Pulitzer hat trick for COM alumni
Three College of Communication alumni -- Hartford Courant reporter Helen Ubinas (COM'94), New York Times reporter Don Van Natta (COM'86), and Associated Press photographer Susan Walsh (COM'87) -- are all part of 1999 Pulitzer prize-winning teams. The nation's most prestigious journalism awards recognize their outstanding coverage of the beleaguered White House and a workplace massacre by a Connecticut state lottery employee.
Ubinas was called away from her regular beat at the Courant on March 6, 1998, the day Matthew Beck, a 35-year-old Connecticut lottery worker, fatally shot four lottery executives before turning the 9 mm pistol on himself. Including Ubinas, 25 photographers and reporters from the paper headed to the lottery offices in Newington, Conn., to find not one but two crises in progress. In the second, unrelated incident, police were surrounding a house where a man was threatening to kill himself, and nearby homes and businesses had been evacuated. The man eventually surrendered. Ubinas wrote about the transformation of a quiet small town, she says, "where the day before, the biggest issue everyone was talking about was the increase in local taxes." Among those she interviewed was a father whose son was in the lottery building at the time of the shooting. The son survived, but the father "was in shock," she says. Even Ubinas' most hard-boiled colleagues at the newspaper were shaken by the tragedy, she says, so the recent announcement that the staff had won a Pulitzer in the breaking-news reporting category stirred mixed emotions. "You kind of wished the situation would go away so you could give back the award."
Ubinas studied at UConn briefly, "hated it," and worked odd jobs for two years. "Then," she says, "I realized I really wanted to write." She attended Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill, Mass., before transferring to BU in 1991. While at BU, she took an internship at the Courant and was later hired full-time, taking only four days off after commencement before her first day on the new job. "She was always very enthusiastic about journalism," says her advisor, COM Associate Professor Nancy Day, who had Ubinas in a feature writing class. "She is also persistent, energetic, and resourceful in figuring out how to tell a story. She takes criticism well, and even as a student she was already working on her writing."
Van Natta, an investigative reporter in the New York Times Washington bureau, was part of a team of Times reporters honored with a Pulitzer for coverage of national affairs. Led by Jeff Gerth, the team wrote a series of 10 articles revealing the corporate sale of American technology to China with U.S. government approval. The stories exposed not only the national security risks of advancing China's rocket and missile capabilities, but also helped to disclose a link between the Chinese military and illegal contributions to President Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign. A Senate investigative committee led by Senator Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) had tried unsuccessfully to establish the tie in 1997.
For Van Natta the assignment was a refreshing break from his ongoing duties writing about the president and Lewinsky. Because he quoted anonymous sources, he is unable to discuss in detail the challenges of covering the China story, but he does call it "probably the most fun and rewarding story I worked on last year." While he is pleased by the award, he adds, "the honor belongs mostly to Jeff Gerth."
Other major stories Van Natta has covered for the Times include the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 in the Great South Bay off Long Island, N.Y., and 1996 campaign finance abuses by both the Republican and Democratic parties.
Van Natta was editor of the Daily Free Press for three semesters beginning in September 1984. That experience led to two summer internships at the Miami Herald, where he landed a full-time position in 1987. The New York Times hired him away in 1995 to work the metropolitan beat, and a year and a half later promoted him to the Washington bureau.
This is the second time Van Natta has been part of a Pulitzer prize-winning team. In 1993, the Miami Herald won a Pulitzer gold medal in the meritorious public service category for its coverage of Hurricane Andrew. Van Natta says he nearly lost his life preparing a first-person account from the eye of the 1992 storm.
Drawn to journalism from an early age, Van Natta says COM's reputation was what attracted him to BU. Joachim Maitre, director of BU's division of military education and Center for Defense Journalism, recalls teaching a course called Reporting Military Affairs, in which Van Natta demonstrated a particular knack for probing defense-related topics. "His writing for the Free Press went way beyond student journalism," Maitre adds. "He was ahead of his time in maturity and curiosity. There was no field in which he would not take a keen interest."
Walsh shares in a Pulitzer awarded to the Associated Press photography staff for its images of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and aftermath. Her contribution to the winning set of photographs was a candid shot of the president captured during a December 19 address to House Democrats shortly after his impeachment. While Hillary watches at his side, Clinton appears simultaneously contrite and defiant as he vows to complete his term.
Before joining AP, Walsh worked in Massachusetts at the Patriot Ledger in Quincy and the Springfield Union-News. She spent six years working for AP in Boston before transferring to its Washington, D.C., bureau. Her undergraduate advisor in photojournalism, COM Associate Professor John Robaton, remains a good friend.
Months before the Pulitzer was announced, Walsh sent him some of her images of the Clintons and Vice President Al Gore, which he says were "great, great photographs."
As a student, Walsh "was very enthusiastic and determined," recalls Robaton, director of the photojournalism program. "She was the kind who constantly progressed, and still does to this day." Frequently other BU faculty and staff would recruit COM student volunteers to photograph campus events, he says, "and Susie was always the one to say, 'I'll do it.' No matter what you asked of her, she'd do it smiling."