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From High Atop the Hay-Adams Hotel, the Glories of Washington

In all my years in Washington, I'd never before stood on the roof of the Hay-Adams Hotel, the gracious, elegant old pile of stone immediately across Lafayette Park from the White House. (You sort of know the view; it's the standard perspective from which the TV news cameras offer the overview of the White House.) The occasion last night was a party following on the announcement that this here newspaper had won a record four Pulitzer Prizes for stories that spoke truth to power and reasserted the credibility and importance of good old-fashioned newspapering in an era of heightened skepticism about the very nature of fact.

Admittedly, it was a heady evening, not only for my six colleagues who won the big prize, but for the hundreds of writers and editors who work in what sometimes feels like a declining industry. There were two things worth focusing on last night:

1) The stories that won these prizes were reported and written for the best of reasons, the reason that drew most of us into this craft: To use the power of light to force the bad guys out of the shadows. We're not prosecutors and we're not legislators--a distinction that's too often lost on the more partisan purveyors of opinion here in the bloggers' world. We base our work on the idea that if you lay the facts out for good-hearted, fair-minded people, they will draw their own conclusions and democracy will be the healthier. So Dana Priest's stories on the CIA's secret camps didn't rail against the intelligence agency for misusing public money and breaking the compact between the government and the governed. The stories just told us facts that the government had tried to keep secret, facts that citizens could use to judge for themselves whether the administration was acting in ways that are true to the Constitution and the Founders' ideas about transparency and the balance of power.

And David Finkel's stories about a U.S. effort to instill democracy in Yemen didn't include any tirades about wasted tax dollars or a foreign policy that took an imperial and imperious turn. Rather, they told, in Finkel's reliably intimate and compelling manner, a human story about people trying to change the world. Finkel, like the best reporters, does not overtly judge; obviously, the process of reporting is a process of selection, and no reporter is a totally neutral surveillance camera. But honest reporting, by focusing on conflict between people and, more important, within a person, seeks to select those facts, scenes and emotions that force all of us to question our assumptions and to see the world anew. Finkel does this pretty much every time out of the box. The Yemen stories are fascinating, but if you want to read his masterpiece, here it is. I have taught this piece in college and high school classes many times, and I've yet to find the class that wasn't blown away by it. It will take you back to a time and place you may well have forgotten about--the Balkans, 1999--but it will also take you to a place you've lived in all your life--the place of love and pain, right now. If you want to know why people choose to do work that doesn't pay well, requires enormous amounts of time spent at zoning meetings and appears not to have the brightest of futures, this story tells you why.

One more thing about the prize winners. I don't know a thing about clothing. I couldn't tell you what I wore yesterday. I can go a decade between clothing purchases. But Robin Givhan is a gem of a critic, and if you read this paper on a regular basis, you are reading the best collection of critics on the continent. Six winners of the Pulitzer for criticism work here, including the immortal Henry Allen, the man who raised the art of the newspaper feature to something akin to poetry, and the hilarious and insightful Stephen Hunter, who teaches me something about movies and about life in every review. Robin Givhan writes about fashion, but really she writes about what every newspaper story should be about--why we choose to live as we do. I've seen the movie "Hotel Rwanda" twice, and each time I noticed that the Don Cheadle character, the manager of a luxury hotel in the midst of genocidal insanity, always wore a suit. But it took Robin Givhan to teach me why that was important, and what it tells us about ourselves. I still can't bring myself to read the reports out of the European fashion shows, but when Robin's writing about the way we dress up our little world, I'm there, waiting for those pearls of wisdom.

2) Ok, back to the roof. You need to find some way to get yourself invited to the Hay-Adams rooftop. The view is unparalleled. You see the White House, the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial, and beyond the glorious meeting of the Potomac and the Anacostia, and the airport and the planes descending toward the capital, and Maryland and Virginia sweeping out toward the rest of America, and when you take it all in, you see how tiny the parlors of power really are, and what a stage set we live in, and what inspiration this spot must have summoned when old GW offered to base the whole shebang here. And then you think about what's happening in those buildings below, the men and women in those suits Robin writes about, the long hours and the myriad policies and the competing factions and the anger and the exasperation, and maybe places like this make you go soft inside, but all I could think about was the hope that lingers even in the face of the corruption and the cynicism for which our town is best known.

Heading to work each day through dark tunnels, by Metro or on the Interstate, it's too easy to forget the majesty that visitors see in this city. After 9/11, the Secret Service wasn't happy about those parties up on the roof of the Hay-Adams. After all, the place is an easy shot away from the White House. But if they knew what was good for them, the feds would cycle all their staffers through the Hay-Adams for an evening of inspiration up on the roof. The atmosphere down below may still be one of stifling fear; indeed, the Secret Service still has a cow every time a guest in the hotel opens a window for some fresh air on a Sunday morning when the president is attending church right across the street.

But up above, it's still possible to hit a refresh button and see what it is we should all be working to restore to its basic glory. This is the view we started losing in the hours after the 9/11 attack. We haven't lost it entirely, but it has dimmed. The stories honored with Pulitzer prizes give us some of the tools we need to demand the return of our wider view of this country and its purpose. The view from the roof gives us the heart and vision to stand our ground.

By Marc Fisher |  April 18, 2006; 6:14 AM ET
Previous: F This S: How the TV Nets Fight for Your Rights | Next: Claudia Emerson: Substitute Teacher, Rural Letter Carrier, Pulitzer Prize Winning Poet

Comments

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Marc: This blog alone qualifies you for a Pulitzer.

Posted by: steve | April 18, 2006 11:48 AM

I agree. Excellent piece. And, may I chime in with a small request to fellow commentors? Just this: Please calm down. Liberal bloggers and commenters appear increasingly full of venom and bile. We used to be nice people. Kind. Respectful. I'd hate to think we're no better than the Raving Bush Partisans. Let's try to show we're civilized. The Pulitzer Winners show us the way.

Posted by: CT | April 18, 2006 12:22 PM

Steve is right. This is a fabulous piece. It brought tears to my eyes and makes me feel that I should hold my head a little higher and strenghten my own efforts to speak truth to power and to help create--or recreate---that "wider view of this country and its purpose."

But I don't think the piece is quite finished yet, and I hope you'll rework it and publish it somewhere. To me, it seems that there's a hole in it because you don't mention the fourth Pulitzer. It's a challenge, to be sure, to pull all that material in and make the central idea clear, but the Abramoff material clearly fits w/ the idea of laying facts out for people to judge.

I'm with you, too, on the distinction between Givhan's work on the European fashion shows and her comments on the meaning of how real people dress. Her piece on Cheadle is good; her piece on Cheney is fantastic. If I see on the web site that looks like it might be a Givhan article, I always go to it immediately.

And we really do need to hear more of that "wider view of this country and its purpose" message. I'll look forward to seeing it.

Posted by: JRG | April 18, 2006 12:47 PM

A couple more things---

First, did you know that in his blog piece on the Pulitzers, Joel Achenbach also linked to Finkel's "Love in Tent 37A" story? Great minds and all that.

Second, is there a way for you to let your WaPo readers know---assuming you want to---when you publish things elsewhere? Some time back, Joel linked to a piece that you published in the American Journalism Review about the importance of journalism in the wake of Katrina, which I read and appreciated. Would like to be able to follow your non-Post publishing.

Posted by: JRG | April 18, 2006 12:52 PM

"increasingly full of venom and bile"....wow CT..talk about insults.

What are you some kind of blogger advocate on language.

Hello, thats why its called blogger it allows all Americans to speak on issues the way they feel...it's call Freedom and its an Amendment.

Anyhow, Congrads..WP..will continue to be your no#1 Fan, well deserved.

Thank you.

Posted by: Frankey to CT | April 18, 2006 1:22 PM

Really, Mark, what were you drinking or smoking up there? "Speaking truth to power?" I thought that cliche had died about 40 years ago when John Kerry liked to describe himself that way when he returned from Vietnam to smear his fellow combat vets.

And can you use that cliche to describe Robin Givhan? I thought she dealt exclusively in opinion (hers), not in truth. And she deserves a Pulitzer for explaining why a guy wore a suit in a movie? I thought the standards for these awards were a bit higher.

Finally, who is the audience of the Post? Aren't they us, your readers? Aren't you really speaking truth to the powerless? Or is your audience only those in the White House? And isn't the Post, itself, actually Power?

Posted by: Kalorama Kat | April 18, 2006 3:21 PM

Wow...Kat..talk about insults...you not only insulted Mark and Robin but the entire universe of readers of the WP.

And, who would you recommend for the pulitzer oh wise one?

As the old saying goes...takes one to know one.

Posted by: Frankey to Kalorama Kat (aka)Know it all | April 18, 2006 4:48 PM

Mark, I'm not often moved by a piece of writing nor do I respond to blogs but I had to say thank you for today's posting. Too often those who toil in the bowels of Washington are jaded and cynical. At least I am. Your posting today was a welcome reminder of what a great city, and country we have. You made me proud again to be a Washingtonian and to call The Post my hometown paper. Congratulations to The Post on their awards and thanks again for the shot in the arm.

Posted by: CannonFodder | April 18, 2006 5:14 PM

This may be the first blog comment I've ever printed and placed in the Save pile. Thanks for writing it.

And the only thing that irritates me about Finkel's Pulitzer is that it's his first. It should have been his 20th, including one for the love story.

Posted by: Ken | April 19, 2006 12:55 PM

Kat would probably recommend Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, no doubt. Or maybe Drudge and newsmax.com.

Posted by: Mark Jeffries | April 20, 2006 4:40 PM

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