April 5, 2008
When the latest Pulitzer Prizes are announced at Columbia University Monday afternoon, it may actually be news to some of the winners and finalists. The most reliable public source of leaks from the selection process, Editor & Publisher magazine, this year managed to crack open the list of finalists in only four of the 14 journalism categories

If many in the profession see harmless sport in the frantic cajoling of jurors into leaking information, though, don’t tell that to Seattle Times executive editor David Boardman.

He offers what he calls “the perspective both as a juror and an editor whose paper has had nine finalists in the past 10 years, and has been oh-for-those-nine.” But it’s clear that he’s still bitter about the effect of one leak five years ago.

After rumors were published that a Times series was a 2002 Investigative nominee for exposing alleged abuses at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson cancer research center, Wall Street Journal reporter Laura Landro wrote what Boardman calls an “absolutely scurrilous” Op-Ed piece. He insists her criticism on the series was part of “a personal mission to make sure we were not a winner,” a charge Landro dismisses as mud-slinging.

The Pulitzer Board named the Times work a finalist — still a huge honor — calling it a “penetrating” disclosure of clinical-trial patients receiving improper warnings about risks, among other claims made in the series. But it didn’t win the prize.
So when Boardman left the jury room at Columbia University ‘s Journalism Building in New York early last month and got the usual call from Joe Strupp, the E&P reporter charged with scoping out finalists in advance, the response was unusually dismissive. Of all the arguments Pulitzer administrator Sig Gissler makes each year to encourage jurors to honor their signed pledge of secrecy, says the Times editor, “the concern about politicking and pressures on the board is a very real one.” 
As indicated by E&P’s “score” of successes in only Investigative, Explanatory, Breaking News and National Reporting — down from 11 categories nailed in advance last year — Boardman was one of many more jurors to clam up this year. One other 2008 juror, Philadelphia Inquirer editor Bill Marimow, says he turned the question back on Strupp. “I said, ‘Joe, I made a promise. I’m keeping the promise. Wouldn’t you keep that promise, Joe?'”

Spanish Flies?

In the community of Pulitzer process-watchers, there’s been much speculation about what led to the sudden hush among jurors. Especially since the juror/journalists themselves rely on leaked information in their stories — including the controversial Seattle Times series.

“I’m glad to see a sharp decline in leaks, but we have not done anything different this year regarding confidentiality,” Gissler says in an e-mail response. “I point out that, at a time when newspapers are defending the sanctity of confidentiality, an editor’s word, under all circumstances, should be an editor’s bond.” Gissler adds that more jurors lately seem “offended by calls that assume they are promiscuous oath-violators — all of which speaks to the integrity of editors.” He spiced his pitch for secrecy this year with a note of levity, telling jurors, “En bocca cerrada, no entran moscas.” (Translation from the Spanish: “Flies do not enter a closed mouth.”)

The calls for jurors to leak nominee names have continued, although they have diminished. For one thing, old-timers who loved the chase for Pulitzer leaks are retiring at a fast clip.

Since the early decades, when the fledgling Pulitzers had a much smaller following, secrecy has been designed into the process. But it was always subject to selective leaks from within. From 1917 — when the only journalism prizes were for Public Service, Reporting and Editorial Writing — the number of categories quadrupled through 1980. And until that year, finalists were not formally acknowledged, let alone honored.

The Cabal Arises

In the mid-90s, something that came to be known as “the Cabal” emerged in journalism’s old boy/girl network. The participants had a mission: to tap their friends among the jurors, and “out” the prize nominees through e-mails — thus accomplishing almost the same result that a formal early announcement of finalists would have.

One leader was Deborah Howell, now the Washington Post ombudsman, but formerly the Washington bureau chief for Newhouse Newspapers. She and her Cabal compatriots took pride in their success trading finalist information — pure gold for editors and publishers who were eager to know their prize prospects.

In the early days, the Cabal “could get it all in a couple of days,” she recalls, “because we had somebody in about every paper.” She still traffics in nomination secrets to an e-mail distribution list. But with fewer old friends plugged in these days, and more jurors reluctant to break the written pledge that’s been required the last few years, it’s no longer a snap.

“Also, I’m really busy in this job,” she says. So not long ago, she called Sig Gissler “and told him I was retiring after this year.” Still, Howell claims to know the three finalists in half the 14 categories — three more than Strupp confirmed. She also learned, as did Strupp, that her own paper is apparently a finalist in Public Service for its Walter Reed hospital coverage, although she couldn’t learn what it’s up against for the gold medal.

Howell still believes that “the finalists should be announced, just like the Oscar nominees are, so that they have their time in the sun.” As it is now, of course, revelation of each category’s finalists on Monday immediately tags them as also-rans, albeit exalted ones.

But Howell has some sympathy for the argument that early identification invites pressure on the Pulitzer Board. And she considers the Seattle Times-Hutchinson clinic case “probably the outstanding example I’ve seen.” Howell calls it a case of “somebody who was trying to kill a Pulitzer.”
Landro’s Position

For her part, veteran Journal assistant managing editor Landro — also known for her “Informed Patient” and “Finicky Traveler” columns — remains as adamant today that her criticism of the Seattle Times stories was on target. “I stand by everything I said in that essay,” she says in an e-mail. Her article questioned the Times work as an example of “gotcha” journalism that “demonizes researchers or sensationalizes a bad outcome in an experimental treatment.”

Landro charges that the Seattle paper has “been slinging mud at me for years, as have all the other ‘journalists’ who awarded them other prizes for that story. As for the Pulitzer, I believe the Pulitzer Board is influenced by one thing: the quality, fairness and objectivity of reporting. So their decision, based on that criteria, stands.” She notes, too, that a jury found in favor of the clinic in the case of four people who sued the center in the deaths of their spouses during the questioned research.

No matter who’s right about the quality of the Seattle Times work, the Journal‘s opinion piece remains a thorn in Boardman’s side. And he notes that there had been an earlier case of criticism of a Times series: on toxic waste that was recycled as fertilizer. In that case, he says the fertilizer industry lobbied the Pulitzer Board after the work was leaked as a 1998 Public Service finalist.

While one might think that industry opposition could actually help a story in the eyes of the board, Boardman says that may not be the case. “More often than not those kinds of complaints work against the entry,” he says. “The board doesn’t have time to investigate every claim,” and in the case of two strong entries, it’s likely to go “with the one that doesn’t have a lead weight around its neck.”

Despite the two bad experiences, Boardman actually has mixed feelings about announcing juror selections first. “You can argue it on both sides,” he says, noting that “to keep it confidential does take away the wonderful experience, for a month or so, of basking in the glory of being a Pulitzer finalist.”

Another positive of vetting controversial stories may be that challenges to a story’s integrity can be worked out in advance. He notes that this is what happened when the Denver Post‘s 2007 series about the destruction of evidence in the court system appeared on this year’s E&P list of Investigative finalists. It was challenged by the Charlotte Observer, which had written about one of the characters cited by the Post. (E&P reported that the editors of the two papers apparently resolved the questions amicably.)

As for why fewer leaks occurred this year, Boardman connects it with the formality of E&P‘s list. “I’ll admit that in the past — though never when I was a juror — I was one of those people on the outside who passed those rumors along,” he says. But no more. “I really think having it out there in published print and online changed the nature of things enough that people took the pledge more seriously,” he says.
“Not One Deep Throat”

At E&P, Strupp says he can’t explain why fewer leaks occurred in 2008, but notes that his sources change every year. Or, as he puts it, “It’s not like there’s one Deep Throat.” He won’t talk about his sources, but he said in a March 9 story, just after the juries met, that “jurors who had promised to reveal finalist lists…changed their minds after the event occurred.”

The evolution of Bill Marimow’s views on leaking, however, may offer some insights on the trend toward juror silence. “When I first became conscious of the Pulitzer Prize process it was 1978, the year the Inquirer won Public Service for its police violence series,” he says. At the time, “I didn’t even know that there were juries; I just learned that we were one of three” — back in that time before finalists were disclosed. So he thought it was “relatively routine…. I didn’t think it was right, and I didn’t think it was wrong. I thought it was just standard operating procedure.” But, he adds, “when I became a juror, the more that Sig talked about it, the more acutely I became aware that standard operating procedure was not proper operating procedure.”

That still leaves one dilemma for an editor, Marimow concedes: how to get word of an impending Pulitzer so that chilled champagne can magically appear in time for an office celebration. Preparing for a toast isn’t an immediate concern for the Inquirer. “Not this year,” he says. But for the future, Marimow suspects that even if the leaks dry up completely, “somehow or other, the champagne will get there.”
Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and now a senior editor at the Economist Group’s Boston-based CFO magazine, is author of Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism, published in January by University of Missouri Press. More about the book here.

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Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is the author of Pulitzer's Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism, published in an updated edition…
Roy J. Harris Jr.

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