MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – She describes herself on Twitter as “Asia medical writer and Indonesia bureau chief for The Associated Press. Proud Mountain Mama.”
Mason and three AP colleagues have earned the Pulitzer Prize Gold Medal for Public Service for their 18-month investigation of slavery and severe labor abuses tied to the supply of seafood to American supermarkets and restaurants. As a result of their work, more than 2,000 slaves have been freed, dozens of alleged perpetrators have been arrested and new legislation has been formed in the U.S. barring imports of slave-produced goods.
President Gordon Gee says Mason’s brave reporting embodies the Mountaineer spirit of helping others.
“It is impossible to overstate the pride all of West Virginia University has today in alumna Margie Mason,” Gee said. “There is no higher distinction in journalism than that of being a Pulitzer Prize winner, and Margie’s work on The Associated Press’ team that documented the use of slave labor in the Southeast Asian commercial seafood trade shows the determination that Mountaineers possess. From Daybrook, West Virginia, and Clay-Battelle High School, to the top of the journalism world is a remarkable journey – and West Virginia University is proud to have been a part of that path.”
Mason is a 1997 graduate of the P.I. Reed School of Journalism (now WVU Reed College of Media.) There she met her role model, the late George Esper. He was the School’s Ogden Newspapers Visiting Professor and a former Associated Press correspondent, who covered the Vietnam War for 10 years. Mason credits some of her success to Esper and other mentors at the School.
“George would be smiling right now,” said Maryanne Reed, Dean of the College of Media. “More than anyone, George believed in Margie’s talent, fierce ambition and heart. He encouraged her to follow her dream to be an international correspondent.”
Mason said, “Very early on, I gravitated toward certain professors, especially those who had amazing track records as journalists. They helped me.
“There were a lot of people there who wanted me to succeed. But certainly, I never dreamed I would be part of a team that would win a Pulitzer.”
The award-winning team includes Mason, Esther Htusan, Robin McDowell and Martha Mendoza. Together they uncovered Burmese fishermen enslaved in horrific conditions on the remote Indonesian island village of Benjina. The men were often kept in locked cages and beaten. Using shoe-leather reporting, old-fashioned stakeouts and satellite photography, Mason and her colleagues tracked the seafood caught by the enslaved men to dinner tables around the world and to U.S. grocery stores and restaurants.
Although many would call their actions heroic, Mason says the men who fearlessly shared their stories are the real heroes.
“We’re excited and proud, but this work was really about these men,” Mason said. “They’re the brave ones. They risked their lives to tell their stories, and they opened the public’s eyes to a problem that had gone on for a very long time — and continues to go on. They’re the ones who should be getting the credit here. The men who came forward should be the focus, not us.”
The team’s work may have exposed the slave trade and linked it to the U.S., but Mason says the story is far from over.
“The problem has not gone away, unfortunately, and we are committed to continuing this work,” Mason said.
Mason’s career in journalism started at The Dominion Post in Morgantown when she was 19. She made $5 an hour as a typist and began working her way up. She worked as a part-time reporter until she graduated from WVU.
Upon graduating, she joined the AP in Charleston, and later moved on to the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. Mason subsequently won a fellowship in Asian Studies and attended the University of Hawaii, concentrating on Southeast Asia and the Vietnamese language. In 2000, she marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon by traveling as a freelancer to Vietnam with Esper.
Mason returned to the AP later that year, working first in San Francisco. She transferred to Hanoi in January 2003 and was named Asia medical writer in 2005. She remained in Vietnam until 2012, when she moved to Jakarta and was named Indonesia bureau chief. In addition to her work at the AP, Mason was a 2009 Nieman fellow at Harvard University.
Mason and her team will accept their award at a ceremony next month. This is the Centennial celebration of the Pulitzer Prize, which honors excellence in Journalism and the Arts.
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