The San Diego Union- Tribune, The Seattle Times, The Oregonian
Pulitzer Prize winner
Doug Bates remembers well the day he and fellow editorial writer Rick Attig first visited Oregon’s state mental hospital—a visit that would lead to a Pulitzer Prize–winning series of editorials, “Oregon’s Forgotten Hospital,” and some long-overdue reform of the state’s mental health system.
“The two of us went down on a rainy day in December 2004 and took a tour of the place and were shocked by what we saw,” Bates said.
The next morning as they carpooled to the Oregonian building in downtown Portland, Bates and Attig both admitted they’d been so disturbed by their visit, they barely slept.
What they saw were the remnants of a long-neglected mental health system—adolescent girls who dragged their mattresses into the hall to sleep in safe view of staff, prison-like adult wards, crammed sleeping quarters—all in a ramshackle, sometimes creepy collection of buildings and additions dating from the 1880s to the 1950s. One of the most striking images, Bates said, were the thousands of corroding copper urns that held the unclaimed cremains of patients who died—stacked like paint cans in an abandoned wing of the 122-year-old hospital.
That day Bates and Attig outlined a twelve-part series of editorials they would write and publish throughout the 2005 legislative session. The copper urns would become the logo for the series, an apt metaphor for Oregon’s mental health system. “Just forgotten people,” Bates said. “Just locked away and forgotten.”
The ten-thousand-dollar Pulitzer Prize Bates and Attig won came for “distinguished editorial writing, the test of excellence being clearness of style, moral purpose, sound reasoning, and power to influence public opinion in what the writer conceives to be the right direction, in print or in print and online,” according to the Pulitzer Prize website.
As Bates speaks of the series now, he and Attig were clearly following a moral purpose in trying to remedy the shameful warehousing of Oregon’s mentally ill. Through nine months of the legislative session, Bates and Attig introduced the Oregonian’s readers to patients, dead and living, and showed the neglect, wrong-headedness, and nonsensical policies that kept the hospital full while the state’s mentally ill and their families got little or no relief.
“The editorial mission was to get this legislature to not only replace that hospital but begin reforming Oregon’s whole mental health system,” Bates said. “For us it became clear that equal rights for the mentally ill is a frontier for civil rights in this country.”
By the time the legislative session was over, the series had increased to fifteen editorials. “To our great satisfaction, the legislature did appropriate money to begin a master plan for a new state hospital,” Bates said. The legislature also passed legislation granting parity for mental health insurance in Oregon, and appropriated funds to create more community-based facilities.
“ The most satisfying thing is the sense that what I do for a living can make a difference, and it is making a difference in such a meaningful way that I can hardly describe the fulfillment there is in that. God, I’m glad I went into newspaper work. ”
— DOUG BATES
Winning the award—ironically, Bates is the author of The Pulitzer Prize: The Inside Story of America’s Most Prestigious Award (Birch Lane Press, 1991)—has had a great impact on his calendar, Bates says, as he and Attig are asked to do a lot of speaking around the country. “And I would say it’s been a shot of adrenaline to me as a professional, makes me want to keep at it, keep trying to do better and better.”
But the biggest payoff for a year of intense work, Bates says, is having made a meaningful difference.
“When Rick and I look back on it, it was an emotionally rough year. Just day in and day out, sinking ourselves into this world that neither of us was familiar with, which is a world of great heartbreak for families, great personal tragedies for many patients,” Bates said. “The most satisfying thing is the sense that what I do for a living can make a difference, and it is making a difference in such a meaningful way that I can hardly describe the fulfillment there is in that. God, I’m glad I went into newspaper work.”
Bates attended the honors college and earned a degree in journalism while starting his family and working. Since graduating in 1968, Bates has worked as a reporter for The Register-Guard in Eugene and the Spokane News-Review, as managing editor of The San Diego Union-Tribune, news editor of The Seattle Times, and managing editor of The Register-Guard. He joined the editorial board of The Oregonian in 1993 and serves as an associate editor. In addition to The Pulitzer Prize: The Inside Story of America’s Most Prestigious Award (Birch Lane Press, 1991), Bates is the author of Gift Children: A Story of Race, Family and Adoption in a Divided America (Ticknor & Fields, 1993.) He and his wife Gloria live in Portland and have four grown children.