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David Hoffman in the newsroom on the day of the 2024 Pulitzer announcement, following an in-house reception.
David Hoffman in the newsroom on the day of the 2024 Pulitzer announcement, following an in-house reception.

Dictators and democracy

Photo by James Hohmann

Alumnus earns Pulitzer Prize for series on the rise of authoritarian regimes

David Hoffman was livid.

21-year-old in Belarus had just received a 6.5-year prison sentence for reposting a text that criticized the war in Ukraine. 

“It grabbed me — locking her up for this small expression of free thinking. It could have been any of us, any of our kids,” said Hoffman, a University of Delaware alumnus and Washington Post editorialist who channeled his outrage at the keyboard. “I wanted hundreds of thousands of people to be as angry as I was.”

His ensuing article would be one of the newspaper’s most-read pieces of 2023, launching a seven-part series on how authoritarian regimes repress dissent in the digital age and contributing to the second Pulitzer of Hoffman’s career, the 2024 Prize in Editorial Writing. Hoffman is one of four Blue Hens who received the 2024 Pulitzer Prize.

His previous book, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction. In it, Hoffman researched the 23,000 nuclear weapons (an estimated 1 million Hiroshimas) that remained on Earth after the Cold War, re-examining how the world amassed so much destructive power. The answer: complacency. 

The central lesson of indifference remains at the core of his current work. 

“The whole [2024] series was an effort to wake people up, to shake them about the consequences of dictatorships,” Hoffman said. “Democracy is messier, noisier. But we need a free press, regular elections, honest outcomes. We must make the argument to the world that it’s a better system.”

Hoffman’s interest in global affairs first began at UD in the 1970s, where he served as editor of The Review, UD’s student newspaper.

“It was an awakening period,” he said of the tumultuous college years that included Watergate and the Vietnam War. “There was a window to a world on fire and an enthusiasm that journalism could change things.”

Hoffman’s passion for the profession would take him away from the classroom and into the newsroom. Nearly 50 years later, he regrets not completing the course requirements for his UD degree but prides himself on reuniting with wife, Carole Fleming, on campus, calling the 1976 alumna “the most important thing I received from the University.”

Today, he offers current students and future journalists the following advice: “Find what you care about and immerse yourself in all you can learn. If it’s the Middle East, how do you pursue it? What are you reading? Nobody will assign you a future. You’ve got to discover it yourself.”

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