Rich Whitt, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, died unexpectedly of a heart attack on Monday, January 26, 2009 at his home in Marietta, Georgia. He was 64.
Whitt was a hard-hitting journalist who held himself and those in public service to the highest standards and was relentless in exposing those who harmed those they were charged with serving and protecting.
His Pulitzer Prize was awarded for his series on the 1977 fire at Kentucky nightspot, the Beverly Hills Supper Club, where 165 lives were lost in the blaze. Whitt's investigation into the fire found fire codes ignored, capacity exceeded, emergency exits bolted and bribes covering up flagrant violations. As a result of his work, criminal charges were filed and Kentucky fire codes were changed.
Colleagues of Whitt found him to be a "pit bull of a reporter" who could be perceived as difficult because he openly criticized editors and other reporters who did not act with journalistic integrity.
As a cub reporter, Whitt was confronted by the corrupt police chief he was investigating who tried to intimidate him into dropping the story. Instead of walking away, Whitt said, "I just went home and loaded my shotgun and kept it by my bed." He had decided that, "I couldn't be intimidated and do this job. I would be lying to myself if I allowed myself to be intimidated. I never felt that kind of fear again."
Although this commitment made him a dogged reporter who served the public well, it did not garner him promotions or popularity among higher ups. In fact the Atlanta Journal Constitution, where he worked for nearly 20 years, failed to even draft an obituary for the dedicated journalist.
Whitt grew up in extreme poverty in the foothills of Appalachia and remained passionately connected to the issues of the poor, though he felt it hindered his career. He described himself as a "redneck journalist" who wrote "...the kind of journalism that when you read the paper in the morning, you say, 'Damn that makes me mad'..." This type of writing, he said, "motivates people to do things."
While he never saw himself as a crusader, in fact, he was a champion for the rights of the impoverished and powerless. Whitt's final work, Behind the Hedges: Big Money and Power Politics at the University of Georgia, will be released April 6th by New South Books and is a consummate example of Whitt's investigative acumen. This book exposes the questionable actions of UGA's President Michael Adams.
In lieu of flowers, to honor Rich Whitt's memory and incredible devotion to integrity in investigative journalism, it is requested that donations be made to the Richard Whitt Memorial Fund for Rural Journalists at the University of Kentucky's School of Journalism.
We encourage you to leave a comment on this blog with your reminiscence of Rich Whitt as a journalist, colleague or friend.