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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 12:22 PM ET, 04/17/2012

Pulitzer’s embrace of the Web goes only so far


My conversation yesterday with Bob Davis was halting. Davis is the editor of the Anniston (Ala.) Star, and he served on the jury that considered entries for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. No award was bestowed in that category.

Davis likely knows what he and his fellow jurors wrote in their “jury report,” a document forwarded to the Pulitzer Prize Board, which makes the final decision on prize winners. Yet Davis wasn’t going to discuss any such information. “I don’t quite know what to tell you, because I’ve been asked not to discuss the specifics of the process,” said Davis. So it went. When I asked another question about the deliberations, Davis responded: “I can’t go into it, I’m sorry. I can say that I am really happy for the Tuscaloosa News,” the Alabama newspaper that won a Pulitzer in the breaking news category.

What about the board members? Perhaps they’ll have some insights into why no editorial writers scored a Pulitzer in 2012. Uh, no. Board member Jim VandeHei, a co-founder of Politico, quickly no-commented the matter, citing Pulitzer rules. Fellow member Thomas Friedman, a columnist for the New York Times, said, “I can’t say anything about it. We never discuss internal deliberations.”

These fine journalists refused even to discuss whether not discussing the deliberations was a worthwhile policy for journalists to pursue.

Sig Gissler, administrator of the prizes, explains the silence from Pulitzerville: “We want them to know that they can discuss freely and that their words are not going to be made public about why they favored one entry over another.” The jury report that Davis and his fellow evaluators prepared will be unavailable for review for a period of three years, says Gissler. After that, the Pulitzer regime may grant access to it on a case-by-case basis.

The takeaway from all of these dead ends: The group that celebrates journalism’s highest achievements contravenes the core value of journalism. Pulitzer jurors and board members are having discussions about the merits of published articles — information that is available to anyone. The evaluators have opinions about those stories. Yet they don’t want those opinions known. So what we have here is a bunch of smart, middle-aged news people agreeing never to reveal their little chitchats about the day’s news. Even jurors in a criminal trial have looser guidelines — once the deliberations are over, they can blab.

Dire outcomes could await if sunlight creeped into the judging venues, suggests Gissler. “If they’re going to be quoted, it puts some constaints on their candor,” he says of the folks involved in the process. Which is tantamount to saying that an editor like VandeHei wouldn’t feel comfortable defending his Pulitzer votes. Same for Nicholas Lemann, the Columbia University journalism graduate school dean and Pulitzer board member? Would he get all nervous if his opinions were somehow made public? Or Ann Marie Lipinski, Nieman Foundation curator and Pulitzer board member. What could she have to hide?

These are the Pulitzers, folks. Anyone who might feel “constraints” about disclosure of their opinions shouldn’t be mucking around with the highest honors in the industry.

Much has been made of the Pulitzer’s recognition of the Huffington Post this year in its national reporting category. Each year, it seems, the prizes take an important step toward acknowledging the existence of the Internet and its impact on journalism. Someday it might consider also adopting the Web’s imperative of openness.

By  |  12:22 PM ET, 04/17/2012

Tags:  pulitzer prizes, sig gissler, jim vandehei, thomas friedman, ann marie lipinski

 
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