The New York Times won a record number of Pulitzer Prizes yesterday: seven. No newspaper had ever won more than three Pulitzer Prizes in a single year before. Six of the Times’s prizes were related to its coverage of Sept. 11 and the war on terrorism, and on at least one of the six there can be no argument about whether the Times deserved it or not. The Times won the Pulitzer’s Public Service Award for the post-Sept. 11 sections it called “A Nation Challenged,” and as Seymour Topping, the Pulitzer administrator, said, this was “an extraordinarily powerful entry.” Indeed it was the best thing the Times had done in years.
The “Nation Challenged” sections bundled together each day all of the coverage, domestic and foreign, of Sept. 11 and its aftermath. Much of this was routine stuff, but much of it was not. Meanwhile the finest things in the section each day were the capsule biographies of the World Trade Center victims. The Times is rich in resources, and when it wants to, it can do some stunning work. The capsule biographies of the abbreviated lives made the tragedy of Sept. 11 achingly real. They were journalistic haiku.
Think of the Times, however, as a bifurcated, even schizophrenic, paper. It has, as always, many of the best reporters in the business. It also has a few good editors, although most of them seem to be in the lower and middle ranks of the Times hierarchy, and not at the very top. The Times, in fact, is very badly edited. In its eagerness to reflect liberal thinking, no matter how sappy, the Times mixes in fact and opinion in what once were the sacrosanct news columns. It also lives, increasingly, I think, in a world of its own. As an institution, it is almost a stranger to New York
The Times, for example, opposed Rudy Giuliani’s election as mayor. It thought him utterly unsuited for the job — it feared he was a Reagan Republican — and it preferred instead the hapless, hopeless David Dinkins. But the voters thought otherwise, and it was fortunate that they did. Giuliani reversed New York’s decline, and allowed it to renew its emotional resources. New York was no longer the dispirited city it was before he was elected. No thanks to the Times, but when Giuliani restored the city’s confidence, he gave it the strength it needed to cope as well as it did with Sept. 11.
As for the Times’s other Sept. 11 and terrorist-related Pulitzers, you may pay your money and take your choice. Personally I wish the Pulitzer judges had not given Tom Friedman another prize. Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post is a much sounder foreign affairs columnist than he is. But the judges, I suspect, were influenced by Friedman’s recent prominence in the news himself. The Saudis used him to float their dubious peace plan.
Meanwhile I am just a wee bit skeptical of the Pulitzer for foreign reporting for the Times’s Barry Bearak. He writes awfully well, but he sometimes seems too glib.
On the other hand, I am delighted that the Wall Street Journal won a Pulitzer for its breaking news coverage of Sept. 11. I only wish that Dan Henninger, who usually toils anonymously on the editorial page, had gotten a special citation. He wrote a brilliant first-person account of what it was like on that dreadful day. Later he wrote an extraordinarily touching piece about the lives that were lost.