I guess I never really knew I could be considered a crusading journalist until after I finished the year-long series on alcoholism that ran every month in 1999 and won the Pulitzer Prize the following year.
Gannett sent me out to talk with reporters at some of its newspapers in New York state, and I remember talking to the staff of the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin about how I selected the stories I wrote about. I often looked for situations that outraged me, I said, then investigated them and wrote about them objectively quoting people from all sides of the issue.
"Are you a crusading journalist?" asked Elizabeth Cohen, a fresh-faced young reporter.
No, I replied, reminding her of the objective researching and writing.
"I didnít think so," she said. "I thought crusading journalism had sorta gone out of style."
Suddenly, I was on my feet, arms waving, drawing a deep breath. "Crusading journalism will never be out of style," I boomed. "As long as there is a wrong that needs to be righted, as long as justice still needs to be done, there is a need for crusading journalism in our societyÖ."
And with that, I suddenly stopped, turned to Elizabeth Cohen, and said, "Well, maybe I am one after all."
I probably picked it up from my dad.
Mom and dad met as reporters for the Rockford (Ill.) Morning Star, married and moved to Madison where dad began reporting for the Wisconsin State Journal and mom stayed home to raise me (and subsequently my two younger brothers). Mom remained fascinated by the business, however, and dinner-table conversations were often about how dad was taking on various groups or individuals to keep the community honest, safe for young families like our own.
I didnít realize how important that time was until I went away to college (not far at first -- the University of Wisconsin, followed by the University of Maryland and then Columbia University) and felt a wrenching sense of homesickness at twilight.
Nearly two decades as a reporter, correspondent and bureau chief with The Associated Press, the international wire service, taught me the trade. Then the Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune allowed me to practice it.
Iíve come to believe that my mission is to amplify the voices of those who would otherwise go unheard so that the public and the policymakers understand the consequence of our social policies, how they affect real people. I remember that during a budget crunch, the state proposed cutting day care funds for working mothers trying to get off the welfare system. It was a line item for a bureaucrat in Helena, but it meant that Kaylene Hiebert could no long hold a job. The mother of three pre-schoolers had been working nights to clean office buildings and making $55 a night, but child would cost her $60 a night for the three toddlers. She wanted to be self-sufficient, but the system was denying her the tools to get there.
Over the years, Iíve tried to be a social conscience. Iíve written about alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness and the corrections system (is this an oxymoron or what?). But PTSD/TBI and vets issues really tug at my heart. It seems consummately wrong to me to take our most patriotic young men and women, throw them into combat and then throw them away when they begin to develop problems.
Thatís just wrong.
We have throw-away diapers, pens and cell phones, but there the list should stop. Human beings can never be a throw-away commodity.