Mari Copeny, 10, speaks as more than 60 people protest on the four-year anniversary of the start of the Flint water crisis last week outside City Hall in downtown Flint, Mich. Reporting on the Flint water crisis earned a Hillman Prize last year. (Jake May/AP)
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American journalism is in crisis, under assault and literally disappearing in a growing number of news deserts across the country. The Justice Department has even eliminated a section on the “need for [a] free press” from its U.S. Attorneys’ Manual. So, naturally, much of the Washington media establishment has rallied since the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner this weekend to condemn what it sees as a pressing problem: a comedian.

Although President Trump is only the latest in a long series of threats to a free and independent press, this is a particularly dangerous moment. Last week, a Quinnipiac University poll found that a majority of Republicans agree with the president’s description of the media as an “enemy of the people.” With the administration hollowing out federal agencies and transforming them into protectors of corporate special interests, public-interest journalism that exposes corruption and abuse while lifting the voices of the powerless has never been more important. It has also, arguably, never been harder to do.

Next week, at an awards ceremony in New York, the Sidney Hillman Foundation will honor a group of tenacious journalists who are doing vital work in the public interest with the annual Hillman Prize. Since 1950, the prize has been part of the wide-ranging legacy of legendary labor leader Sidney Hillman. The founding president of Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, Hillman helped shape the New Deal as an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He also believed that a free press was essential to a fair and equal society and recognized that public-interest journalism can help instigate powerful movements for change, from the labor movement to Black Lives Matter. Referred to by some as the “People’s Pulitzers,” the Hillman Prizes are awarded annually to journalism that illuminates the great issues of our time, including civil rights, economic justice and the search for lasting peace.

Over the years, Hillman Prize winners have had a significant impact on the public debate. Individuals reporting on the water crisis in Flint, Mich., and local broadcast coverage of civil forfeiture laws in Tennessee are merely two examples of recent awardees whose work has influenced the national conversation and inspired a political response.

The 2018 winners have made similarly essential contributions. (I served as a judge alongside Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic, Harold Meyerson of the American Prospect, Alix Freedman of Reuters, and Hendrik Hertzberg and Jelani Cobb of the New Yorker.) For example, the prize for Web journalism went to reporters from Univision News and El Faro, an El Salvador-based digital news site, for their ambitious four-part special feature on the challenges facing refugees fleeing El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, from the proliferation of gang violence in their native countries to the difficulties they encounter as asylum seekers in Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica and the United States.

Likewise, the prize for newspaper journalism recognized Brett Murphy’s in-depth investigation into the exploitation of thousands of port truck drivers in Los Angeles. An investigative reporter with the USA Today Network, Murphy revealed how trucking companies coerced drivers, many of them poor immigrants, into signing “lease-to-own” contracts that left them personally on the hook for business expenses such as tires and fuel. As a result, many drivers were paid starvation wages — in one instance, a driver’s weekly paycheck totaled a meager 67 cents — and were forced into crippling debt. Murphy’s report prompted major retailers to announce internal audits of their supply chains, while congressional Democrats introduced two bills aimed at protecting truck drivers’ rights.

And in the magazine category, the prize was awarded to Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal for their stunning New York Times Magazine examination of civilian casualties in the war against the Islamic State. Their 18-month investigation, which combined sophisticated research with extensive on-the-ground reporting in northern Iraq, determined that airstrikes against the Islamic State had produced a civilian death rate 31 times higher than the U.S.-led coalition had previously acknowledged. They also chronicled the struggle of Basim Razzo, an innocent civilian who lost his family and home in an airstrike, painting a devastating portrait of the human suffering behind the numbers.

These stories highlight the kind of public-interest journalism that is needed in this country, especially during challenging times like these. While there is no shortage of journalism today, so much of it elevates scandal over substance, trivializes the plight of those who are vulnerable and obliterates the lines between news and entertainment. The remarkable work of this year’s Hillman Prize winners is a timely reminder of the indispensable role of the free press in sustaining a democracy.

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