Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Robert G. Kaiser. A native Washingtonian, he joined The Washington Post as a summer intern in 1963. After working as a local reporter, a foreign correspondent, an editor and, from 1991 to 1998, the paper’s managing editor, he retired in February. Erik Wemple is away this week.
It is difficult to explain to people unconnected to journalism how much excitement and anxiety is expended on this day inside the (few remaining) serious newsrooms of America — Pulitzer Prize day, when a few lucky individuals learn what the first sentences of their obituaries will say, no matter when they die. Few journalists will do anything more noteworthy — at least in the eyes of obituary writers — than winning a Pulitzer Prize.
Newspaper journalism doesn’t pay particularly well, and most readers never notice the by-lines atop the stories they read. Doing the hard work of reporting and writing is a calling. Probably too often, practitioners succumb to the notion that they are doing noble work for modest rewards that isn’t really appreciated. Most journalists tend to ignore, or forget, their own vanity. Journalism is a profession of large egos. But they love the fact that their cousins and neighbors are so impressed by what they do. Most jobs, even those paying huge salaries, offer no fame or notoriety. They don’t talk much about it, but journalists thrive on the attention they get because of their work.
The Pulitzer Prize is the ultimate reward for those egos. There must be a journalist somewhere who is immune to its cachet, but I cannot prove that by citing an example. Today the winners’ colleagues will swarm them with huzzahs and hugs. Their parents, siblings and friends will send congratulations. They will feel wonderful. Some will get a raise or a new job.
But the glory will be fleeting. Consider this question: Who won the gold medal for public service last year, or five years ago, or in 1990? Who won for international reporting in 2010? Name fifteen journalists who ever won a Pulitzer. Most people, even journalists, will flunk this quiz, because this sort of information doesn’t stick. The Pulitzer halo is glorious but evanescent, like a rainbow.
The Pulitzer Prize is a human enterprise. Editors, past winners and a few Columbia University pooh-bahs comprise the board that awards them. Like all such collections of human beings, Pulitzer Boards are capable of brilliant good sense, and egregious errors. They pass judgment on matters they know little about, like poetry, music and drama. They generally pick from a few finalists chosen by juries of peers which–I know from personal experience as a member of several–can be utterly frivolous and arbitrary. So, to cite just one example (there are scores), the best war correspondent ever to write about Vietnam for an American newspaper never won the Pulitzer: Ward Just of The Post, who gave up newspapering for novel-writing four decades ago. His war correspondence will be read a century from now by people trying to understand what happened to the United States in that war. No one will know or care about the Pulitzer Prize he did not win.
Still, this year’s board seems to me to have done a fine job. They will take guff for rewarding The Post and The Guardian for sharing Edward Snowden’s secrets, but I would call this a courageous choice. The board appropriately cited the “authoritative and insightful [Post] reports that helped the public understand how the disclosures fit into the larger framework of national security.” This was a reference to the many stories that distinguished the Post’s use of Snowden’s leaks by Barton Gelman and numerous colleagues.
Eli Saslow is one of the most talented young writers to join The Post in years, and I was delighted to see him rewarded today as well. The 2014 prize for investigative reporting went not to a newspaper at all, but to the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington non-profit. It is one of the important new institutions that will, I hope, fill the void left by once-great but now-decimated newspapers like the Chicago Tribune, the Phladelphia Inquirer, the Miami Herald and too many more. If new organizations like the Center and Pro Publica, another non-profit doing investigative reporting (and winning Pulitzer Prizes already), can thrive, this will help us compensate for the painful losses we are suffering as a profession. The Boston Globe won for its impressive coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing, the best kind of shoe-leather reporting.
So for this old practitioner, it was a good year for the Pulitzers, even if I’ve already forgotten the name of the winning poet.