Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The 2006 Pulitzers

The Pulitzers were announced last week. While some in the blogosphere are upset about certain choices, I thought it was quite a good list, recognizing the most important work of the year, as the prizes should. You can see the complete list at the Pulitzer website (click on “What’s New” and then the 2006 list). The site also provides links to the winning coverage. The Washington Post, which lead all papers this year with four prizes, has a good write-up here, and a chat with some its winners here. As much as the “mainstream media” gets criticized — often deservedly so — newspapers continue to be the heart and soul of investigative journalism, and it’s too easy to forget how much superb, essential work gets done.

The prize for Public Service was particularly well-deserved, by The Sun Herald, Biloxi-Gulfport, Mississippi, and The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, Louisiana, for their exemplary Katrina coverage. The staff of The Times-Picayune also garnered a Pulitzer for “Breaking News Reporting.” While these awards may seem to be no-brainers, there had been scuttlebutt that The Times-Picayune might not be eligible because, in the wake of Katrina, it not could always produce a physical paper and existed primarily online. Kudos to the Pulitzer board for not staking out some silly “old media” stance and instead recognizing fine reporting.

At The Washington Post, Susan Schmidt, James V. Grimaldi and R. Jeffrey Smith won for their superb “Investigative Reporting” into Jack Abramoff, Tom Delay, the K Street Project, and an ever-expanding web of scandal. Some journalists now feel that when all’s revealed in the Abramoff affair, it may well be the biggest congressional scandal in American history. The details can easily become dizzying, and the articles defy casual reading, but The Post’s provided the most elucidating coverage I’ve yet found.

Long admired for her work, Dana Priest of The Post won the “Beat Reporting” prize for her work revealing CIA black ops prisons in foreign countries and the practice of “extraordinary rendition.” The legality, morality, and effectiveness of these facilities continue to be debated.

This week, the firing of CIA agent Mary McCarthy has brought up new issues. McCarthy claims that while she spoke with Priest, she did not leak any classified information. The CIA claims, or at least implies, she did. McCarthy, less than two weeks away from her official retirement, was undoubtedly fired to send a chilling message to any more potential whistleblowers in the CIA. But was the firing deserved? Is McCarthy the victim of a witch hunt? It seems someone must be lying, and at the very least there’s a great deal more to this story.

Still, while Katrina was undoubtedly the biggest story of the year, the biggest “scoop” of the year was the NSA warrantless wiretapping story, which justifiably won James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times a prize for “National Reporting.” Regardless of one’s feelings about the matter, the secret NSA program has triggered a Constitutional crisis, with the President unapologetically asserting virtually unlimited powers, unfettered by the laws of congress or the oversight of the judiciary.

The Toledo Blade was among the worthy nominees that did not win. Their work on “Coingate” has been important, as was their disturbing but crucial work exposing how the police covered up sexual molestation by Catholic priests going back to at least the 1950’s. Honored in the past, The Blade has earned a great deal of respect from their peers, and here’s hoping they continue to excel.

The Washington Post’s chat provided three interchanges I found especially interesting as to who tends to win and why:

Anonymous: How come whenever there is a disaster, the hometown paper wins a Pulitzer?

When the Hyatt catwalk collapsed in Kansas City, the KC Star won a Pulitzer.

After the Columbine massacre, both Denver papers won Pulitzers.

And now this year, in the aftermath of Katrina, the New Orleans and Biloxi papers won Pulitzers.

I'm sure there are other examples, as well. Why does this occur?

Susan Schmidt: It's when there is a disaster that a news organization really tests its mettle. Many times--as was the case this year in New Orleans and Biloxi--newspaper reporters and editors mount a superhuman effort because they know readers are really counting on them.

Anonymous: Who picks the Pulitzer Prizes?

It seems like every year the Washington Post and New York Times dominate the awards.

Is this because of these papers' excellent work or because the committee that picks the prizes is from the East Coast?

R. Jeffrey Smith: a very interesting question. while it's true that editors from big city newspapers frequently serve on the pulitzer board -- including, from time to time, those from the washington post and the new york times -- the process is actually fairly democratic. around 2000 entries are initially sifted and sorted by committees of prominent journalists from all over the country, and they recommend the finalists (usually three per category). then the board picks the winners. but the members must leave the room when the work of their own publications is being discussed. the real answer to your question, however, is that a relatively small number of newspapers support the kind of sustained investigative work that wins prizes -- including the Post and the Times. lots of other newspapers have also won, but these two papers often dominate simply because their editors are committed to dogged investigative work.

Alabama: Congratulations to both of you, and the following is by no means meant as a disparagement of your excellent work.

The Pulitzers have been criticized for playing favorites with large-circulation newspapers, and rewarding work that only large papers can afford to do. A paper with a big staff can afford to put two reporters on a year-long investigation. A small newspaper obviously doesn't have that luxury, and smaller newspapers often don't get consideration for Pulitzers until something like a disaster occurs in their hometown (as an earlier poster pointed out).

My question, then: Do you think the Pulitzers, like other journalism honors, should hand out awards based on circulation? For instance, one beat reporting award for a paper of 200,000 or more, one for 100,000 to 200,000, etc.?

Susan Schmidt: It's probably true that the big papers win more often, but they are the only ones that can foot the bill for some expensive enterprises, like foreign reporting. When there are big pressing national and international issues, the papers that cover those areas--by definition the bigger papers--are probably going to win many prizes. Still, even tiny papers can win, like the Point Reyes Light a number of years ago.

While all the winning stories deserve further discussion, for this entry I mainly wanted to salute some fine work. Bravo, and keep it coming.

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