Spotlight” team, which uncovered a decades-long cover-up of sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests. The work won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for public service.
Robinson also served as the Globe’s Middle East Bureau chief during the first Persian Gulf War and has covered four presidential elections and the White House. He is the co-author of the book “Betrayal: Crisis in the Catholic Church.”
Robinson is now the Reynolds Visiting Professor at the Cronkite School, where he teaches an investigative journalism class for graduate students and advanced undergraduates and works with reporters in Cronkite News.
He said the work of journalists has never been more important than it is now.
“Attacks on the press have awakened in people the freedoms we have,” he said. “It’s like a muscle: If we don’t use it, it atrophies. If you don’t defend your freedom, it can be quickly eroded.”
Robinson said he tries to teach students how to “look and find stories, how to work and cultivate sources, how to mine databases that use public records and how to get at those records.” He also teaches them the art of interviewing because “the interview in the end is the most important part of the story.”
He wants his students to know how to find stories and bring them to life for readers, and he wants them to value the importance of giving “voice to people who otherwise would have no voice.”
A native of Boston, Robinson got his first taste of teaching at Northeastern University in his home city, where he was a Distinguished Professor of Journalism. Being in a classroom, he decided, was “a lot of fun.”
“The vast majority of students don’t show up with a pedigree,” he said. “They show up because they understand the value of an education. … Their enthusiasm and excitement, which is what they bring to our place, is a more exciting atmosphere than what you’ll find in any newsroom.”
Top photo: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Cronkite Professor of Practice Jacquee Petchel instructs students in a classroom at ASU's Downtown Phoenix campus. Photo courtesy of the Cronkite School.