News organizations are not supposed to make news. But in early April, the Pulitzer Prizes are announced and staffs gather in a handful of newsrooms around the country to celebrate their achievements, pay homage to the work that won the prize and remind themselves that hard work produces good journalism and, occasionally, recognition of it.
The Post and the Los Angeles Times were the big honorees this time, each winning three Pulitzers for their efforts during 2002. The Pulitzers were first awarded in 1917. The Post received its first citation in 1936 and has now won 40.
This year, many people here at The Post shared, at least spiritually, in a fourth prize: the one for history awarded to Rick Atkinson for his book "An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943." Atkinson, a veteran Post reporter and editor who has been on leave writing a trilogy about the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II, has returned to the paper temporarily to report from Iraq, where he is embedded with the Army's 101st Airborne Division.
The Post recipients this year were columnist Colbert I. King, film critic Stephen Hunter and Mexico-based husband-and-wife foreign correspondents Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan.
What I liked especially about this year's awards was that they recognized not just solid, intelligent, high-impact commentary and reporting, but that it was the kind of routinely good work that cements readers to newspapers. These were not awards for blockbuster investigations that appear over several consecutive days on the front page, which are also important but which you know are going to become prize submissions somewhere. Rather, these are bodies of work that span the year and that readers can look for daily or weekly.
King's Saturday op-ed column is a must-read if you live in or around the District. We all go to the movies, and Hunter is there before we are, entertaining and informing whether the film is good or bad. He is only the second film critic in the history of the criticism award to be recognized. Jordan and Sullivan's eight articles from March through December about the horrific conditions in Mexico's criminal justice system remind us of the good reporting from around the world -- and not just from the hot spot of the moment -- that is in the paper routinely.
Another thing that struck me about this year's awards was the absence of the prelude to war in Iraq. Whatever you think about this war, it is clearly one of the most important -- and controversial -- in modern American history. It is a war of choice, a preemptive war, one that polls show is supported by a sizable majority of Americans yet one that has split alliances and was widely opposed almost everywhere else in the world. Coverage of it may dominate next year's awards, and this year's entries obviously stopped on Dec. 31, well before the war started.
But the shifting U.S. focus from Afghanistan to Iraq, the growing prospect of war, the various rationales for it and the beginnings of the military buildup were dominating facts that we all lived with throughout 2002. If the proverbial visitor from Mars were to look at the Pulitzers as a reflection of what was going on in the world in 2002, he, she or it would have no idea that this storm had been gathering. Maybe that's all explainable, and certainly there was a lot of strong coverage of Iraq and other issues. But maybe it means that the press could have done better, focusing on the prospect of war to a point that it would have jumped out as prescient coverage worthy of note.
On March 28, Atkinson, in a front-page Post story, quoted the Army's senior ground commander, Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, as saying, "The enemy we're fighting is different from the one we'd war-gamed against." A New York Times reporter, who was in the same interview, reported the statement as, "The enemy we're fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against." This difference has become a bit of an issue for some readers. On April 1, two other Times reporters picked up the general's quote and used a version similar to the one that had been in The Post, namely without the words "a bit." Two days later, the Times published a correction to restore its original construction. Some readers want The Post to correct its account. But Post editors, after checking with Atkinson, say that they are confident their version is correct and that none of the principals involved has complained. Assistant Managing Editor Phil Bennett adds that "nobody contests the substance of the observation at the time that the Army found itself fighting irregular forces instead of Republican Guard armor."
Michael Getler can be reached by phone at (202) 334-7582 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.