by Len Lear
Winning a Pulitzer Prize in journalism is an affirmation that a reporter is at the very apex of his profession, as acknowledged by his/her peers. But Eric Lipton, 49, who grew up in Abington and attended Germantown Academy (class of 1983), has just won his second Pulitzer Prize.
The New York Times reporter received the recent prize for investigative reporting for a series on “aggressive efforts by lobbyists and lawyers to push state attorneys general to drop investigations, change policies, negotiate favorable settlements or pressure federal regulators to benefit their clients.”
“It’s a tremendous accomplishment, and as a GA graduate and a writer, I feel both thrilled and proud to be able to say that a fellow GA alum has been honored for his work in this way,” said Director of the GA Writing Center and Upper School English teacher Robynne Murray Graffam. “Journalists who do the difficult, demanding work of investigation, of trying to raise people’s awareness and provoke them to action, while at the same time adhering to the highest standards of ethics and integrity, are some of the most important people working today. We cannot celebrate them enough. I hope Eric’s exceptional work will inspire some of our students to similar aspirations when they go out into the world.”
Before joining The New York Times, Lipton spent five years at The Washington Post as a Metro reporter. From 1989 until 1994, Lipton worked at Hartford Courant. While there, he and a colleague won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism for their stories about the flaw in the main mirror of the Hubble Space Telescope.
Lipton’s second Pulitzer Prize puts him in extremely elite company. According to an internet search, in the 98 years since the Pulitzer Prize was established, only 19 others have won two journalism prizes, and 12 of those went to cartoonists as well as two more to photographers. (Pulitzers are also awarded for playwriting, poetry, novels, biographies, history and music composition.)
But even though Lipton, who is currently working out of the Times’ bureau in London, England, is one of a mere handful of reporters to ever win two Pulitzer Prizes, the story that had the most profound effect on him was not a Pulitzer winner (although it was a Pulitzer finalist). It was a package of articles he worked on with four other Times reporters on the aftermath of the 9/11 Twin Towers attacks by Islamist terrorists that killed more than 2,800 people.
Lipton and his colleagues were able to interview 157 of the 353 people (possibly more) who had been contacted by loved ones before they perished in the towers. For example, an article they wrote for the Times on May 26, 2002, headlined “Fighting to Live as the Towers Died,” stated in part: “…like messages in an electronic bottle from people marooned in some distant sky, their last words narrate a world that was coming undone. A man sends an e-mail message asking, ‘Any news from the outside?’ before perching on a ledge at Windows on the World. A woman reports a colleague is smacking useless sprinkler heads with his shoe. A husband calmly reminds his wife about their insurance policies, then says that the floor is groaning beneath him, and tells her that she and their children meant the world to him.
“No single call can describe scenes that were unfolding at terrible velocities in many places. Taken together though, the words from the upper floors offer not only a broad and chilling view of the devastated zones, but the only window onto acts of bravery, decency and grace at a brutal time.”
In a telephone interview with Lipton at his London residence, he said, “We pieced together emails, conversations, etc., so we were able to see what happened floor by floor. That is such a sad story. A moment of true terror. I re-read it just now. It’s probably the most important piece I ever worked on. We could visualize what happened. It was important for families who lost loved ones. We helped them to see what happened. It was very difficult to write, though, very intense. There were so many interviews. I got to a place where I could actually feel what it was like in those buildings. Working on that story was depressing but rewarding.”
From 1999 until 2001, Lipton was a reporter for the Metro section of the Times covering City Hall and Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. In September of 2001, he was assigned to write exclusively about the attack on the World Trade Center, a topic he covered for two years; he ultimately co-wrote (with fellow Times reporter James Glanz) a book on the topic, “City in the Sky: The Rise and Fall of the World Trade Center.” The Times gave him a leave of absence for eight months to work on the book, which was published under the Times imprint in 2003.
He eventually moved on from covering the 9/11 attacks to covering the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) from its beginning. “We found they wasted billions of dollars on equipment that did not work properly, including equipment at airports,” he told me. “We found that the government is not very good at buying equipment.”
As a result of the articles that won Lipton his second Pulitzer Prize, bills were proposed in the state legislatures of Washington state and Missouri that would have restricted lobbying by former state attorneys general. The bills did not pass, however. “Once I stopped writing about the subject,” Lipton said, “public interest declined, and the impetus declined. Continued coverage is going to be required for any reforms to take place.”
Lipton was on the student newspapers at GA and at the University of Vermont, where he earned a degree in history and philosophy. Lipton started his daily newspaper career in 1987 at Valley News, a small New Hampshire paper, but he moved on to the Hartford Courant two years later.
Regarding the future of journalism, which has changed dramatically in recent years, primarily because of the internet, Lipton said, “The future of journalism is being undermined financially. The Times is still trying to figure a way to transition to electronic and still maintain the journalistic quality. We are sneaking by each quarter. We are one of the few papers that have sustained, but every day we wonder and continue to innovate. We had about 100 jobs cut last year, but we are still hiring, so there are still about the same number of staffers, but there are fewer traditional reporters and more internet reporters.”
For more information, visit @EricLiptonNYT