Earlier this month, the Briscoe Center announced the recipient of the first Morley Safer Award for Outstanding Reporting. Created in partnership with the family of the late CBS News correspondent Morley Safer, the award recognizes reporting that changes how we understand the world. The 2019 Safer Award recipient is Hannah Dreier for “Trapped in Gangland,” a series for ProPublica, jointly published in New York Magazine and the New York Times Magazine, which focuses on the federal government’s bungled crackdown on the Central American gang MS-13 last year. Hannah, along with the award’s other finalists, will be celebrated at a lunch in Manhattan next month.
We launched the Morley Safer Award in January. After the call for entries closed in late February, we worked with a jury of media professionals and colleagues across the university to assess the work of over sixty reporters whose work had been entered. In late spring, the jury met in person, and we announced five finalists in June. The process has been illuminating and inspiring—I can happily say that the reports of investigative journalism’s death are greatly exaggerated.
For over three centuries, Americans have relied upon “the news” to understand their world. From the first printed periodicals and broadside newspapers, through innovations in radio, photojournalism and television, and onward to the social media fueled 24-hour news cycle, the history of journalism is a story of change and adaptation critical to American democracy.
In addition, the history of journalism is also a window into the wider past. Indeed, historians and documentarians have always relied upon the materials produced by journalists—history’s “first responders”—to help them make sense of historical events. Try to imagine a history of the American Revolution without periodicals, a history of the Civil War without newspapers, a history of the civil rights movement without photographs, a history of modern elections without television or radio—by doing so, one can clearly grasp the research value that news media history resources provide.
Morley Safer was a friend of mine, and I’m grateful to him for donating his papers to the center. When those papers were created, their primary use was to support his reporting efforts, which were focused on the present, helping Americans understand what was going on in the world there and then. But today, those papers serve a different purpose. Along with others in our extensive news media history archives, they are the evidence of the past—used in research, scholarship, and teaching by those at the university and beyond.
As a program of the Briscoe Center, the Morley Safer Award enables us to honor the legacy of a legendary reporter. It also builds upon our efforts to cultivate a wider network of contacts in the news media industry with an eye to expanding our news media collections. The award also celebrates the very best of today’s investigative journalism, an endeavor essential to a functioning democracy. Like Morley, Hannah Dreier’s work is compelling, eloquent, and gets to the heart of a deeply important issue. It helps us better understand the world we live in. But it serves a second purpose as well—in the future, it will help historians better understand the times we are living through. Reporters must obviously be concerned with the here and now, but, perhaps somewhat unconsciously, they are also creating the primary sources that historians will use later.
Ultimately, historians do what they do because, like journalists, they want the conversation about American identities, origins, and values to remain rooted in evidence. Contemporary terms such as “fake news” and “lamestream media” demonstrate that we inhabit an era that increasingly undervalues the power of evidence—a concern for both historians and journalists, as well as for all of our fellow citizens.
With this in mind, I want to thank the generous benefactors whose financial support has made the Morley Safer Award possible: the Safer family, the Marion Goldin Charitable Trust, and an anonymous donor. By supporting the center in its efforts to expand its news media history holdings, they are helping to ensure that future historians will have what they need to accurately document the past. They are also making a powerful statement about the power of evidence in our society.
Don Carleton, Ph.D.
J. R. Parten Chair in the Archives of American History