Media Matters

A Pox on Pulitzer Prizes

Business as usual in this year's pickings from the Government Must Protect Us At All Costs crowd.

By 4.8.04

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It's become as much of a spring rite as girls going wild in Ft. Lauderdale: corks flying in newsrooms across the land; editors vowing -- in not exactly a lapse of taste -- never to wash, indeed to frame, their methode champagnoise shirts; reporters and editors, their native cynicism suspended, celebrating their moral triumphs and turning into Sally Field at the Oscars. You like us, oh great and mighty Pulitzer Board, you really like us!

OK, if a journalist who's been nominated but never won one presumes to criticize the Pulitzer Prize process, he or she risks the jibe of sour grapes. So, let's get this out of the way: I've been nominated by my editors once or twice. I never expected to win and would, to steal Bill Buckley's line, have demanded a recount if I had won.

In 1992, a fortnight before the Republican National Convention, I wrote an editorial in the Orange County Register urging the first President Bush not to run for re-election. It was an editorial heard 'round the world, some of my colleagues called it, as I found myself interviewed on worldwide television for the duration of the presidential campaign. Indeed, it probably weakened support for the president in one of the nation's GOP strongholds, thereby helping Bill Clinton clinch California.

The editorial appeared in one of the largest dailies in California, but, as I was told by Bob Novak, it was the most talked-about editorial in Washington that he'd ever witnessed. So maybe here was a chance to sway the Board away from its East Coast liberal predilections.

OF COURSE, WE ENTERED it. Sure enough, when it came time for the winners to be announced, it was reported that the Pulitzer Board elected not to award in the editorial-writing category. Go figure. I calculated that they couldn't exactly ignore such an impactful editorial, but they'd have to have held their noses to award it to the likes of your humble servant. They punted. But I could have been wrong, ever vigilant against my own ego.

All that said, I have never been a fan of Pulitzer Prizes, the primary reason being that they focus a journalist's attention on winning the Board's favor rather than on communicating hard truths to readers. And that misdirected attention spawns an outrageous amount of expense and backchannel politicking throughout the news industry.

It's like that with other awards as well. There's an Editor of the Year Award, often given to some editor who's paid more attention to trendy sentiments among other journalists than to his own community's sensibilities. But nothing quite ranks -- or rankles -- as a Pulitzer Prize.

There have been some great and deserving winners of the Prize, and doubtless will be again. But what really tore it for me (forget the 1992 snub, if that's what it was) was this year's refusal by the Pulitzer Board to revoke its 1932 award to Walter Duranty, who ignored then apologized for Stalin's genocidal crimes as Moscow correspondent for the New York Times.

After that, one has to wonder how a self-respecting journalist would even want to share the Pulitzer-winning distinction with such a scummy scribe as Duranty. Then again, imagine how Duranty must be turning over on his spit at news that Anne Applebaum won for her book, Gulag.

BUT LET'S ADDRESS THIS year's newspaper winners. Not all of them, but the most significant:

The New York Times -- after a year of scandalous blows to its credibility -- saved some face by winning the "public service" award. What its reporters investigated, in collaboration with PBS's Frontline, were multiple violations of workplace safety regulations. So, again, the journalistic narrative that government can never do enough to protect us gets yet another rendition. It's intellectually scandalous that establishment journalists can't get beyond that faulty premise.

The Los Angeles Times picked up a handful of awards, this after scandalously tipping its coverage against candidate, now governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger during last year's recall election. The paper was lauded, among other things, for its coverage of the devastating fires in the Golden State -- coverage that gave short shrift to any analysis that environmental regulations may have left wilderness areas more flammable than ever.

Likewise, L.A.'s own gray lady won for editorial writing -- this for presumably offering lots of bad policy advice to the state. The winning writer is Bill Stall, onetime press secretary for Gov. Jerry Brown. Now on the Times's editorial board, Stall's award-winning counsel calls for weakening Proposition 13, lengthening term limits, and public campaign financing. Why is it that the "we know better than our readers" posture always seems to win?

LAT also picked up a national reporting award for a series looking into Wal-Mart, noting the presumably nefarious effects on the communities surrounding that great American institution's locations.

The commentary prize went to Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald. I happened to be in Florida when he wrote a terrific piece on Janet Jackson's flash. He's also a black American writer who cannot abide Clarence Thomas.

Of course, the Washington Post was not to be denied. The award for international reporting went to Anthony Shadid, the Post's man in Baghdad. When the prize was announced Shadid was covering the uprising of radical Muslims in Fallujah and Ramadi. Here's the headline that ran over his dispatch yesterday: "U.S. Forces Take Heavy Losses As Violence Spreads Across Iraq."

The lede: "Sunni Muslim insurgents killed about a dozen U.S. Marines in heavy fighting Tuesday in the western city of Ramadi, a military spokesman said. Troops from the United States and several allied countries also came under fire from militiamen loyal to Moqtada Sadr, a militant Shiite Muslim cleric, in cities across southern Iraq."

A grim picture. But you have to wade through six more grafs for this from Shadid: "Iraqi casualty figures were incomplete and impossible to verify, but hospital officials have reported dozens killed in clashes in Baghdad and central and southern Iraq since the weekend. Sources quoted by the Associated Press put the number of Iraqi dead at more than 60."

"Heavy Losses," anyone?

THAT WAS NOT ENOUGH QUAGMIRE coverage for the Pulitzer Board, which handed its investigative reporting award to a three-reporter team for the Toledo Blade. The team looked into documentary evidence that during the Vietnam War members of Tiger Force, an elite U.S. Army platoon, committed numerous atrocities against civilians. The cases had been looked into by the Army, which took no action against alleged perpetrators.

It's hard, after three decades, to know the truth of this story, though the Blade simply accepts the testimony of witnesses, both Vietnamese and American. Certainly I don't deny the possibility of the atrocities, but I do wonder why the government didn't act. Today's mindset assumes official inaction resulted from the worst motives. But the Blade's series, and I've not read it all, does seem to leave room for the explanation that the evidence was not complete.

What's curious about this is its timing, which seems to offer cover for John Kerry's 1971 slander of American forces in Vietnam, who, he told a congressional committee, committed wholesale and widespread atrocities as policy. CNN and Peter Arnett were already burned for doing such a story (not involving Tiger Force), which turned out to be false. If I were on the Pulitzer Board, I'd have demanded assurances that this entry was not politicized.

But then that's an unrealizable hypothesis. I'd not join a board I consider to be a travesty -- a travesty made a laughable relic by the burgeoning new media.

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About the Author

K.E. Grubbs Jr. is director of the National Journalism Center and editor of TheReporter.us