Arizona Republic political reporter receives first Toner Prize

Craig Harris won the prize for his eight-part investigative series on the broken and corrupt pension system in Arizona.

The inaugural Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting was presented to Arizona Republic reporter Craig Harris Monday evening at the Newhouse School.

Of 103 entrants in this year’s contest, Harris won the prize for his eight-part investigative series on the broken and corrupt pension system in Arizona.

The Toner Prize is named for a Newhouse alumna, the late Robin Toner, who was the first woman to be a national political correspondent for The New York Times.

Photo: Jessica Palombo
Craig Harris, recipient of the Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting, answers an audience question.

Newhouse professor Charlotte Grimes, who is the Knight Chair in Political Reporting, is the administrator of the Toner Prize program. She told the audience the program hopes to raise a $1 million endowment in order to award what will be the annual “equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize for political reporting.” Grimes has assembled a fundraising committee that includes writers and editors from The New York Times, CBS News and The Washington Post, according to literature handed out at the event.

Honorable mentions were also awarded to Washington Monthly editor Sebastian Jones and ProPublica senior reporter Marcus Stern. The winners came from an entry pool that included reporters from The New York Times and PBS.

Upon accepting his trophy, Harris thanked God for the ability to write and his editors for paying the legal fees he incurred while countersuing the state of Arizona for access to public records.

Veteran health care reporter Marilyn Serafini said that political reporters help shape public policy. She has written extensively for the National Journal and the nonprofit Kaiser News Service about the national health care reform debate.  

“So much of this legislation and its success or failure is based on public perception,” she said.

Serafini, who has been named the Robin Toner Distinguished Fellow as part of the Toner program, echoed Harris’s frustration at poor access to information. As a reporter for the National Journal, she said, she faced a similar challenge when covering health care reform.

“It has been very, very difficult to get information out of this White House and various federal agencies,” Serafini said.

But political reporters cannot relent and let politicians be the only voices the public hears, Serafini said. Journalists play a vital role in objectively decoding complex legislation, like the 2,000-plus-page reform bill, she said.

“I learn something new every day about what’s in the bill,” Serafini said, “and I do this every day.”

The late Toner’s husband, Peter Gosselin, and 13-year-old twins, Nora and Jacob, came to Newhouse to award Harris the prize.

“My mom would be very proud of this kind of journalism,” Nora said.

Gosselin, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and current speech writer in the Obama administration, said the Toner Prize reminds us that political reporting must be “conducted in a civil way in which we acknowledge that our opponents are human beings who hold dear to their beliefs.”

Gosselin said the prize is also important for a “private reason.” Looking toward Nora and Jacob, he said, “It will remind them that their mother was someone to be reckoned with in her chosen field.”

If fundraising goals are met, Grimes and the Toner advisory board hope to continue these annual parts of the Robin Toner Program in Political Reporting:

  • The Toner Prize in Political Reporting
  • The Toner Lecture on American Politics and Journalism
  • The Toner Stipend for Innovation in Coverage of Electoral Politics

For more information, visit the Toner Program.

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