Most journalists work a lifetime in the industry writing thousands of articles and never come close to winning a Pulitzer Prize. It is the hall of fame for reporters, photographers, novelists, poets and cartoonists. Inductees include the likes of Robert Frost, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Margaret Mitchell.
Now, that echelon includes Joe Sonka, a politics reporter for the Courier Journal in Louisville, Kentucky.
He and his coworkers won the 2020 prize for “Breaking News Reporting” for their work chronicling outgoing Gov. Matt Bevin’s flood of commutations and pardons he’d issued in his final weeks in office. These last-minute orders raised eyebrows across the country for the nature of the crimes forgiven: murder, rape, child abuse and the like.
Over 600 in all.
When the pardons started coming in, Joe Sonka and reporters at the Courier Journal got to work. They analyzed and investigated each commutation and laid out their findings to readers in the form of comprehensive online presentations and an eight-page special section in their print edition.
They had, for example, found that one of the murderers pardoned by Bevin had donated over $20,000 to retire the debt of Bevin’s 2015 gubernatorial campaign. The Pulitzer Prize committee had said that the coverage exposed the process to be “marked by opacity, racial disparities and violations of legal norms."
It wasn’t the Courier Journal’s first clash with the governor. In 2018, the newspaper partnered with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that often partners with print publications to produce and distribute its investigative journalism. The two news organizations investigated a Kentucky state agency – the type of reporting that tends to shine a light on abuse of power, corruption or misuse of taxpayer dollars.
In a series of social media posts and a pre-recorded 3-minute video, the governor ranted about the credibility of the 150-year-old newspaper, calling it a biased, left-wing, George Soros-funded propaganda tool.
The Courier Journal had yet to publish a single article on its findings. But they would.
And so, Joe Sonka, after years of keeping his head down and doing his job, had just won the Pulitzer Prize. Validation, after years of abuse, that his work was worthwhile and appreciated.
The cruel irony was that two weeks earlier, through no fault of his own, the newspaper had put him on an unpaid furlough. It wasn’t his critics, Governor Bevin, or the social media giants that have long threatened the industry that put him out of work. It was a once-in-a-100-year virus.
Sick, twisted, irony.
Seemingly unphased, he took to his Twitter account to call on people to subscribe to his newspaper, the newspaper that had just furloughed him, the newspaper that he’d just handed a Pulitzer Prize. All he wanted now was to get back to work.
Journalists are a special breed and Joe Sonka is one of the best. Well done sir, keep up the good work.