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Dailies exposing Ku Klux Klan hatred, for example, won several early gold medals. Two North Carolina papers, in Whiteville and Tabor City, won in 1953 for campaigns against Klansmen, often revealed, under their sheets, to be government officials. (After winning, Tabor City Tribune editor Horace Carter admitted he had been terrified for his family as cars drove past his home at night, and he recounted how his 4-year-old son asked him, "The Klan gonna come and get you, Daddy?")

The 1979 Pulitzer medal went to the tiny Point Reyes Light in northern California. It reported on the armed cult that had grown within the Synanon anti-drug program, located just up the road from the editor's house. In one story, the Light reported how Synanon members had tried to kill an opposition lawyer by placing a rattlesnake in his mailbox.

But the public-service Pulitzer has grown to recognize fiscal as well as physical fortitude. In 1958, the Arkansas Gazette won for its balanced coverage of the court-ordered integration of Little Rock's Central High School, even though encouraging citizens to obey the law led segregationist readers to switch to the rival paper.

Famously, The New York Times knew it would incur huge legal bills – and the possibility of editors going to jail – when it decided to publish the top-secret, stolen Pentagon Papers in 1971. Americans had a right to their government's own account of official deception underlying Vietnam policy, the Times proclaimed. Likewise, the next year The Washington Post faced serious political risks in pursuing Watergate coverage that the Nixon White House vilified.

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