Eli Sanders won a Pulitzer Prize last week, which is a great thing for any writer, but in this case is also a boon to the fraternity of 130 alternative weekly publications of which he is a part.
Sanders writes for The Stranger, an irreverent, ferociously smart Seattle alt newsweekly, which manages to pump out both snarky, edgy, ribald content (it’s the birthplace of “Savage Love,” the gritty sex advice column written by the paper’s Editorial Director Dan Savage), and game-changing investigative stories.
In the case of Sanders’ story, however, it was the simplest kind of reporting that won over the Pulitzer judges — an honest, heartbreaking account of a murder trial, told in unadorned prose and with shattering first-person candor. Sanders sat through a victim’s account of one of Seattle’s most lurid crimes, and then turned the story around over the course of a weekend. The title of the piece, “The Bravest Woman in Seattle,” makes no attempt to hide the reporter’s sympathies with the woman whose testimony he watched — a woman who saw her partner killed and was very nearly murdered herself, following a home invasion and brutal sexual assault.
He also made no attempt to hide his own response to the harrowing story, or to shy from the emotion. “The horror of what happened next made the court reporter’s eyes well up, made the bailiff cry, had the whole room in tears,” he wrote in the June 2011 cover story (http://bit.ly/HU68ly). “The jury handed around a box of tissues. The prosecutor took long pauses to collect himself. The family and friends in the courtroom cried (though, truth be told, they had been crying throughout). The Seattle Times reporter seated next to me cried. I cried.”
The Pulitzer judges, far from finding Sanders’ sympathies a journalistic trespass, praised him for his honesty. Two-time Pulitzer winner Amy Harmon noted, “It takes journalistic bravery to expose yourself, as well as your subject, to the reader. You risk credibility when you do this, even in a story where no one can fault you for sympathizing with the woman on the stand.”
Sanders isn’t just a sympathetic mediary in the story, though. Sometimes, he’s a filter. Resisting the tell-all, show-all ideology that defines the modern news culture, Sanders refused to detail the atrocities of the crime, despite the story’s ample 5,200-word length. “Some of her testimony from this day is not going to be recounted in this story,” he decides.
It is these types of judgments that make the reader trust Sanders, and bear with him in the telling of the story — a piece whose horror could be summed up in a Google alert, but whose power comes not from the awfulness of the crime, but from the endurance of the victims, their love for each other, and the determination of the surviving partner to tell the tale.
Writers like Sanders are to be commended, and stories like this one are rare, remarkable gems. But as news outlets struggle for relevance, even survival, it’s a reminder of the gift that longform narrative can provide — for growth, release and, in a few cases, a kind of redemption. “The power of this story is in the incredible writing,” noted one Pulitzer judge. “It is a challenge of human will to stay with this story. There is the temptation to leave for fear it will rip at your own emotions.” Yet the story is impossible not to finish, and even harder to forget.
Last week, Folio Weekly celebrated its 25th anniversary. We have faced our own challenges in an evolving media landscape, and have not (yet) won any Pulitzers. But our faith in the power of narrative remains as strong as ever, and our belief in the virtue of good — even stubbornly unsanitized — storytelling remains our calling card. At times, it appears the world is changing the news business more than the reverse these days, but Eli Sanders offers a welcome reminder that what is good about the best journalism is what has always been good about humanity: the capacity to care, and the courage to admit as much. ο