For reporters like Michael Moss, the entire world is a news beat
It was 1982 when I hired a 23-year-old reporter from the High Country News, a kid by the name of Michael Moss. That was the year before Cox Newspapers, the owner of The Daily Sentinel at the time, decided to fund an expedition to Mount Everest. The expedition leader was a climber from Grand Junction, and the plan was to climb the West Ridge of the world’s tallest mountain and put the first American female on the summit.
In return for the sponsorship, Cox got to send a writer along to chronicle the expedition. Michael drew the straw. It was a dream assignment.
The plan was for Michael to trek with the expedition to Everest base camp. That in and of itself was no small undertaking. It was a hike of 125 miles to 18,000 feet, from where he would write daily stories about the expedition’s attempt to summit.
Michael, though, wasn’t content to sit in base camp. Instead, he climbed himself to more than 23,000 feet.
He didn’t summit, nor did anyone else on that expedition. I tell the story only to give you some idea of the kind of person that was and is Michael Moss. Maybe he didn’t climb the world’s tallest mountain, but earlier this month he reached the summit of American journalism when he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his work in the New York Times, his employer today.
He was honored for his work on food safety, particularly problems in the meat industry.
His work, which was published last October, was told in the manner in which all good stories are told. It found the human element and used that as the basis for the story. He knows, and I hope part of the reason he knows it was what he learned when he was here, that good journalism is about people. His particular story was about a young dance instructor who was paralyzed by E. coli. Through good old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting he was able to trace the cause of her paralysis back to a contaminated frozen hamburger.
The story led to major changes in the Agriculture Department’s meat inspection programs.
Michael’s beat when he was here was environmental issues. That didn’t mean much. As far as he was concerned the entire world was his beat. He often wrote about topics that had nothing to do with his beat.
Editors soon learn there are two kinds of writers. There are the “what-do-you-want-me-to-do” writers and there are the “here’s-what-I-have-for-you” writers. Michael is the latter. Someone at some time told him what all writers are told: If you want to be good write often. And then write some more. That’s what he did. He was the kind of reporter who found stories everywhere he looked. He took curiosity to untold levels.
He spent a weekend once driving to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, running to the bottom, crossing the Colorado River and running up to the top of the South Rim — and then back. Then he wrote about it.
A few years after he left here, he was working for Newsday, a paper on Long Island, N.Y., and was assigned to cover a court hearing for Leona Helmsley, the billionaire New York hotel operator who was charged with tax evasion. It was no surprise to me, and a lot of other editors, I suspect, that Michael didn’t simply cover the hearing. He became obsessed with her story and eventually wrote a book about her, “Palace Coup: The Inside Story of Harry and Leona Helmsley.”
He was never content to simply report a story by talking to someone. He always wanted to know more about his subject. He wanted to experience everything firsthand, if possible. His wife, also a writer, occasionally worries about the lengths to which her husband will go to get a story. “When he wrote about unprotected Humvees in Iraq … Michael rode in them to hear what American soldiers on the battlefield had to say,” she wrote on her Web site. That, of course, she found to be a little unsettling.
But to those of us who have crossed paths with Michael over the years, that is hardly a surprising anecdote.
Nor was it surprising when we learned he’d won a Pulitzer Prize. He is an extraordinary journalist and richly deserving of his latest accolade.