“I have been a very lucky guy in so many ways, certainly in my career,” 1964 Nieman Fellow Morton Mintz said recently from his home in Washington, D.C. “I loved being a reporter, starting at The Michigan Daily when I was a student at the University of Michigan. My Nieman Fellowship played a wonderful role by giving me months of the intellectual stimulation that Harvard provided. And, if I may say this, my 69-year marriage could not have been a happier one.”
At 100 (his birthday is Jan. 26), Mintz is still an avid news consumer — and a dedicated reader of Nieman Reports. The Nieman Foundation celebrates Mintz’s centennial and his long career as an award-winning investigative journalist and author.
At The Washington Post, where he worked for 30 years, Mintz reported on corporate crime and misconduct, with a special focus on the automotive, tobacco and drug industries. He broke the story about the birth defects associated with Thalidomide in 1962 and went on to report extensively on unsafe and ineffective medicines and medical devices, including the harmful Dalkon Shield IUD. He also covered the Supreme Court, campaign financing and wasteful Pentagon weapons systems.
In his prescient 2008 Nieman Reports piece “Intimidation and Convictions of Journalists,” a book review of “Dark Days in the Newsroom” by Edward Alwood, Mintz looked at ways the U.S. government has intimidated and obstructed journalists over time, noting: “For even more years, a different kind of threat has been escalating among the growing hordes of know-nothing, talk-show bullies who make despicable, ludicrous and false accusations, including charges of disloyalty and even treason.” Those words still apply today, given ongoing efforts to hamper and delegitimize the work of the free press.
Mintz started working as a reporter at the St. Louis Star-Times in 1946. In 1951, he moved to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, where he worked as a reporter and assistant city editor before joining The Washington Post in December 1958. He additionally contributed articles to other national publications and lectured about journalism and his work at universities across the country.
In a Washington Post article published when Mintz retired from the paper in 1988, Post columnist Colman McCarthy, wrote: “If every news organization had a core of reporters like Mintz — a tireless striver for accuracy and fierce skeptic of party lines — the public might not keep issuing low rankings of the media… At The Post, Mintz irreverently believed that reporting the news wasn’t enough. Searching it out — in places the pack had no scent or taste for — was often the higher ideal. He uncovered so much news that the morning Post often carried two, three or four Mintz bylined stories. He could have been a one-man wire service.”
Mintz is the author of four books and co-author of six more, and served as chair of the Fund for Investigative Journalism from 1990 to 1993. His many honors include the Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism (won in 1976 for his Washington Post series “The Medicine Business” about why pharmaceutical disasters continue to occur), the Heywood Broun Award and the Raymond Clapper and George Polk Memorial Awards. He additionally twice received the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild Award for Public Service as well as the Guild’s Distinguished Writing Award. His book “America, Inc.: Who Owns and Operates the United States,” co-authored with Jerry S. Cohen, won the Sidney Hillman Award.
Mintz was chairman of his Nieman class, the last cohort to study under pioneering curator Louis Lyons and the group that created the Louis M. Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism. “It was a Nieman bonus to meet Morton at Harvard,” says Mintz’s classmate David Mazie, “where we could share our thoughts — along with an occasional dinner — with one of our favorite law school professors and where I got to see a tough, tell-it-as-it-is journalist in action. Now, nearly 60 years later, I have the pleasure of wishing my friend a happy 100th and asking him, only partly in jest, who or what he will take on in his next book.”
During a talk by Mintz to the Southeastern Sussex County Democratic Club in Bethany Beach, Del., in 2005, he spoke about six press failings that have had “enormous impact on our people and our country.” Critical self-reflection is essential for journalism, he argued: “In an effort that seems Sisyphean at times, we also criticize this same press, compulsively, constantly, and vigorously. Our goal is the polar opposite of the goal of the scoundrels. It is to improve mainstream journalism. The better mainstream journalism is, the better served is democracy, and the better its ability to withstand and discredit unscrupulous assaults.”