ProPublica reporter Alec MacGillis was announced as the winner of the 2015 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting on Monday night at an awards dinner in Washington, D.C. President Barack Obama delivered the ceremony’s keynote address. Sponsored by the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, the Toner Prize recognizes the stories published during 2015 that best illuminated the electoral process or revealed the politics of policy.
MacGillis won for coverage that pushed beyond 2016 electioneering, exploring critical changes in the structure and operation of U.S. democracy.
“All too often there’s enormous pressure on journalists to fill the void and feed the beast with instant commentary and Twitter rumors and celebrity gossip and softer stories,” Obama said during his remarks at the award dinner, acknowledging the shortfalls many newsrooms face. “And then we fail to understand our world or understand one another as well as we should. That has consequences for our lives and for the life of our country.
“Journalism at its best is indispensible, not in some abstract sense of nobility, but in the really concrete sense that real people depend on you to uncover the truth,” Obama continued. “The deep reporting, the informed questioning, the in-depth stories, the kind of journalism that we honor today matter more than ever.”
MacGillis’ award-winning reporting demonstrates these principles. In Somebody Intervened in Washington, for example, he told the behind-the-scenes tale of how one oil company gained access to a fuel-rich corner of the Alaskan wilderness. MacGillis traced how the industry played the long game, accruing influence over decades without much regard to who was in power in Washington. His rich narrative was based on hundreds of emails obtained between ConocoPhillips and government officials, obscure engineering documents and interviews with dozens of people on all sides.
In Who Turned My Blue State Red?, MacGillis’ reporting and analysis upended conventional wisdom about why some traditional Democratic bastions are turning red. While pundits have struggled to explain why people using government safety nets increasingly seem to vote against their own interests, MacGillis showed that it’s not those people who are switching but rather their slightly better-off neighbors.
And MacGillis’s reporting went beyond the superficial explanations for why plans with bipartisan support still run aground in Congress, such as a permanent funding fix for infrastructure. In Road Hazard: How the ‘Embarrassing’ Gas Tax Impasse Explains Washington, he exposed the outdated political assumptions and ideological litmus tests that get in the way.
“When Alec MacGillis began in early 2015 to cover politics and policy for ProPublica, he set his focus beyond the campaign to dig into how politics really work,” said ProPublica editor-in-chief Stephen Engelberg. “We are proud of his reporting that has uniquely broken down the machinery of government and explained how it functions.”