An Open Letter to the Pulitzer Committee from Parkland Parents
The Associated Press declared that the Parkland school shooting was the biggest news story of 2018. But as far as we – parents whose children were murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School – are concerned, only the South Florida Sun Sentinel covered the real story. That’s why we’re writing you – the Pulitzer Prize Committee – to ask that our local newspaper be awarded journalism’s highest honor.
That claim may strike some readers – or journalists – as odd. After all, the tragedy generated weeks if not months of wall-to-wall coverage. But that coverage focused almost exclusively on a handful of student activists in their crusade against the National Rifle Association. As though on cue, the tragedy became yet another flashpoint in America’s ongoing culture war. For click-hungry national news sites and controversy-mongering cable news networks, that was enough.
But it was not enough for the families of the children who were murdered. We wanted to know the answers to the question that the media used to ask after a school shooting: How could this have happened?
This was the most avoidable mass murder in American history, enabled by a sheriff’s office and a school district characterized by administrative incompetence so staggering and moral corruption so deep that it took the Sun Sentinel the better part of the year the uncover it all. But long after the national media moved on to the next controversy, local reporters here kept at it.
They uncovered so much that it would be impossible for us to summarize it and link to it in a short letter. But here is one example: we raised concerns that Broward’s PROMISE diversionary program, which aimed to lower student arrests, may have played a role in the shooter avoiding arrest for alleged felonies committed on campus long before the shooting. Superintendent Robert Runcie said this was a “reprehensible” question and called it “fake news” because, he said, the shooter was not referred to PROMISE while in high school.
After the news broke that he was, of course, referred to PROMSIE while in middle school, the Sun Sentinel wrote an excellent exposé “Schools’ culture of tolerance lets students like [the shooter] slide,” about how Broward’s policies allow students to commit multiple misdemeanors a year without any consequence. Having spoken to numerous teachers, we can assure you that – contra Superintendent Runcie – this was real news, and it played a significant role in enabling the murder of our children.
Shortly thereafter, the Sun Sentinel ran another searing article, “Broward school district failing to report many campus crimes to state as required.” According to official reports, there was no bullying or harassment or violence or theft the year that the shooter attended Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. That was, obviously, not true. Or, as Superintendent Runcie might say, the school district’s crime data was “fake news.”
While at times we wished that the Sun Sentinel had uncovered details faster, we can’t quite fault them because they had to break through the school district’s effort to “shut down information” and stonewall. But they kept at it, and eventually proved an active cover-up in their bombshell piece, “Hide, Spin, Deny, Threaten: How the school district tried to mask failures that led to Parkland shooting.”
Later, the PR consultant hired by the school district, Sarah Brady, publicly slandered a Sun Sentinel reporter, calling him smelly and “skanky.” Her remarks, delivered to chuckling applause, made it clear that she and Superintendent Runcie viewed parents of the victims as “crazies” and “the opposition.”
The Sun Sentinel reporters stayed on the beat despite the fact that Superintendent Runcie tried to throw its reporters in jail. This story would almost be funny, if it weren’t so un-American. The school district released a heavily redacted review of the shooter’s educational history (which, as the Sun Sentinel later revealed, was conducted with the contractual understanding that the “independent” firm would provide the district assistance in litigation). But the school district was too incompetent to redact it effectively, and a Sun Sentinel reporter used “copy and paste” to access and report on the contents.
For that, the school district motioned to hold the Sun Sentinel in contempt of court. For their part, the hapless school board members found out about the fact that they were trying to jail Sun Sentinel reporters by reading about it in the Sun Sentinel.
To be clear, whereas we have deep admiration for the Sun Sentinel reporters, we have had profound issues with its editorial board, which nonetheless endorsed the school board members who were too incompetent to realize that they attempted to jail the newspaper's reporters. Indeed, the editors cited the fact that Ryan’s murdered daughter Alaina enjoyed practicing marksmanship with an AR-15, and that he owns one, as key reasons it endorsed the pro-Runcie incumbent in Broward’s at-large school board race. That was a disgusting example of ideology trampling common sense and basic decency.
However, as citizens we recognize the distinction between a newspaper’s editorial board and its reporters. And the work by the Sun Sentinel’s reporters reminds us of what journalism can and should be, and also what is tragically being lost as local newspapers downsize and the news media is increasingly dominated by a clickbait competition tied to national flashpoint issues of the week.
If Americans knew the full story behind the Parkland school shooting, our nation would have united in revulsion against the incompetent, self-aggrandizing leaders who allowed this to happen and tried to cover it up. And we could have united in purpose behind reforms intended to keep students safe, rather than simply move on, a little angrier at each other than before, and wait for the next one to happen.
If the motto of the newspaper that exonerated the Broward school district four days after the tragedy is true, if “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” then the local journalism done by the Sun Sentinel served as a torch in that darkness. And we ask you – the Pulitzer Committee – to hold that torch up so that parents across America can see what its light exposed.