Post's Robinson Wins Commentary Pulitzer
New York Times Garners Five Awards

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.

At the New York Times, David Barstow won for investigative reporting for scrutinizing how the Pentagon attempted to co-opt retired military officers who became television commentators; the staff won for reporting on U.S. challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan; Holland Cotter won for criticism, including reports from China on its art and culture; and Damon Winter won for feature photography.

Keller said the loudest newsroom applause was for chief police reporter William Rashbaum, a veteran who played a key role in the Spitzer coverage that won the breaking news reporting prize. "He just knows in his bones when there's a story," Keller said. "He has sources everywhere. . . . As much as I love the idea of citizen journalism, it takes time to grow people like that."

At the Las Vegas Sun, it was reporter Alexandra Berzon who did more than 50 stories on construction deaths on the Las Vegas Strip, leading to congressional hearings and tighter safety standards. There have been no such deaths recently. "As good as a Pulitzer is, nobody dying on the Strip is even better," said Editor Michael J. Kelly.

"It's thrilling to be recognized," he said. "When you're a small paper, you certainly don't expect to win."

At an even smaller paper, the Post-Star of Glen Falls, N.Y., Mark Mahoney won the Pulitzer for editorial writing. Patrick Ferrell of the Miami Herald won the award for breaking news photography for his images of storm-ravaged Haiti.

This is the first that online news organizations were eligible for awards. None won, but Politico's Matt Wuerker was a finalist for editorial cartooning.

The Post, which won six Pulitzers last year, had five non-winning finalists this time. Following is a list of non-winning finalists:

Public Service: The New York Times and the St. Petersburg Times.

Breaking News Reporting: The staff of the Houston Chronicle and the staff of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Investigative Reporting: Paul Pringle of the Los Angeles Times and Susanne Rust and Meg Kissinger of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Explanatory Reporting: Robert O'Harrow Jr. and Brady Dennis of The Washington Post and Adam Liptak of the New York Times.

Local Reporting: Brendan McCarthy, Michael DeMocker and Ryan Smith of the (New Orleans) Times-Picayune.

National Reporting: Amy Goldstein and Dana Priest of The Washington Post; John Shiffman, John Sullivan and Tom Avril of the Philadelphia Inquirer; and the staff of the Wall Street Journal.

International Reporting: The staff of The Washington Post and Rukmini Callimachi of the Associated Press.

Feature Writing: John Barry of the St. Petersburg Times, Amy Ellis Nutt of the (Newark, N.J.,) Star-Ledger, and Diane Suchetka of the (Cleveland) Plain Dealer.

Commentary: Regina Brett of the Plain Dealer and Paul Krugman of the New York Times.

Criticism: Inga Saffron of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Sebastian Smee of the Boston Globe.

Editorial Writing: Charles Lane of The Washington Post and John McCormick, Marie Dillon and Bruce Dold of the Chicago Tribune.

Editorial Cartooning: Mike Thompson of the Detroit Free Press and Matt Wuerker of Politico.

Breaking News Photography: The staff of the Associated Press and Carolyn Cole of the Los Angeles Times.

Feature Photography: Carol Guzy of The Washington Post and Sonya Hebert of the Dallas Morning News.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company