America’s best journalist — ever — Seymour Hersh, and North Dakota’s best journalist — ever — Mike Jacobs, will share a stage with the publisher and editor of America’s first “national newspaper” — Ben Franklin — at the North Dakota Humanities Council’s “GameChanger Ideas Festival” on Saturday in Bismarck. It may be the most distinguished panel of writers gathered anywhere in America that day — and surely the most distinguished panel ever gathered in North Dakota.
I’m not sure if there’s any hyperbole in that paragraph — I think not because I’m a pretty good judge of journalists — but Jacobs and Hersh, both winners of journalism’s premier honor, the Pulitzer Prize, and Greg Robin Smith, the modern Chautauquan who portrays Franklin, who symbolizes the Pulitzer, are enough to get me to forego opening day of duck season to spend a day listening to Pulitzer winners and finalists. It’s not an opportunity that comes often, and lapsed — or recovering — journalists like me aren’t likely to pass this up.
Credit Humanities Council Executive Director Brenna Daugherty Gerhardt for this superb program, which also includes last year’s Pulitzer winner for history, Elizabeth Fenn, author of the definitive history of the Mandan People, “Encounters at the Heart of the World,” and Sonia Nazario, 2003 Pulitzer Prize winner in Feature Writing for “Enrique’s Journey” and 1998 Pulitzer Prize finalist in Public Service.
And that’s not all. Also featured in the daylong program will be Eric Schlosser, 2014 Pulitzer Prize finalist in History for “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident and the Illusion of Safety”; and Jacqueline Jones, 2014 Pulitzer Prize finalist in History for “A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America” and 1986 Pulitzer Prize finalist in History for “Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work and the Family from Slavery to the Present.” (If they give prizes for the longest book titles, she’ll win).
Still, it’s Jacobs and Hersh who’ll drag me out of a duck slough Saturday. Jacobs is the retired editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald and was editor at the time the paper won the most sought-after Pulitzer, that for Public Service, after the great Grand Forks Flood of 1997. Hersh won his Pulitzer for his reporting on the My Lai Massacre in 1969 and has been one of the most-awarded American journalists ever since, with regular investigative articles in the New Yorker and author of a number of best-selling investigative books.
Jacobs opens the day with a sort of welcome focusing on “The Importance of News Literacy.” I’m not sure what that means, and I haven’t asked him (disclosure: we’re good friends, have been for more than 40 years), but what I know he’ll get to is this, words he has spoken many times since that incredible, heroic journalistic accomplishment:
Pulitzers are won by those who are ready.
Those are important words. News can happen at any time. When it happens, it must be reported. Not all stories are of the magnitude of what the Grand Forks Herald did in 1997. The great Grand Forks Flood of 1997 moved the Herald staff from its offices in downtown Grand Forks to a cafeteria in a rural grade school, and then the Great Grand Forks Fire burned the Herald to the ground.
Still, Jacobs’ staff did not miss a single day of publishing and kept a devastated community informed as waters rose, then receded and recovery began. It put out a paper from that schoolhouse every day for two months, before finally moving to rented space in Grand Forks for almost a year. That extraordinary effort won the Herald the Pulitzer in Public Service. Jacobs is quick to credit the staff, but the truth is, as editor, he had prepared that staff to deal with any and every possibility. When the disaster struck, they were ready.
And Pulitzers are won by those who are ready.
The whole day focuses on Pulitzer winners and their work. What a literary treat for English majors and those who wish they were. And to top it off, Daugherty Gerhardt is bringing in a Chautauqua performer of the highest order, so appropriate here in North Dakota where the modern day Chautauqua was brought to life by our state’s first Humanities Council director, Everett Albers.
You can read more about the Humanities Council’s “GameChanger” series, and about Hersh, Fenn and Schlosser — and about this event — by visiting this website. I hope you’ll do it, and I hope you’ll register and decide to come. The ducks will still be there Sunday. You can join me in the slough.