Gannon alumnus awarded Pulitzer Prize for editorials

After 40 years in media, columnist Daniel Ruth became Gannon University’s second alumni to receive journalism’s highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize.

Ruth joins Robert H. Phelps, Gannon Class of 1939, who received a Pulitzer for Public Service in 1975 for his work managing The Boston Globe’s coverage of school desegration.

Ruth, who graduated from Gannon in 1972, learned April 15 that he had earned a share of the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing for his research and editorial work with Tampa Bay Times co-worker Tim Nickens. The two men led the Times’ campaign to reestablish discussion of reinserting fluoride into the water supply of Pinellas County, Fla., home to 700,000 residents. Dentists claim that fluoride can prevent tooth decay in small doses.

In 2011, the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners voted 4-3 to remove fluoride from the county’s water supply. The vote took effect at midnight, Dec. 31.

Ruth described Pinellas County as fairly Republican, but with firmer leans to the middle than the right.

Ruth’s and Nickens’ intentions were two-fold: to objectively research both sides of the fluoride issue and then determine whether the opposing view accurately represented the majority view of Pinellas County, as the 2011 commissioners’ vote suggested.

The research and interviews led Ruth and Nickens to attribute the vote to the vocal campaigning of “a large minority” of Pinellas County Tea Party activists.

“Four county commissioners allowed themselves to be cowed by this loud and ill-informed group of people,” Ruth said. “Both on the reporting side and the opinion side, we thought that was ill-informed and wrong.”

As the November 2012 election neared, Pinellas County residents had been drinking fluoride-free water for almost a full year. County commissioners Neil Brickfield and Nancy Bostock – who accounted for two of the four votes to remove the county’s fluoride – were up for reelection.

According to Ruth, his and Nickens’ editorials – along with the reporting of the rest of the Tampa Bay Times newsroom – were textbook examples of the press acting as the watchdog of government.

“We did what a good paper and edit page should do, we crusaded against these two commissioners,” Ruth said. “On election day they were voted out of office.”

Republicans Brickfield and Bostock were defeated by Democrats Janet C. Long and Charlie Justice. The new commissioners assumed office on Nov. 20, and both politicians had voiced their support of restoring fluoride to Pinellas County water during their campaigns.

The board voted a week later to reverse the 2011 verdict, 6-1. Fluoride reentered the county’s water on March 1.

Commissioner Norm Roche, who first broached the fluoride issue, maintained his opposed vote.

Commissioner John Morroni changed his 2011 opposed vote and this time supported the return of fluoride. He told the Tampa Bay Times his 2011 vote was based on the influx of emails he received in support of the ban. He said at the time he perceived the opposition as the majority opinion, which supports the motivation behind Ruth’s and Nickens’ editorials.

Ruth, 63, said he never imagined winning a Pulitzer Prize, much less for editorial writing, since Ruth is mainly a columnist.

“My columns tend to be more biting and satirical, so there’s an irony that I received a Pulitzer for editorial,” Ruth said.

Ruth said his and Nickens’ work got the attention of Pulitzer because of the impact the editorials had on the community.

“What a Pulitzer board is looking at is this effort, did it bear fruit?” Ruth said. “In this case, yes it did.”

Ruth called the award the “capstone” of his career, but despite being recognized he said won’t do anything differently.

“You can’t spend so much time in this business and not feel that it validates your career,” Ruth said. “In my heart my soul I take it that way.

“I’m in the home stretch of my career, whatever work I continue to do, I would hope that it respects this honor that I have been fortunate to receive.”

Since entering the field in the ‘70s, Ruth has worked for papers that utilized lead type and has seen the birth of the digital revolution.

“Newspapers have to continue to provide information to the public in a digital form,” Ruth said. “There’s a misconception that newspapers are a dying breed, but in middle markets, those papers do pretty well.

“As long as you continue to put out good journalism, there will always be a demand for it.”

Ruth offered his advice to the Class of 2013, stressing the necessity not to accept or refuse a job because of the salary, but based on the satisfaction working stirs in the individual.

“If you enjoy it, the money will always take care of itself,” Ruth said. “I’ve been doing this now for 40 years, and I can count on one hand the number of times I said, ‘Oh, I have to go to work.’ I’ve had a tremendous time.”

 

DAN KUBACKI

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