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L.A. Times’ Robert Greene awarded Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing

Robert Greene of the Los Angeles Times was awarded the Pulitzer Prize on Friday for a series of editorials that advanced the cause of criminal justice reform, in a year when that subject moved to the front of the political agenda in much of America.

The Pulitzers honored an extraordinary year of news in 2020, with awards going to coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial reckoning over the killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed.

In addition to Greene, The Times’ Brittny Mejia and Jack Dolan were named Pulitzer finalists in the local reporting category for an investigation of the Los Angeles County medical system, and Mark Swed was a finalist for his music criticism.

Greene and The Times took the award in the editorial writing category for pieces that his editors said brought “insight, precision and clarity” to thorny issues such as bail reform, juvenile justice sentencing and the plight of prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 62-year-old writer culminated 2020 with a stark assessment of the nation’s substantial shortcomings during a year of plague and brutality, concluding with a clarion call for America to do better.

“A clearer vision of ourselves and the chasm between who we are and what we aspire to be is necessary to any improvement,” the Dec. 30 editorial said. “If we can name our shortcomings, surely we can fix them.”

Like all of the seven pieces submitted for the prize, the essay ran under the byline of “The Times Editorial Board.” Greene’s award was the 48th Pulitzer Prize for The Times since 1942, including six gold medals for public service.

Times journalists were Pulitzer finalists in two other categories:

Dolan and Mejia were recognized in local reporting for a series of stories showing how patients waiting to see specialists at Los Angeles County’s public hospitals suffered long and sometimes deadly delays. Even doctors whose care could mean the difference between life and death sometimes left patients waiting for months.

A nearly two-year investigation revealed how patients in a sprawling public health system, which serves the poorest and most vulnerable residents, often had to wait months to see neurologists, kidney experts, cardiologists and other doctors. Many did not survive the delays.

Swed was cited in the criticism category for his series “How to Listen,” which enlightened readers about how he, and they, could find strength and solace in musical recordings during the pandemic.

Jack Dolan is an investigative reporter for The Times.

(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

With concert halls silenced, editors said that The Times’ classical music critic had explored “music as message, as feeling, as faith and — as a virus isolated individuals at home for months on end — music as connection.”

The Times eschewed the traditional champagne celebration, since journalists only recently have begun to move back into the paper’s El Segundo newsroom. The staff instead convened via video conference and heard L.A. Times owner Dr. Patrick Soon-Siong say that the Pulitzers recognized the kind of journalism he wanted to preserve when he bought The Times three years ago.

“To save great journalism and to really stand up for those who have no voice” was his mission, Soon-Siong said, as he sat beside his wife and co-owner, Michelle. “We fight for the underdog, we fight for justice and to just do the right thing.”

In other awards, the prestigious public service prize went to the New York Times “for courageous, prescient and sweeping coverage of the coronavirus pandemic that exposed racial and economic inequities, government failures in the U.S. and beyond.”

The Minneapolis Star Tribune was awarded the breaking news prize for its coverage of the murder of George Floyd and its aftermath.

The New York Times’ Wesley Morris received the criticism prize for his “playful and profound” writing on race in America.

Prior to becoming a journalist, Greene worked as an attorney in Los Angeles. He came to The Times after stints as a staff writer for L.A. Weekly and a reporter and associate editor for the Metropolitan News-Enterprise.

Brittny Mejia

Brittny Mejia is a Metro reporter with the Los Angeles Times.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

He has written about topics as diverse as water, drought and mental health, focusing keenly on the criminal justice system over the last decade. He has been with The Times for 15 years, scarcely slowing after a 2010 lymphoma diagnosis from which he fully recovered.

In mid-March of last year, Greene was among the first journalists to warn of the potential health calamity in prisons and jails, where inmates could not observe safety precautions during the coronavirus crisis.

Mark Swed

Mark Swed has been the classical music critic of the Los Angeles Times since 1996.

(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

He called for the early release of many elderly, nonviolent and short-time prisoners, saying it would help protect not only them, but those they inevitably could infect once they left their lockups.

To Greene, the pandemic presented an opportunity to assess the broader failings of mass incarceration. “When the crisis abates and we have caught our collective breath, we can ask ourselves why we lock up so many suspects, defendants and convicts in the first place,” said the editorial, “and whether they all need to be behind bars for us to be safe.”

A June editorial bemoaned America’s failure to learn from an earlier crisis — the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. The decision by voters and lawmakers to treat drug users as criminals, rather than addicts, “led directly to the nation we now inhabit, overwhelmed by serious illness, fear, anger, mutual mistrust and a level of inequity and incompetence that mocks our self-image as Americans.”

Going forward, Greene urged the country to “build a system of care that fosters health and justice, and deconstruct the costly police-and-prisons infrastructure that we foolishly built instead.”

Greene took on the U.S. Supreme Court and its position that judges should be able to lock up some juveniles, without parole, by determining which of the offenders suffered from “permanent incorrigibility.”

That idea that fallible humans could predict the future trajectory of largely unformed young people struck the writer as relying more on superstition and fear than on science or rationality, the writer contended.

“They symbolize the folk belief that we can know the full measure of a man based only on his heedless actions as an adolescent,” Greene wrote, “or the companion belief that some young people are superpredators, essentially subhuman, and unable ever to live in civilized society.”

Greene’s editors, headed by Sewell Chan, editor of The Times editorial pages, praised him for his cool rationality and rejection of intemperate ideology.

Greene authored The Times’ endorsement of George Gascón, the left-leaning candidate who would be elected Los Angeles County district attorney. He also wrote an editorial that made an impassioned plea for an end to violence, after the ambush shooting of two sheriff’s deputies at an L.A. Metro station in Compton.

“The nation, in desperate need of cooler heads and an end to a season of death, must for the present make its way with neither,” he wrote. “We have in our hands the power to destroy ourselves and one another, and we seem bent on exercising it.”

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