Carmage Walls Commentary Prize honors courageous editorial writing

Posted

Editorial page editors and writers from The Advocate in Baton Rouge, La., and Roanoke, Va., are the recipients of the 2019 Carmage Walls Commentary Prize – in recognition of courageous and constructive editorial commentary.

The prize is named for the late Benjamin Carmage Walls whose newspaper career spanned seven decades. Walls primarily owned community newspapers and advocated strong, courageous and positive editorial page leadership.

The Advocate's Danny Heitman, editorial page editor/columnist, and Lanny Keller, editorial writer, placed first among newspapers with circulations over 50,000 circulation.

Dwayne Yancey, editorial page editor of The Roanoke Times, placed first among newspapers under 50,000.

Second-place honors go to Howard Goodman, editorial writer for The Palm Beach Post, and Chris Cobler, editor and publisher of the Victoria Advocate.

Honorable Mentions were awarded to:

  • David Barham, editorial page editor, and Walter Hussman, publisher, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Little Rock
  • Bridget Grumet, editorial writer, Austin American-Statesman
  • Jeffery Gerritt, editor, Palestine Herald-Press
  • William H. (Dink) NeSmith Jr., columnist and owner, The Press-Sentinel, Jesup, Ga.

Following are judges' comments on the entries recognized this year.

First-Place Honors

Over 50,000 circulation
Danny Heitman and Lanny Keller
The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

For 120 years, Louisiana's criminal laws allowed juries to convict defendants of crimes without reaching a unanimous verdict. Divided jury convictions were not just the law in Louisiana – they were part of the state Constitution. Few outside the system understood the law. Even jurors and defendants were often surprised to arrive at the courthouse and discover the unanimous verdicts they saw on TV and in the movies were not the practice in Louisiana. But in 2018, The Advocate began publishing a series of editorials urging legislators and voters to change the law. And in November, nearly two-thirds of Louisiana's voters spoke firmly for unanimous verdicts, bringing the state's justice system in-line with the rest of the nation.

Carmage Walls judges said:

  • "In a state like Louisiana, this had to be something that was hard to change, and the newspaper was a big part of that. In terms of effect, they were the tops."
  • "I like how they laid out the issue in a straight-forward way, uncomplicated. They kept their editorials short, sweet and to the point. They didn't get cute with the language. It was well done."
  • "They called out the state attorney general ... but they also appealed to people's better natures rather than completely lecturing them, which I thought was effective in that environment."

Under 50,000 circulation
Dwayne Yancey
The Roanoke Times, Roanoke, Va.

The Roanoke Times has been calling attention to the problem with Virginia's old schools for many years. The governor has said the schools are "crumbling," and examples exist of schools doing just that. The editorials from Dwayne Yancey and the Times made a case for a bond issue that one state legislator took on as a crusade to pay for school construction. The General Assembly defeated the proposal in a matter of minutes. However, the issue, and the editorials, continue.

The judges said:

  • "Very well written and well researched. It drew me in right away."
  • "He illustrated the condition of the schools very well. He painted a very clear picture of decay ... I was completely immersed in it."
  • "Schools can be a sexy issue or a very boring issue. He made it a sexy issue over the totality of many stories. Anything else here is a distant second."

Second-Place Honors

Over 50,000 circulation
Howard Goodman
The Palm Beach Post, West Palm Beach, Fla.

Three rival newspapers – The Palm Beach Post, the Miami Herald and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel – joined forces on a significant undertaking. Howard Goodman's editorials were written for that project. The newspapers decided that the growing reality of sea-level rise was so crucial to the three-county South Florida area – and so little talked about – that they needed to find a strategy that would bring as much attention to the issues as possible.

The five editorials and one column submitted for the Carmage Walls Award were published in all three newspapers. The aim was to show the inadequacies of the region's 70-year-old flood-control system; the potential for spiking insurance rates that may make many coastal properties unaffordable, without reforms; the importance of Florida's response to the national politics of climate change; and more.

The editorial campaign has played a significant role in hurtling sea-level rise and climate-change issues into Florida's public consciousness. Without the sustained campaign, the silence on the sea-level rise would be continuing, and the affected towns and cities would be losing time to prepare for a specific, existential threat.

The judges said:

  • "I liked the spirit of cooperativeness on such a big issue. I like that they attacked it from multiple different angles and looked for ways to incorporate people who might be on the fringe."
  • "That was a great cooperative effort down there in South Florida. It had a statewide impact that furthered the conversation."
  • "Politics played such a big role in this. The governor flip-flopped and I think the newspaper was a big part of that. When the governor flipped, the newspaper praised him. The newspapers are going to continue to watch this. This is not the end."

Under 50,000 circulation
Chris Cobler
Victoria Advocate, Victoria Texas

Texas newspapers doing watchdog reporting many times find themselves facing an impediment as public officials regularly stomp on the state's Open Meetings Act. When this happens, extraordinary measures are required.

When Victoria Advocate investigative reporter Jessica Priest discovered the Calhoun Port Authority violated the act – failing to notify the public in advance of hiring a disgraced former congressman as its lobbyist – the newspaper filed a lawsuit on behalf of the public to force the port board to go back and post the meeting properly.

To help the public understand this critical law, the newspaper published a series of editor columns and editorial board opinions about the lawsuit and its subsequent investigative reporting on the port authority. The Carmage Walls Commentary Prize entries represented a selection of those opinions.

The judges said:

  • "Extremely compelling.
  • "Excellent example of how a newspaper should tackle an issue like that. The editorials demonstrated that the paper thoroughly investigated the issue from multiple different angles. It also served as a call to action to the public."

Honorable Mentions

Over 50,000 circulation
David Barham and Walter E. Hussman Jr.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Little Rock

For years, Little Rock's school district has been failing its students. In some of the most challenging ZIP codes, students don't even show up much of the time. But that's not surprising. At these schools, many TEACHERS are considered chronically absent. And although a state law grants the district the ability to remove these teachers more easily, the law wasn't used. After several months of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorializing on the matter, the governor finally got involved.

The judges said:

  • "It was a biting criticism of everyone who was involved with the failure of the education system. Overall it was really good work."
  • "At the end of the day, it changed things. It got the job done."

Over 50,000 circulation
Bridget Grumet
Austin American-Statesman, Austin, Texas

The campaign to bring a Major League Soccer team to Austin was one of the city's hottest-button issues in 2018, stirring the passions of sports fans, business leaders, activists opposed to government incentives and residents concerned about a stadium's impact on their neighborhoods. American-Statesman editorial writer Bridget Grumet wrote numerous columns and editorials that challenged assumptions, highlighted disparities and successfully advocated for a better deal for the city of Austin.

One of her columns provided a reality check on the economic benefits of having a pro sports team. Another column highlighted the fact that the largest piece of the community benefits package, a youth soccer academy, would benefit only boys. That revelation promped intense backlash among City Council members and led the team owner to promise to fully fund a Women's Premier Soccer League team, providing more equitable benefits for female players.

Council members, city negotiators and the public all played a role in demanding better terms from the Major League Soccer franchise, but Grumet's opinion writing steered and informed the conversation in important ways.

The judges said:

  • "She did a great job of bringing up so many issues. It probably made the soccer team a bit uncomfortable. The soccer team addressed every topic they (the commentaries) brought up during negotiations."
  • "I thought she did a great job calling them out on the gender question on youth soccer."
  • "There was a degree of bravery as she was probably going against popular opinion."

Under 50,000 Circulation
William H. (Dink) NeSmith Jr.
The Press-Sentinel, Jessup, Ga.

The Press-Sentinel faced off with Republic Services, which proposed a massive rail spur aimed to make the county the largest depository of toxic coal ash in America.

The proposed rail spur would allow Republic to haul in 100 cars per day with an estimated 10,000 tons of toxic coal ash to dump and open the area to becoming the East Coast's trash bin, stretching from Miami to New York.  The Press-Sentinel engaged itself into a modern-day David-and-Goliath battle with Dink NeSmith in charge.

The six-commentary entry was a portion of NeSmith's 98 columns. Standing up for Wayne County has paid off. Since the fight began in 2016, not one inch of the proposed rail spur has been built, and not one additional ounce of toxic coal ash has been dumped in the area's environment.

NeSmith summarized the past 40 months as: "We're just doing what newspapers are supposed to do."

The judge's said:

  • "Great work, especially for a small paper. It was a crusade issue that they took on."
  • "More than just editorials ... they went all out."
  • "If you look at all the work the newspaper did, it is hard not to be impressed."

Under 50,000 Circulation
Jeffery Gerritt
Palestine Herald-Press, Palestine Texas

The editorials in this entry took aim at Anderson County Sheriff Greg Taylor, his ongoing efforts to suppress information concerning the death of a county jail prisoner last year and his closed-door policies on public access to the county jail.

One editorial, "Unlock jailhouse doors," exposed the sheriff's policies on the county jail – policies so restrictive they are practically unique, even in Texas. Taylor also refused to release the deceased's jail medical records to her family, citing federal regulations protecting Newsome's privacy, a self-serving argument Gerritt's editorials thoroughly debunked.

Gerritt's editorials sparked a wrongful death lawsuit and a nascent federal investigation into the jail. Most importantly, they backed down an increasingly unpopular and discredited sheriff, who eventually did not seek re-election. The two people running to succeed him have also read the handwriting on the wall – and in the Herald-Press: They've made transparency in the county jail a campaign centerpiece.

The judges said: "Very strong writing. Inmates are sometimes a marginalized population that affects all of our communities. They did a great job exploring the issue."

Comments

No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment