A Conversation with Rowan Alum Trymaine Lee: Winner of Both the Pulitzer Prize and an Emmy Award

Pulitzer Prize- and Emmy Award-winning journalist, Trymaine Lee, returns to Rowan University in discussion of race, politics and policy. - Photo courtesy of Trymaine Lee

In 2003, Trymaine Lee graduated from Rowan University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism. Before then, he was a staff writer at The Whit for 10 months, where he covered multiple campus events.

Three years later, Lee achieved one of the most distinguished honors. Along with his team of newspaper reporters at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, he won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of Hurricane Katrina. He also covered the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin and the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown.

Today, Lee continues to put his knowledge to the test. He is a columnist and correspondent for MSNBC, hosts the “Into America” podcast and is a Pulitzer Prize- and Emmy Award-winning journalist. Lee won an Emmy Award at the 39th Annual News and Documentary Emmy Awards for his coverage of gun violence in Chicago.

On March 25, the Rowan Institute for Public Policy & Citizenship (RIPPAC) and the Department of Political Science & Economics sponsored a program hosted by Lee titled, “America at a Crossroads,” in which Lee discussed issues surrounding race, politics and policy.

“My concern is always that does America really want to move forward, and at what cost?” Lee said. “Are we willing to push through to be the best version of ourselves? I think that’s objective and not biased. As Americans, we should want to be the ideal of who we could possibly be.”

According to Lee, in order to be a better version of ourselves, we need to feel supported and safe by those who lead our country. Although our two-party system has divided us in recent months, Lee rationalizes how members of communities are used as pawns in a power struggle.

“It’s hard to imagine why, especially in Mississippi and Alabama – which would be the deep south – there are a lot of poor, white folk without, pardon my language, a pot to piss in,” Lee said. “It’s hard to imagine how they would support certain candidates. But again, if you understand white supremacy as an organizing principle in America, they are just casualties in the broader idea of maintaining power.”

Lee went on to state,

“Now, on the other side, when you think about black voters, they are also kind of stuck because of the blatant hostility, politically, from the right. There’s nowhere else to go.”

Political journalism and cable news networks continue to pour gasoline on a fire that may never go out, which Lee admitted is part of the problem.

“We’re guilty as media and cable news, right, because it is money. It is like picking sides, so the gap is getting wider and wider,” Lee said. “Meanwhile, everyday Americans, all across the board, are suffering.”

Before technology and media became accessible, Lee started out using reverse directories and telephone books. Now, journalists can send out stories with just one click, and may not even have to connect with their subjects. Lee sees this lack of understanding as a setback.

“Journalists were forced to go to the story, to understand communities and to understand what made them tick,” Lee said. “Now, we are relying more on analysts. Oftentimes, they don’t have to go to the communities, and I think that’s hurt us.”

He noted that becoming a journalist is about more than writing. It is about being able to tell the truth to the public and hear others’ stories. Lee has the capability to take what he sees and share it in a way that people will appreciate.

“It’s created a space for me to have conversation where it’s work, but it’s also engagement,” Lee said. “This is who I am. One of my biggest accomplishments is I’ve been able to make a career telling stories the way I want to tell them and telling the truth, as I see it, all the time. Once you have the truth, you can tell the story.”

Sharing one final word of encouragement, Lee has remained true to the same guiding principles since he graduated from Rowan.

“Everything is going to be okay,” Lee said. “Unless it’s a matter of life and death, it’s not a matter of life and death.”

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