UC Riverside Graduate Part of Pulitzer Prize-Winning Team at Los Angeles Times

He says the honor belongs to the community that helped him tell the story

Dexter Thomas ’06, in the Los Angeles Times newsroom as Davan Maharaj, editor and publisher of the LA Times, announces the Pulitzer prize to reporters and editors. Dexter Thomas, just to the left of the front page, said he was in the right place at the right time.

Dexter Thomas — who graduated in 2006 from UC Riverside — was one of the reporters from the Los Angeles Times who helped produce a Pulitzer prize winning package about the San Bernardino attacks in December, 2015.

“In the newsroom, I heard a bunch of cheering,” he said this week, after the Pulitzer prizes were announced. “I was on deadline, so I’m sort of ignoring it, writing in between bites of some tacos I’d brought in. But finally I decide to walk over, and at that moment they took a photo. So now there’s a picture of me standing right behind the Editor in Chief as he announces the prize,” he said.

Thomas has a knack for being in the right place at the right time.

Hired in July 2015 at the LA Times to write on culture and minority communities, Thomas recalled watching Twitter in early December as reports emerged about a shooting in San Bernardino, the city where he grew up, and where his father still lives. He said he realized quickly that his hometown was going to be part of the national conversation . “I knew my city was about to become a hashtag,” he said.

When he started reporting, it was not about gathering quotes, it was an honest attempt to check in with people he knew. “There were people that I lived with, worked with, were an absolute influence on my reporting,” he said. “I could come and talk to somebody and they would say, ‘I know this guy. I can trust this guy.’ I was able to go where people felt comfortable talking to me.”

One of those places was the Islamic Center of Riverside, where Thomas had attended several Ramadan dinners. The night of the shooting, in a phone conversation with the Center’s director, Mustafa Kuko, Thomas asked how the congregation was doing with the revelation that the shooter was a Muslim. Kuko told him: “People are a little worried, because he used to go here.”

At first, Thomas said, he was shocked into silence. “My first instinct was to not  tell anyone, because I’d seen anti-Muslim violence happen before,” he said. “But then I realized that somebody was going to find out, and if this was going to get out, I needed to be the one to write it.”

He said he took a cab to Riverside immediately. And very early the next day, just before morning prayer, he and KUCR director Louis Vandenberg, who had facilitated the phone call, went over to talk to Kuko. That conversation resulted in a story headlined: San Bernardino shooting suspect stopped attending mosque two years ago.

Thomas, one of about 50 reporters the LA Times assigned to some aspect of the major story, said he was very intentional about quoting Kuko’s condemnation of the shooter, knowing that the Muslim community was already very  vulnerable.

Because of that one interview with Kuko, Thomas was one of the writers named as a contributor to the package of stories named by the Pulitzer jury. He said he thinks the honor belongs to the community that helped him tell his stories, rather than himself.

Dexter Thomas reached out to Mustafa Kuko and that interview was critical in the coverage of the event.

Dexter Thomas reached out to Mustafa Kuko and that interview was critical in the coverage of the event.

“People are calling and texting and saying ‘congratulations,’” he said. “At the end of the day, I didn’t do anything unusual. I went home, and I told people about my city. I made sure people heard the voices they needed to hear. And to me, I would have expected that out of anybody.”

He said his UCR experiences played a large role in how many people he met during college, and how he writes about diversity. “It was definitely UCR being as diverse as it is, and treating that as a strength and not a liability,” he said. “If that were not the case, I would not be where I am now,” he said. Even after graduation, he has made frequent trips to campus, and regularly works with his mentor, Professor of Comparative Literature John Kim, who he credits with his academic success. Recently he was part of a panel organized by the School of Public Policy about the impact of social media on racial politics.

One of Thomas’ other bylined stories after the shootings started with a quote from Tina Aoun, who is the director of the Middle Eastern Student Center at UCR. It focused on what it is like to be a Muslim-American woman in the wake of such an attack.

Another post-shooting story started with UC Riverside.

Another post-shooting story started with UC Riverside.

During his student days, Thomas was a residence hall advisor, a member of the Associated Students Program Board, and a constant fixture at KUCR. “You could be forgiven for thinking that I lived there,” he said. He said KUCR is a cultural pillar of the campus and has a lot of influence in making connections for students, including himself.

Thomas’ academic prowess also earned him fans.

“He’s an awesome scholar of Melville and a brilliant young man,” said Geoff Cohen, director of the CHASS First program. “And now he’s a Pulitzer prize winner,” Cohen said.

Thomas said he will be glad if he can inspire other UCR students. And he has already given another kind of gift to the campus. He donated his collection of over 500 CDs of Japanese hip-hop, a rare collection that might have gone to Cornell University, where he is earning a Ph.D. in the subject. But instead, he decided to give the collection to UCR Library.

“I believe in what UCR is doing,” he said.

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