Post's Eugene Robinson Wins Pulitzer for Commentary; N.Y. Times Takes 5 Prizes

Columnist Eugene Robinson spoke in The Washington Post newsroom Monday shortly after winning the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for his op-ed columns focusing on the 2008 presidential campaign.Video by
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 21, 2009; 12:38 AM

The New York Times won five Pulitzer Prizes yesterday, including one for uncovering the prostitution scandal that forced Eliot L. Spitzer (D) to resign as New York governor, while Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson captured the prize for commentary for his writing about the campaign that led to Barack Obama's election.

Scandal played a role in a number of awards, including the local reporting prize to the Detroit Free Press for disclosing the steamy text messages to an aide that led to the resignation and jailing of the city's married mayor, Kwame M. Kilpatrick (D).

Smaller newspapers fared better than in previous years, with the Las Vegas Sun winning the public service award for reports on the high death rate among construction workers on the Strip. The East Valley Tribune of Mesa, Ariz., shared the local reporting prize for examining how one sheriff's focus on immigration enforcement jeopardized other investigations. One of the reporters on the series, Paul Giblin, was recently laid off.

Florida's St. Petersburg Times won two awards, one for national reporting for fact-checking competing claims during the presidential campaign, the other for Lane DeGregory's feature writing on the adoption of a neglected girl who could not speak.

Robinson said he did not wrestle with being a black journalist covering a black presidential candidate because "the great thing about a column is that you have a license to feel" and "I tried to allow myself to go with those feelings at times when it was appropriate."

"Race is certainly a part of the story of my growing up, coming up in journalism. I did not think it was a factor in how I evaluated the politics of the moment at any given time," he said.

Robinson, who called his parents on election night from an MSNBC set to rejoice in Obama's victory, said such a thing was unimaginable in the late 1960s, when he was one of the few black students at a high school in Orangeburg, S.C., that had recently been integrated. A few teachers there, he said, were "overt, nasty racists" who "humiliated black students."

He started his op-ed column four years ago, at age 50, after a quarter-century at The Post that included stints as city editor, foreign correspondent, foreign editor and assistant managing editor for Style. Robinson said that "people return my phone calls a little faster" since he became a prominent commentator on MSNBC.

Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, said that "in a year like this, with so many newspapers on the ropes," the prizes are "a reminder of the things newspapers can do that are very hard to report. We can send people to foreign stories, including dangerous foreign stories. We can spend a year or more on an investigation. . . . Sadly, a diminishing pool of news organizations can afford to do it."

The awards, administered by Columbia University, included seven arts prizes. Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek, which is owned by The Washington Post Co., won the biography prize for his book "American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House." [Story, C1.]

In a difficult period in which newspapers have slashed their staffing and news space -- and several have shut down or been threatened with closure -- the awards recognized some news organizations that have been struggling.

The Los Angeles Times, which won the explanatory reporting award for Bettina Boxall and Julie Cart's coverage of the growing menace of wildfires, is part of the bankrupt Tribune Co. Steve Breen won the editorial cartooning prize for the San Diego Union-Tribune, which was recently sold to a private-equity firm. And the Free Press won after cutting home delivery to three days a week.

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