Alec MacGillis accepts Colby’s prestigious Lovejoy Award

Elijah Lovejoy, the namesake and inspiration behind the Colby Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award for courageous journalism, was described by President John Quincy Adams as America’s first martyr to freedom of the press. This year’s honoree, Alec MacGillis, a Pultizer Prize winner who currently writes about social issues and domestic policy at ProPublica, embodies the award criteria of integrity, character, intelligence, and courage. His previous articles cover the opioid crisis, housing policy, and the influence of the oil industry and other large corporations on governance and public policy.

The ceremony was held on Oct. 2 in Lorimer Chapel, and was widely attended by students, faculty and staff, and local residents. President Greene kicked off the ceremony in Lorimer Chapel, speaking to the College’s long history of human rights advocacy, pointing to James Holland Townsend as the College’s first African American graduate in 1849, and that Colby admitted women in 1871 and was one of the first institutions to admit women. 

The President highlighted the importance of free speech in today’s political climate and on Mayflower Hill, telling the crowd that “it’s essential that we work to maintain a community where we not only welcome points of view but we rely on them and create a challenging and respectful dialogue that’s critical here on Mayflower Hill.”

MacGillis started by thanking members of the audience including his family and mentors throughout his early career. He also addressed the Oct. 1 Las Vegas Shooting, which took 59 lives and left over 500 people injured. He said “I believe very firmly that the proponents of stronger gun laws in this country have been unduly fatalistic in a self-defeating way of prospects for stronger gun laws…” MacGillis won a Pulitzer for his reporting on the Virginia Tech shooting and has continued to cover the topic since.

President Greene also made reference to the shooting, relating the tragic events to the importance of freedom of speech and expression, saying “ think about whose rights we are protecting, what rights are we protecting, when we’re protecting the rights of 19 guns in that hotel room and we are not protecting the rights of all those people to live peacefully and enjoy that show without fear of death.”

MacGillis’ address focused on the growing disparities across America. He acknowledged income inequality, especially in cities like New York and Washington, pointing out that it is encouraged by large corporations dominating our economy and like minded people clustering in urban centers. However, he argued that “the left behind” places deserve attention.

MacGillis turned to discussing how the growing regional inequality is impacting what is happening in the current political climate, citing a correlation between these forgotten places and the territories in which Trump excelled politically. “I don’t think there’s any getting around the fact that the feeling of being left behind would exasperate other [political issues], and would expose you to a certain sort of political message.”

He argued that this adds to “regional inequality by amassing money that used to be spread all around the country into one particular place, Silicon Valley. But it’s also exacerbating inequality of another sort—News coverage. It’s making it even harder for newspapers in small towns and mid-sized metro areas to survive.” 1 out of every 4 reporter jobs have disappeared across the country, but the number of reporters in D.C. has doubled. He added that 73 percent of all online media are concentrated in the Northeast or on the West Coast.

MacGillis started his career at a small weekly newspaper in Connecticut, and he highlighted the importance of local news coverage, especially today. Without local news, you have no connection the politics and news in your own community, and this impacts how and whether you decide to vote. He told the crowd, “It’s a lot easier to hate the media if you don’t know anyone in the media. If you don’t see hard-working reporters any more at your town hall or courthouse or school board meeting or high school football game, the media to you means something totally ‘foreign.’”

He made a career off of covering places that are largely ignored by national news outlets, such as Baltimore, his home and the location of many of his most popular stories. He ended his speech with a story he wrote about a young woman and her struggles to survive after facing issues with rent. He was overwhelmed with the huge response and support from people all over the country; many individuals sent money and wrote notes about how much the young woman and her story meant to them.

MacGillis concluded with“It turns out people do care about the left behind places, we just have to go there first.”

Interim Director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement and Grossman Professor of Economics Patrice Franko opened up the event to questions from the audience after MacGillis’ speech concluded.

The events of Sunday night continued to dominate the evening, with an audience question about the chances of harsher gun policy following the tragedy that transpire in Las Vegas, since seemingly nothing was done after a similar event at Sandy Hook in December of 2012. He pointed out that Congress came a lot closer on the legislation following Newtown than a lot of people realized, and that one of the largest obstacles is the mentality that creating lasting change in gun safety is impossible.

Another member of the audience from nearby Skowhegan, Maine asked how the “left behind” towns can be convinced to vote more progressive.

“It’s one of the central problems that the democrats have, it’s making the case to those people to rethink some of those things.”

“Part of it’s that democrats aren’t even trying anymore. The party has become so concentrated both in its leadership and where its political base, mostly in the big cosmopolitan places, and if you’re not even out there trying its hard to reach out to those communities—and people pick up on that.”