By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
The Washington Post won six Pulitzer Prizes yesterday, the largest number in the paper's history, for coverage that ranged from an exposé of poor care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to an examination of Vice President Cheney's behind-the-scenes clout to coverage of the massacre at Virginia Tech.
Those stories, along with an investigation of violence by military contractors in Iraq and the writing of business columnist Steven Pearlstein and magazine columnist Gene Weingarten, enabled the paper to break its previous record of four Pulitzers, awarded in 2006.
The New York Times shared the investigative reporting prize, for work by Walt Bogdanich and Jake Hooker on dangerous ingredients in Chinese products, with the Chicago Tribune, for stories about flawed regulation of toys, cribs and car seats. The Times also won an explanatory journalism prize for Amy Harmon's writing on DNA testing.
The Post's awards touched on the most pressing national and international issues of 2007, from the Iraq war to the treatment of veterans, from the inner workings of the Bush administration to the meltdown in the mortgage market, to the worst campus violence in U.S. history. It is rare for one news organization to sweep nearly half the prizes.
The Post series on Walter Reed, by Dana Priest, Anne Hull and photographer Michel du Cille, won the public service medal for documenting in vivid detail the substandard treatment for wounded soldiers and poor living conditions marked by cockroaches and mold. The series sparked a political uproar, prompting Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to fire Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey, and a presidential commission later recommended numerous changes.
After numerous false starts, including visits to a downtown strip club where veterans were supposedly being fleeced, "the hard part was making people feel comfortable enough to talk to us," Priest said, "and then to talk to us on the record. . . . It was a hard story emotionally. For the first time, I found myself in tears after interviews. It was very heartbreaking." Du Cille described sneaking into a patient center with his camera hidden in his gym bag.
The award was the second Pulitzer for Priest, who won in 2006 for revealing that the CIA was operating secret prisons in Eastern Europe.
Barton Gellman and Jo Becker won the national reporting award for a four-part series that examined how Cheney "has shaped his times as no vice president has before," including his impact on the U.S. anti-terrorism effort, tax and spending policies and environmental regulation.
"I resisted this assignment for a while because I thought it was too hard," Gellman said. "I thought the guy is just going to be too tough to crack." But, he said, referring to Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., "Len really wanted it." Gellman shared in a 2002 award for coverage of war and terrorism. Becker is now a reporter for the New York Times.
Eleven bylined reporters and 50 other journalists, more than half on The Post's Metro staff, and staff members of the paper's Web site contributed to the coverage of the mass slayings at Virginia Tech that won the Pulitzer for breaking news. The paper was the first to examine the decision to allow classes to continue after the initial shootings by Seung Hui Cho and to examine failings in the mental health system that had treated the student. A Post reporter also obtained the first eyewitness account by contacting a student through the networking Web site Facebook.
The 11 reporters who received bylines for stories in the prize-winning package were Ian Shapira, Tom Jackman, Michael Ruane, Jose Antonio Vargas, Alec MacGillis, Adam Kilgore, Michael Shear, Sari Horwitz, Brigid Schulte, Tamara Jones and David Maraniss. The Post plans to donate the $10,000 award for the Virginia Tech reporting to a university fund or charity.
Steve Fainaru captured the international reporting prize for his work on Blackwater and other private security firms accused of abuses in Iraq. He reconstructed the shooting of civilians by Blackwater guards who initially were cleared of wrongdoing by the State Department.
Fainaru said he struggled with his decision to return to Iraq for a second tour and the impact it would have on his family. "Once you get into the story, you just become so connected to it," he said. "I just didn't feel ready to let it go in some complicated way."
Pearlstein won the commentary award for his financial columns, many of them early warnings that mounting problems in subprime mortgages and other credit markets posed a serious threat to the nation's economy. He wrote last August that the credit crunch was "a financial, economic and political time bomb."
Pearlstein said he felt "pretty confident" about his stance after writing about economic changes in the 1990s and that, among his editors, "there was no pressure to pull back at all." Pearlstein's entry was sent in by the paper's business editor after The Post did not nominate him.
Weingarten, the Post Magazine's resident humorist, won the Pulitzer for feature writing with a story on an internationally acclaimed violinist who agreed to don street clothes and play outside a Metro station to see how many commuters would give him donations. Most ignored the violinist, Joshua Bell, and his $3 million Stradivarius violin.
Weingarten said he got the idea after concluding that even cellist Yo-Yo Ma would be overlooked at a subway station, and he spent a long time trying to get Ma to join his scheme. After winning Bell's cooperation, he said, he was repeatedly turned down by Metro authorities. "They finally told us we could go ahead if we want, but they would arrest Joshua Bell if it was anywhere on Metro property," Weingarten said. He persuaded a management company to let Bell play near a Metro escalator.
The prizes, administered by Columbia University, also included seven arts awards and a special music citation for Bob Dylan.
The Times's Bogdanich, who has now won three Pulitzers, said the challenge of investigating Chinese imports was reporting from around the world. He said he suspected Chinese medicines were responsible for deaths in Panama because a decade earlier he had done a "60 Minutes" report on Haitian babies dying from poisoned cough medicine that originated in China. "It bothered the hell out of me, and I saw a similar pattern unfolding in Panama," he said.
George de Lama, a Tribune managing editor, said his paper's investigation of defective baby products began when a pregnant reporter, Patricia Callahan, looked into the case of a 20-month-old boy who died after swallowing a toy's magnetic parts. "She just grabbed onto the story and wouldn't let go," de Lama said of the effort that led in part to China and prompted the recall of more than 1 million cribs.
In other awards, the Boston Globe's Mark Feeney took the criticism prize for his writing on the arts. David Umhoefer of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel won the Pulitzer for local reporting for work on how tax laws were skirted to inflate the pensions of county employees.
Michael Ramirez of Investor's Business Daily won the editorial cartooning prize for the second time. The feature photography award went to Adrees Latif of Reuters -- the wire service's first Pulitzer -- while Preston Gannaway of the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire won for breaking news photography.
The judges decided that no entry for editorial writing merited an award.
The record for most Pulitzers in a year is the seven won by the New York Times in 2002, most of them for its coverage of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Yesterday's awards brought to 25 the number of Pulitzers awarded to The Post since Downie became executive editor in 1991 -- more than half the prizes in the newspaper's history.