A Tale of Three Pulitzers
By Heather Preston
Jamie Kalven, ’65
On a cold Chicago night in late December 2014, journalist Jamie Kalven went for a run in Washington Park. The crisp tranquility of the moment came to an abrupt stop when President of the Cook County Board of Commissioners Toni Preckwinkle pulled up beside Kalven and waved him into her car.
“Sixteen shots,” she said as he climbed in, forgoing any niceties. “Front and back.”
Kalven had asked Preckwinkle to see what she could learn from the medical examiner about the autopsy of Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager shot and killed by the police earlier that fall. The official account was that the boy had lunged with a knife at former police officer Jason Van Dyke, who allegedly shot Laquan in self-defense. Once Kalven had the autopsy and the account of a civilian witness, he published an article showing that the official narrative simply couldn’t be true, setting in motion a cascade of events in Chicago that continue to reverberate.
Such is a day in the life of Jamie Kalven, highly decorated journalist and founder of the journalism production company Invisible Institute, who has devoted his life to unearthing injustices and abuses of power in the South Side’s most embattled and disenfranchised neighborhoods. Beginning in the mid-90s, he spent more than a decade reporting from high-rise public housing on South State Street—then the single largest concentration of poverty in the country—and along the way built a vast network of sources from elected officials and public housing residents to members of the city’s major gang nations. Ultimately, his focus shifted to the police abuse he witnessed in the area—what he could describe only as “apartheid justice.”
“Once I started to see the police abuse, I couldn’t take my eyes off it,” says Kalven, whose reporting gave rise to several federal civil rights suits. He was also the plaintiff in Kalven v. City of Chicago, the case in which the state appellate court established that investigations of police misconduct are public information in Illinois. “I undertook what I thought of as human rights reporting. I was so deeply immersed that someone who’d been beaten up by the police would run bleeding to my office”—in a vacant unit in a public housing high-rise—“and I would interview them.”
It was an immersion he didn’t plan. After U-High, Kalven became a passionate mountaineer, climbing mountain ranges throughout the Western US, the Yukon, Europe, and the Himalayas. He expected to apply this appetite for physical adventure to his work and report from distant points on the map. Then he got the call that would change his life forever: His father—a constitutional scholar and law professor at the University of Chicago—had died at the age of 60.
“His death brought me home,” says Kalven, who spent the next decade completing a massive manuscript on the First Amendment that his father had been working on when he died. After the book was published, he says, “I began to direct the same energy that had propelled me out into the world toward exploring my native place…and it became my career.”
What a career it’s been. In addition to his oft-award-winning writing, Kalven also co-produced 16 Shots, an Emmy-winning Showtime documentary about the Laquan McDonald case, and served as a consultant on the AMC drama series 61st Street. In 2021, Invisible Institute was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for their investigation of a widespread but previously unreported form of police brutality: police dog bites. The Pulitzer Prize Board also named Invisible Institute as a finalist in the audio reporting category for Somebody, a seven-episode podcast investigating the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of a Cicero resident, Courtney Copeland.
“The Pulitzer recognition has special meaning,” Kalven says. “I see it as a reflection of the vitality of the Invisible Institute. This honor belongs to my colleagues who worked on these projects.”
Still a South-Sider, Kalven lives in Kenwood and often passes Lab’s campus on his frequent runs.
“I think one of the things that can happen at Lab and in Hyde Park is people have a very distinct set of boundaries. I expanded my boundaries, and that hugely enriched my life. Students at Lab should know that not only are they at a school with great academics, but they are in a fascinating environment that extends way beyond the UChicago campus. It’s important to see that as part of the opportunity of going to Lab.”
Not surprisingly, this adventurer has no retirement plans.
“Every day I wake up and feel like I haven’t broken the story yet,” he says. “That’s what drives me. It’s my lifeforce. I’m not sure who I’d be if I wasn’t responding to that energy.”
Maria Hinojosa, ’79
“I’m in here for the rest of my life,” a 20-something inmate said to budding journalist Maria Hinojosa in 1993. “What can I do?”
Hinojosa, who was visiting the Graterford State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania to deliver a commencement address, responded, “Be the voice for the voiceless. Talk to me. Just tell me what’s happening inside.”
It was a response that would lead to the pinnacle of her career. At the time, Hinojosa, the founder of the media production company Futuro, felt she’d found a source from one of the fastest-growing populations in the United States: the prison system. What she didn’t know was that this Trojan horse, so to speak, would lead her to a decades-long friendship…and to a Pulitzer Prize.
The inmate was David Luis “Suave” Gonzalez, who was serving a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole for a crime he committed when he was 17-years-old. He began to call Hinojosa on a somewhat regular basis, and a compatibility formed between the pair that would be the cornerstone of Futuro’s Pulitzer-winning podcast, Suave. More than just a riveting human-interest story, Suave is a catalyst for listeners to learn shocking truths about America’s political, justice, and incarceration systems.
“We are the first Latina-run organization to win, or even be considered for, a Pulitzer,” Hinojosa says. “What makes Futuro special is that we lead with heart. We establish relationships with our sources. We’re not just looking for stories we think will make a big impact. If I’d thought that way, I probably never would have talked to Suave in the first place. I’d have thought, ‘Well, he’s in here for life, there’s no story here.’”
But there was a story, and in 2017 came a shocking twist: The United States Supreme Court ruled that all juvenile “lifer” cases that were sentenced under mandatory laws be reevaluated. Gonzalez was resentenced to 30 years for his crime, which he’d already served. Soon he was released from prison, and waiting to celebrate with him that day was his brother…and Hinojosa.
“At the time, Suave considered me his friend, but I didn’t consider him mine,” Hinojosa says. “When he was in prison, he could call me, but I couldn’t call him. I couldn’t make demands on him the way you do with friends. But once he was released from prison, there was an opportunity for that to change.”
Hinojosa and Gonzalez never lost contact, and Hinojosa continued to record their conversations about Gonzalez’s life and struggles after prison.
“Suave is not free,” Hinojosa says. “He is on lifetime parole. He is subject to random drug tests and home visits. He can’t leave the state without permission. The question is, why is Suave still in this condition if he was good enough to be set free? What’s the excuse?”
These are questions to which Hinojosa and her staff at Futuro will continue to seek answers in season two of Suave, which will release in late 2023 with the help of a very special new producer: Gonzalez himself.
“The Pulitzer has been an opportunity [for Futuro] to define investigative journalism on our terms, so we asked Suave to join us as a producer. Now, he’s not just someone whose story is being told, he’ll be telling other people’s stories,” Hinojosa says of the man she now considers her friend.
“Suave is the embodiment of people who never give up,” she says. “That’s what my friendship with Suave has taught me. How can I ever give up on anything when he never gave up?”
Hinojosa didn’t leave Lab with a plan to be a journalist, but she knows that the seeds of who she would become were planted at U-High.
“I didn’t think I was smart enough to get into Lab. I was wrong,” she says. “The message to young people is: You do belong. You do need to take up space. You are smarter than you think. Lab creates a catalyst for young people to have these epiphanies.”
Monica Davey, ’82
In the early days of COVID-19, when the public was gripped by confusion and yearned for reliable information, journalist Monica Davey—then the Chicago bureau chief and a hybrid reporter/editor at the New York Times—got to work.
In what would become a Pulitzer-Prize winning effort by an enormous team at the Times, Davey, now the deputy national editor on the Times national desk, and her colleagues in the Chicago bureau decided to track every single case of COVID-19 in the United States, beginning with the first-reported case in Washington state.
“It’s laughable now that we thought we could track every case,” Davey reflects. “Very quickly, as you can imagine, our little spreadsheet was not enough.”
That didn’t stop her. Davey and her team enlisted the help of fellow journalists across the country, and with arduous effort, they tracked the US COVID-19 case data. Soon in every county, in every state, they had reporters working around the clock to bring those numbers to Americans.
“The reason it was so important was that there was no data like that from the federal government,” Davey says. “There was no other place consistently tracking the data at that time. It really felt like we were filling an important gap.”
Of course, there is more to the pandemic than numbers: The humanity of the pandemic needed to be conveyed to the public, as did the inequities that the Times data unearthed. For one, COVID-19 had a disparate effect on people of color. In July 2020, the Times reported that Black and Latino people were being disproportionately affected by the coronavirus in urban, suburban, and rural areas, across all age groups and across the country. The Times also made public the staggering statistic that one-third of COVID-19 deaths were linked to nursing homes.
“It’s been an upsetting time to be a journalist,” Davey admits. “But it’s also a reminder of how important journalism is. You feel like you are bringing people really important information.That mission pushes you on through every day.”
That mission paid off. In 2021, the Times was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. The coverage included databases, cartoons, photographs, and of course, stories—the most dramatic of which may have been the front page of May 27, 2020, which listed the names and a brief bio of each of the coronavirus’s first 100,000 American victims.
Though Davey studied linguistics, not journalism, at Brown University, she says she got the “journalism bug” at the U-High Midway.
“Mr. Wayne Brasler ran the Midway for many years and was an amazing teacher,” she says. “It’s a great way to learn great journalism.”
And for any current Labbies who are considering careers in journalism but feeling apprehensive about it, consider this quote from Davey:
“I’m nervous every single day. I’m nervous with every story, every word, every headline. You never lose that. That’s what keeps you on your toes, keeps you focused. I feel the same worry about a story I am editing later today as I did 20 years ago. It’s exciting.”
But is it worth it?
“Definitely. I get to call people I would never talk to. I get to hear all about their lives. What a privilege is that?”
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