Academics Criticize Pulitzer For Courier-Journal Pardon Stories

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A group of academics has criticized the Pulitzer Prize board for its award this month to the Louisville Courier-Journal for coverage of former Gov. Matt Bevin’s large number of pardons before leaving office. The newspaper reported that Bevin granted 600 pardons or commutations. In a letter to the board organized by Columbia University that awards the prizes, the group accused the newspaper of taking a “narrow approach.” The group said the Courier-Journal “cherry-picked several cases, focused in on the most contemptible details, and then made those sensational crimes the face of Bevin’s clemency efforts.” The letter contended that, “this particular coverage served to reinforce a false, but powerful, message that clemency broadly threatens public safety and is a dangerous tool in the hands of a governor.”

In the view of the academics, the newspaper “failed to contextualize the critical role of clemency power, reflecting the reality that pardons, commutations, and other reprieve measures are severely under-utilized tools to alleviate mass incarceration, racial injustice, and prison overcrowding.” Instead, said the critics, the coverage “carried water for the empirically unfounded, but all-too-common, narrative that pardons and commutations on a broad scale make communities less safe.” Jody David Armour, a University of Southern California law professor who signed the letter, told the website The Appeal that the Courier Journal’s reporting “smacked of sensationalistic fear mongering.” Another signer, Fordham University law Prof. John Pfaff, told The Appeal, “If ever there were a time for the media to pay closer attention to the harms of prisons (not just crime), it’s now, given that many of the worst [COVID-19] hotspots are our prisons and jails. Yet … we still seem to emphasize the One Bad Case over more balanced narratives that wrestle openly with the costs of punishment, and this Pulitzer unfortunately will encourage this to continue.”

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