April 19, 2008

This April’s magical moment for the Washington Post—claiming Pulitzer Prizes in six of the 14 journalism categories, with the New York Times snaring two others—set off alarms elsewhere in the press. Did the concentration suggest that Pulitzer-quality capability is now in the hands of only a few good papers?

Pulitzer Prize administrator Sig Gissler says no, noting that in 2007, for example, 13 winners shared awards, with only the Wall Street Journal nabbing two. But others wonder if that year was the anomaly. In 2006, the Post took four, for example, with five going to the Los Angeles Times the year before that. The record haul was seven, to the New York Times in 2002, though that largely reflected work related to the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

During my research for Pulitzer’s Gold, a look at behind-the-scenes stories of public-service prizewinners over the 91-year history of awards, I found that it hasn’t been that long since an unwritten Pulitzer Board rule limited prizes to one a year, or two at most. And one critical internal debate involving multiple prizes, also involving the Post, occurred at a time almost as magical for the paper: the year of its Watergate public-service gold medal, in 1973.

* * *

From Pulitzer’s Gold, Chapter 17: “Pulitzer, Reform Thyself”

Concerns about the Pulitzer Prizes being tightly controlled by a handful of men [were] valid through the 1960s. During his board term from 1940 to 1954, the New York Times‘s Arthur Krock had been such a power broker, according to David Shaw, the Los Angeles Times media reporter who became a student of the Pulitzer Prizes. Krock met with Board friends for dinner the evening before formal Prize voting, where the group prepared their choices for consideration by the full group. Too many prizes for one paper was a Krock no-no. Fellow board member John S. Knight told Shaw about Krock’s message to him when Knight’s paper, the Chicago Daily News, found itself nominated by jurors for prizes in three categories. “Krock just took me out for a little walk and said I might want to be ‘more restrained.’ I got the message,” according to Knight. With his other editors in Chicago, they decided which single prize they preferred.

The reforms that [Pulitzer Board] Chairman [Joseph Pulitzer Jr.] championed in the 1970s bubbled up from the newspaper business itself, reflecting the growing awareness that all-white, all-male newsrooms were unacceptable, and that diversity in press leadership was something to be sought. By the year J.P. Jr. retired, not only did the board contain both women and minority members, but it had established a jury system emphasizing ethnic and gender balance as well…. Underlying the changes were a combination of issues raised by calmer voices within the group—like that of respected St. Petersburg Times editor Eugene Patterson, who wanted to democratize and diversify the system—and by members who did not like the “old boy network” for other reasons.

Years after the 1973 Watergate Gold Medal, the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee still smoldered over the having “lost” two Prizes that same year. Knowing that the Post coverage had been rated third-best by the Public Service jury, he had gone to Columbia prepared to fight for that Prize. In the end, he didn’t have to; the other board members by then had become Woodward and Bernstein fans. Still, with Bradlee out of the room, the board voted the Post one other Pulitzer only (to David Broder, for Commentary). As Bradlee knew, juries had favored Post candidates in three categories, yet two of those “front runners” had been voted no prize. Argued Bradlee in his 1995 autobiography, “Votes are subtly, if not openly, traded between advisory board members, and while lobbying is allegedly frowned upon, the crime is lobbying and losing.”

Bradlee also was upset that he could not complain to his fellow members. He was “in a shit sandwich, as we graduates of ancient universities like to put it,” wrote Bradlee. “[F]or fear of losing the two we had won, I couldn’t risk complaining too loud about the two we had lost.”

With juries still ranking their favorites, the jurors’ opinion was that any other choice by the board represented an overruling of the jury selection. Some on the board—Bradlee among them—shared that view. Other board members thought that jurors had no business indicating their top choices, since the naming of winners was the board’s job alone.

While Bradlee was the rare case of a board member disgruntled by the Pulitzer operation, journalists had complained about the prizes for decades. David Shaw’s study of the Pulitzer Prize process, summarized in his 1984 book Press Watch, cited several areas of contention among journalists critical of the Pulitzers. Topping his list was a charge that the Pulitzers were dominated by big eastern establishment newspapers (both the New York Times and Washington Post were mentioned) and that their gentlemen’s agreements colored the prize decisions. Papers in the West, and smaller papers all over the U.S., were said to be “systematically and unjustly neglected,” while the board also passed over some deserving winners so that it could spread the prizes around. Finally, the critics saw the board as being unlikely ever to reform itself because members were “conservative old men who pick their own successors, a self-perpetuating elite.”

In exploring the Watergate-year deliberations, Shaw asked the New York Times‘ Scotty Reston why the Post did not get those three jury-selected Pulitzers in addition to the 1973 Gold Medal. “There was a strong feeling that four was too many…that we should spread them around,” Reston told Shaw.

Shaw determined that reforms installed under chairman Pulitzer in the early 1980s significantly improved the Pulitzer selection process. Gene Patterson, a board member from 1973 to 1984, was instrumental in the modernization, which he says may well have diminished “the relaxed atmosphere” of the board in prior years. The revisions moved the board toward diversity of membership and began a movement toward more disclosure about the selection process. At the same time, the board clarified the role of the jurors. They became “nominating jurors,” and the board emphasized in its instructions that the panels were not the final decision-makers. That was the board’s job. 

“There was no particular reformer-in-chief that I remember. We sat around this long table and kicked these things around,” says Patterson. “There was just stuff that needed to be done.” But within a few years of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate Gold Medals being decided—amid so much controversy—the board had increased its size and geographic representation sharply, and added black members and women members. It shortened Board membership even further, to a maximum of nine years. For the first time, a system for naming finalists also was approved….

“There was some ancient feeling that it diminishes the Pulitzer Prizes to say there were people who didn’t win. But everybody knew there were. And as editors we stand for the free flow of information,” Patterson says. By identifying finalists, the board also acknowledged the honor that went with being in the running for a Prize, while giving the jury some credit for its choices. “And the public got a better look at how the Pulitzer works,” he notes. The board meetings remained secret, and board members were told not to discuss the decisions afterward. “Like in a jury, you have to go into a room and talk quite frankly about the entries you have before you,” he says. “In public, that dries up the spontaneity of the deliberations.”


Excerpted from Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism by Roy J. Harris Jr., published by the University of Missouri Press in January 2008.

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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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