So you won a Pulitzer: Who cares?

Previously published Slate articles made new.
April 20 2009 11:40 AM

So You Won a Pulitzer

Who cares?

Today, the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winners will be announced. The winners for journalism, in particular, are greatly hyped among news organizations. In 2004, Jack Shafer explained why the journalism awards don't merit the front page—or much consideration at all. The article is reprinted below.

Joseph Pulitzer: The Yellow Kid
Joseph Pulitzer:The Yellow Kid

Outside of a couple thousand journalists working at the top-tier newspapers that stand a chance of winning one, does anybody really care about the Pulitzer Prizes for journalism? I doubt that one newspaper reader in 10,000 could tell you a day after the Pulitzers are awarded who got the prize for explanatory reporting. In a perfect world, the prizes would be treated as footnotes rather than the stuff of headlines, yet they make many a front page the day after they're announced, especially in the winning newspapers.

But news they are not. If the Pulitzers were about journalistic merit and not industry peacockery, today's Page One hed and dek in the Washington Post, "The Post's Shadid Wins Pulitzer for Iraq Coverage; Los Angeles Times Takes Five Awards," would be reversed to read "Los Angeles Times Takes Five Pulitzers; the Post's Shadid Wins One for Iraq Coverage." As Alexander Cockburn theorized in a 1984 Wall Street Journal column, the Pulitzers are a kind of show business, a "self-validating ritual whereby journalists give each other prizes and then boast to the public about them."

The Pulitzer boasting started in a modest fashion. In 1917, the Pulitzers' first year, contained only three journalism categories—editorial writing, reporting, and public service. In 1922, editorial cartoons were added; in 1929, correspondence; and in 1942 the count swelled to eight when photography and telegraphic reporting (both national and international) joined the roster. In the late '60s, the Pulitzers expanded with the profligacy of the National Hockey League, growing to 10 by 1968, 11 by 1970, and finally settling at today's 14 categories.

As Cockburn observed, "If bankers gave themselves prizes ('the most reckless Third-World loan of the year') with the same abandon as journalists, you may be sure that the public ridicule would soon force them to conduct the proceedings in secret."

As a judge of other, lesser journalistic contests, I can tell you that it's a good thing the winners are chosen in private rather than under the scrutiny of C-SPAN's cameras. There's no real science or even fairness behind the picking of winners and losers, with the prizes handed out according to a formula composed of one part log-rolling, two parts merit, three parts "we owe him one," and four parts random distribution. That the Los Angeles Times brought home five Pulitzers to the New York Times' one this year doesn't mean it's five times the paper. It's a matter of the constellations aligning themselves perfectly in the Los Angeles Times' favor. If the paper gets shut out next year, nobody will accuse it of having lost its edge.

If journalism prizes are such a racket, why do I participate in them? To expose myself to worthy stories I might not have otherwise seen and to meet the other judges. And in those long-ago days that I edited publications, it was a good way to scout for talent. If memory isn't a liar, I believe I've entered myself in only one competition, and that was for a no-name prize that paid a nice sum (which I could have used) along with the requisite bowling trophy. (I lost.)

While I'm in the confessional, I must admit that I contain my cynicism whenever friends and acquaintances win Pulitzers. I cheered last year when the Pulitzer Board gave one to the Washington Post's Colbert King for his weekly column. (Boy, did they owe him.) Likewise, Slate's victory in last year's National Magazine Awards pleased me. But I never let my personal loyalties delude me into thinking that the determination of winners is anything but arbitrary.

Whether you're for or against the Pulitzer Prizes, there is no excuse for putting the winners on Page One. For one thing, the payout is a paltry $10,000. People win $10,000 every day in the lottery, and they don't make Page One. For another, the Pulitzers for journalism aren't for the best journalism of the year, merely the best newspaper journalism of the year. Make that the best American newspaper journalism of the year. Even the Academy Awards are more ecumenical than the Pulitzers, honoring foreign films, short subjects, technical achievement, animated features, and even the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. (As long as we're cataloging the Ewwww Factor, don't forget that the Pulitzers are named after one of the inventors of yellow journalism, Joseph Pulitzer.)

Put it this way: If another trade association gave itself awards—and despite the presence of a few academics on its board, the Pulitzer Prize Committee is a glorified newspaper trade association—would its winners get Page One play? Never.

One way to make the Pulitzers Page One-worthy would be to transform them into an honest annual inventory of journalism. Cockburn suggests a "record of journalistic failure" to accompany the year's best stories. I second his idea. I'd give awards to the Worst Editorial Page, the Most Compromised Local Paper, the Most Predictable Critic, and the Most Tractable White House Reporter. Rent out Lincoln Center, trot the finalists down the red carpet, and televise the event. "Now accepting the award for Most Pliant Reporter on the Weapons of Mass Destruction Beat, Judith Miller. …"

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