East Lyme High School graduate's journalism honored with Pulitzer Prize

East Lyme High School graduates and New York Times reporters Sapna Maheshwari and Emily Steel celebrate Steel's Pulitzer Prize Monday at The New York Times. (Photo by Sapna Maheshwari).
East Lyme High School graduates and New York Times reporters Sapna Maheshwari and Emily Steel celebrate Steel's Pulitzer Prize Monday at The New York Times. (Photo by Sapna Maheshwari).

Emily Steel, a 2002 graduate of East Lyme High School and a reporter at The New York Times, was among the journalists honored this week with a Pulitzer Prize in Public Service for their reporting on sexual misconduct allegations.

"It's such an honor," Steel said in a phone interview Tuesday. "I'm so overwhelmed with gratitude over it all and overjoyed to be part of this team of fearless reporters from different parts of the paper who were able to assemble this foundation of really strong reporting that allowed women's stories to be heard."

The Pulitzer board honored The New York Times and The New Yorker with the public service journalism award, Pulitzer Prize Administrator Dana Canedy announced on Monday. During the announcement, Canedy highlighted the "explosive, impactful journalism that exposed powerful and wealthy sexual predators, including allegations against one of Hollywood's most influential producers, bringing them to account for long-suppressed claims of coercion, brutality and victim silencing, thus spurring a worldwide reckoning about sexual abuse of women."

The Pulitzer Prize announcement cited that the reporting was led by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey of The New York Times, and Ronan Farrow of The New Yorker.

Articles on harassment settlements involving former Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly, written by Steel and her colleague Michael S. Schmidt, and an article by Steel on sexual harassment allegations at Vice Media were among 22 pieces of journalism that won the public service award, according to the Pulitzer Prize website.

After Gretchen Carlson sued Roger Ailes, the former chairman of Fox News, for sexual harassment in the summer of 2016, Steel's editor had assigned her and Schmidt to re-report the story of the 2004 case of Andrea Mackris, a young producer at Fox News. Following eight months of digging and reporting, Steel said she and Schmidt wrote an April 2017 story that uncovered that O'Reilly and 21st Century Fox had paid millions of dollars in settlements related to sexual harassment allegations.

The story led to a flurry of attention and created a foundation of reporting that women could stand on and tell their stories, Steel said. Editors at The Times marshaled resources, with reporters from Katie Benner writing about Silicon Valley, to Kantor and Twohey writing about Harvey Weinstein, she said. 

"All along, this chorus of women's voices and stories was growing louder and louder and louder — and finally they were heard," Steel said. 

During the #MeToo movement, victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault stepped forward to share their stories.

"I'm just so humbled and so overwhelmed with gratitude to think I had a small piece in this," Steel added regarding the #MeToo movement.

Steel said she wanted to become a reporter to shine a light in dark places, hold people in power accountable and give a voice to people who need it.

East Lyme High School's student newspaper, The Viking Saga, was the first newspaper she wrote for, and Steel said she is grateful for the amazing teachers and educators who sent her on this path. Steel graduated from the University of North Carolina and worked at the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal. She joined The New York Times in 2014.

East Lyme High School teacher Rose Ann Hardy, who taught Advanced Placement U.S. History to Steel, said she was pleased to hear of Steel's award. She said it's very rewarding to think that someone she worked with in her teenage years went on to achieve things that benefit others and used her skills to make a difference — and was recognized for that. It's also motivational for her current students.

"We all have a responsibility to make democracy work," added Hardy, who also serves as a town selectwoman. "Democracy isn't a spectator sport. We all have to participate in it to make it succeed."

Steel's mother, Cate Steel, said she feels her daughter is very deserving and worked hard on stories that were not easy to write and required a lot of trust-building and listening.

"It's a very proud moment," she said.

Sapna Maheshwari, a 2005 East Lyme High School graduate who covers the advertising industry for The New York Times and works a row away from Steel at The Times, said Steel is a really hard worker and believes in the ideals of journalism to shed a light in dark places and has never been in it for the glory, she said.

"She has a sign on her desk that says 'What good shall I do this day?" said Maheshwari. "I feel like her work and her personality really live up to that."

Steel was joined Monday by her parents and her fiancé at The New York Times' celebration for the paper's Pulitzer Prizes. When the prizes were announced, the reporters who contributed were called forward, and there was a team of reporters, especially women reporters, who are strong and fearless and also really empathetic, Steel said.

Steel said it's been a "whirlwind of a year."

"It's not an understatement to say that the world has changed and that journalism really matters," Steel said.

k.drelich@theday.com

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