The Pulitzer Prizes

Pulitzer Prize
Pulitzer Prize (Columbia University)

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Roy Harris
Author, 'Pulitzer's Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism'
Tuesday, April 21, 2009; 12:00 PM

Roy Harris, author of last year's Pulitzer's Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism and a 23-year veteran reporter and editor for the Wall Street Journal, was online Tuesday, April 21, at Noon ET to discuss this year's Pulitzer Prizewinners and Nominated Finalists.

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Roy Harris: In selecting the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winners in journalism, the Pulitzer governing board of editors and academics celebrated New York Times staffers in five of the 14 total categories: investigative, breaking-news, and international reporting, criticism, and feature photography. But the Pulitzer organization also reached into a pool of less-well-known work from smaller papers, assembling an eclectic group of winners, that was topped by the Las Vegas Sun.

The Sun won its first Pulitzer ever--the prestigious Pulitzer public-service gold medal--for its work exposing the high death rate among construction workers on the Las Vegas Strip, and helping to pass new regulations and tighten enforcement to improve safety. The writer was a 29-year-old second-year reporter: a Vassar grad named Alexandra Berzon, who got her masters degree from UC-Berkeley. I had a chance to talk with her last evening. It was truly a "Pulitzer surprise" to her and her paper.

One widely expected prize, in local reporting, went to the Detroit Free Press staff for stories that exposed lies by Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick about his sexual relationship with his female chief of staff. (The work led to jail terms for the ex-mayor and the chief of staff.) A second local-reporting prize, however, was given to the small East Valley Tribune of Mesa, Ariz., for using its "limited resources" to reveal how a county sheriff's emphasis on immigration enforcement hurt public safety in other areas.

The Washington Post, which won six Pulitzers in a range of categories last year, garnered one this year, for the commentary of Eugene Robinson, although Post staffers also were recognized as finalists in the explanatory, editorial-writing and feature-photography categories.

I've been going through winners and finalists, and have noted some stories that were expected to be among the selected-but weren't. It may take a while to find out the reasons.

My specialty is the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service-which since the first prizes in 1917 has taken the form of the Joseph Pulitzer Gold Medal-but I spend time trying to understand the choices for all 14 of the journalism categories, as well.

For the record, among the seven Pulitzers for letters, drama and music, the fiction prize went to Elizabeth Strout for "Olive Kitteridge," with the history prize won by Annette Gordon-Reed for "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family." The biography prize going to Jon Meacham for "American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House," and the general nonfiction prize to Douglas A. Blackmon for "Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II." The drama prize went to Lynn Nottage for "Ruined," with the music prize going to Steve Reich and the poetry prize to W.S. Merwin.

We're now open for questions about the Pulitzer Prizes, and especially the 2009 crop announced on Monday.

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Falls Church, Va.: Are Pulitzers ever awarded to conservative columnists or for stories on conservative themes?

Roy Harris: In the commentary category, it does seem that most of the political writers these days have a liberal bent. But in editorial writing, conservatives have a distinct place. The Chicago Tribune has won a raft of prizes over the years, and it continues to do well in that area.

This year's editorial-writing winner, Mark Mahoney from the Glen Falls, N.Y., Post-Star, seemed to be bringing some real small-town sense to the issue of the reader's "right to know." It's worth taking a look, through a link to www.pulitzer.org, to judge for yourself.

Also, remember that a lot of commentary is non-political, going to writers who seek public improvements of all kinds. Plus, a number of commentators who've won have been sports writers--without any political ax to grind.

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New York, N.Y.: How does one get nominated for a Pulitzer?

Roy Harris: Most often, one's newspaper, wire service--or now online-only publication--picks its best work to be nominated. It only costs $50 a throw (although that could start to get prohibitive for some papers....)

It is possible to self-enter your own work. Or, over the years, fans of the work involved can make a nomination. In short, nominations can come from anywhere.

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Evanston, Ill.: Why were there no Pulitzers for financial journalism? Is the Financial Times not included in the eligible pool? Steven Pearlstein for the WaPo or Nouriel Roubini for Forbes would be unassailable choices. The FT is loaded with the likes of Krishna Guha, Gillian Tett and Martin Wolf. Justin Lahart for the WSJ would be a good choice as well. Gretchen Morgenson for the NYT deserves one. Mike Whitney who writes for counterpunch.org was so far ahead of the curve it is scary.

Roy Harris: There's not a separate category for financial journalism--but it has gotten a lot of attention, and recognition, from the Pulitzers. Especially in recent years.

Pearlstein did in fact WIN a Pulitzer last year. It was one of the Washington Post's six prizes in all, a record year for the Post in terms of numbers. Gretchen Morgenson is also a past winner.

The Financial Times isn't eligible because it's British. Forbes writers wouldn't qualify because they're with magazines, which have their own (non-Pulitzer) prizes, the National Magazine Awards, or "Ellies."

In 2007 the Wall Street Journal--something of a Pulitzer machine over the past dozen years or so--won the public service medal for explaining stock-option backdating. And this year, the New York Times' coverage of the financial meltdown was a public-service finalist. In my view, it suggested that the board may have thought NO publication quite did a Pulitzer-level job of preparing the public for what hit us in September.

I haven't reviewed the counterpunch.org work you ask about. But the whole point of the Pulitzers' expansion to online-only entries was to make work in that area eligible. Maybe next year....

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Washington, D.C.: I grew up in Nevada and was intrigued by the selection of the Las Vegas Sun for the public service prize, since the Sun has for the last few years existed only as a "section" within the much larger Review-Journal. I wonder if the Pulitzer committee wanted to make a point about second newspapers in light of the recent demise of both the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Rocky Mountain News.

Roy Harris: I've now talked to the reporter at the Sun, and a couple of editors, as well as to one of the Pulitzer public-service jurors. It seems that the quality of the reporting, and the writing, is what got it into the "final three" that the jury is asked to present to the Pulitzer Board.

From what I know of the Board members, though, they're very aware of signals that their Pulitzer choices send. Last year (2008) there was no editorial-writing award at all given! And one year no feature-writing award. Journalists scoured the list of finalists to see what might have been missing. But the best guess was that the Board wanted folks to get a sense about overall weakness in the category.

The Board is going to be faced with many journalism business models in the future: nonprofits, papers that are parts of joint operating agreements, those publishing online only.... It's not going to matter much, as long as the journalism is first-rate.

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Washington, D.C.: It seemed the smaller papers did better. Did the fact that her mother is a judge factor into the award to Berzon in Vegas?

Roy Harris: I can't imagine that Berzon's mom being a member of the Ninth Circuit entered into the decision. The jury specifically cited her courage in writing critically about so many entrenched and powerful elements of Las Vegas: casinos, labor unions, and the state government. I've now heard from a second juror in public service, who also loved the writing.

I haven't been through the entire series, but what I've seen so far validates her recognition, no matter what her folks do for a living.

Yes on the smaller-paper issue. Compared to last year, when the mid-sized Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel won a reporting Pulitzer, and the Concord, N.H. paper won a photography prize, this year the little guys ruled. Unless you count the FIVE for the New York Times.

How about the East Valley Tribune of Mesa, Ariz., winning for local reporting--the same category in which the Detroit Free Press won a second Pulitzer for its work reveailing lies and deceit in the mayor's office.

And you've got to love the Post-Star of Glens Falls, N.Y., being in the group.

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Batesville, Va.: The media largely ignored the tainted military analysts on TV issue last year. Now that a Pulitzer Prize has been awarded to David Barstow, will we see more on this?

Roy Harris: It did seem to me that there wasn't nearly enough stir about the shocking conflicts turned up by Barstow. Pulitzers do have a way of reinvigorating topics. Maybe that will happen again.

Look at the next question.

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Prescott, Ariz.: How despicable do you think it is that the networks that David Barstow fingered as being complicit in using these retired military officers as analysts, without disclosing their messy conflicts of interest (being part of an actively managed Pentagon PR program and/or shilling for companies that stand to make money on Pentagon contracts), are still engaging in the same behavior? Col. Jack Jacobs, one of the officers that Barstow originally reported on as being an active "member" of the Pentagon's media PR strategy, was on NBC News with Brian William LAST NIGHT and simply described as "Retired, NBC News Military Analyst".

Roy Harris: I love questions like "How despicable is it?"

Getting ex-military officers and experts to help viewers understand a situation is certainly legitimate. Barstow's work seemed to me to show how little questionning the broadcast media was doing about the characters they hired.

I hadn't noticed the "return of Col. Jacobs." If he still has ties to the Pentagon strategy (which I doubt, given the change in administrations) it was a bad idea to have him on.

On the other hand, maybe now he's an offset to the Obama military spokespeople!

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Arlington, Va.: The words the Pulitzer Committee used to honor Internet writing seemed bizarre in saying "Wow, there's this new form of news here" despite the fact that it's how most people get their news now.

Do you agree? As a subsidiary question, of all the reporting that is done online, don't you find it sort of stunning that none of it won?

Roy Harris: The Pulitzer Prizes have a decades-long history of having blocked out magazine and broadcast entries, and I think that slowed the organizations acceptance of online entries.

The language does have a "gee, wow" flavor to it. And the exclusion of Web sites that are part of magazine or broadcast enterprises is going to be tough for the Pulitzers to continue doing in the future. I'm guessing that a complete overhaul of the journalism awards is in the cards for the next couple of years.

My work the last couple of years has been for a magazine's online entity--CFO.com, part of the Economist Group's CFO Magazine. So I've been watching the development of Web-based journalism from that angle.

Yes, I was surprised that an online-only winner wasn't picked in some category, again, perhaps to send a signal. But the Pulitzers only have 14 categories now, and board members are loath to relax the standards. So I'd say they simply didn't find anything to edge out what did win.

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Washington, D.C.: Any idea why the Pulitzer board named the St. Petersburg Times a finalist for public service AND gave them the national reporting award? If it truly belonged in another category, why name it a finalist in the first?

Roy Harris: This happens quite often. The public-service jury picked the St. Pete Times "PolitiFact" work. But jurors didn't have the big picture across the 14 categories.

The Pulitzer Board does, and when it judges that the Florida paper's entry fits as the national-reporting winner, it tends to keep it in the public-service finalist pool as well, letting the world know how the jurors ruled.

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Concord, N.H.: Alexander Cockburn theorized in a 1984 Wall Street Journal column, the Pulitzers are a kind of show business, a "self-validating ritual whereby journalists give each other prizes and then boast to the public about them."

Roy Harris: I loved his column, even though it made me wince about the "dark side" of the Pulitzers: editors and reporters that write for prizes without having the public interest in mind.

It happens. But in my work dealing with the Pulitzer organization, I've found the editors involved extremely diligent about finding the best work out there -- and suspicious of entries that seem like they're trying to "game the system."

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Cleveland, Ohio: I wondered the same about the Sun, having lived in Vegas for a couple of years myself. My question, however, is this: Is there (besides diligent reporting and solid writing) a general formula for what is Pulitzer-worthy from a reporter? I browsed through the nominee list yesterday, particularly the local finalists from my area (Plain Dealer). I couldn't really find a common thread for consideration (not to say the articles were not well-written - I thought they were).

Roy Harris: Another major factor is work that achieves change for the public good. Pulitzer-winning environmental reporting has cleaned a city's air (St. Louis, way back in 1941.) It has put people in jail, and gotten laws passed.

There was even a president who might have left office a bit early because of the Washington Post's Watergate coverage efforts.

So I'd say, a combination of a deep explanation of a problem beyond the current understanding; clear, complete writing; a probing of the emotional side of the story, and major change as a result would be a good--if hard to apply--formula. For my perfect example, take the Boston Globe's work exploring sexual abuse by parishioners. The stories proved it was widespread, it had been covered up by the Catholic Church powers, that it was emotionally devastating. They then got the Church to begin doing something about these crimes.

I only hope that the Globe, and other papers, are able to keep up that type of work.

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Orlando Nan: Wrote my MA thesis at UF about the 1976 Gold Medal, for the Anchorage Daily News, a tiny underdog paper run by Kay Fanning, the former Mrs. Marshall Field of Chicago. Get this -- there were NO quotes in the whole series, Oil on Ice. All about the pipeline. Kind of a stream of consciousness. Standards today would prevent this piece from winning the top award. It made many good points but would not get the nod now.

Roy Harris: One of my favorite public-service winners, on the control of Alaska by the Teamsters. And the Anchorage paper then came back to win ANOTHER one, about suicides by native Americans.

That was a case of a paper that grew from the experience of winning its national recognition--the kind that the Pulitzer delivers.

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Roy Harris: Thanks all for the stimulating questions, and keeping up with the best work of the newspaper business.

It's going to need readers like you to keep healthy. And tell your kids!

Signing off until next year.

--Roy Harris

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N.Y. Times Wins 5 Pulitzer Prizes (Post, April 20)

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