For the first time in 48 years, the Pulitzer Prize Board chose not to name a winner in Editorial Cartooning — a decision some are calling an insult to all cartoonists.
The Pulitzer Prizes announced Friday that Ken Fisher, drawing as Ruben Bolling; Lalo Alcaraz; and Marty Two Bulls Sr. were finalists in Editorial Cartooning. Winners were named in all 14 other journalism categories. The last time no award was given in Editorial Cartooning was in 1973.
Alcaraz, who was also a Pulitzer finalist last year, was preparing for a work Zoom call when he got a text that read, “You got robbed.” Other messages poured in as he tried to figure out what had happened.
“I had to tell the folks on the Zoom, ‘You know, I’m trying to confirm if I am a finalist on the Pulitzer, but I think there’s no award. So I don’t know what to say right now, so excuse me if I’m a little out of sorts here,’” Alcaraz said. “Because it was confusing. It’s still kind of confusing.”
It is fairly unusual — but not unprecedented — for the Pulitzer Board to decide not to name a winner in one of its journalism categories. Since 2000, the board has chosen not to give an award five times. No awards were given in Feature Writing in 2014, Editorial Writing in 2012, Breaking News Reporting in 2011, Editorial Writing in 2008 and Feature Writing in 2004.
These scenarios happen if a finalist doesn’t receive a majority vote among the 18 board members. For each Pulitzer category, a group of judges sift through all the submissions and pick three unranked finalists as well as three alternates. Those six pieces then go to the Pulitzer Prize Board, which discusses the entries. At least 10 board members must vote for a finalist for it to be named as a winner.
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Immediately after the announcement, cartoonists criticized the board’s decision. Two Bulls drew his response in a cartoon for The Washington Post. The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists released a statement calling the decision a “pointed rejection.”
“We are mystified by the pointed rejection of talented Finalists as well as the many other artists who have been creating powerful work in these most eventful and challenging of times,” the statement reads. “The medium of editorial cartooning has been evolving for many years now, yet the Pulitzer Board remains extremely traditional and narrow-minded in its tastes, apparently uncomfortable with contemporary trends in opinion cartooning and comic art.”
Pulitzer Board interim administrator Bud Kliment wrote in an emailed statement that members of the board do not discuss their deliberations. He said the board has previously declined to name winners in 1973, 1965, 1960, 1936 and 1923, and nominating juries are aware of this possibility when they deliberate.
“Despite considerable discussion by the Board, none of the three finalists achieved a majority vote in the Editorial Cartooning category,” Kliment wrote.
Though the juries for each category include experts in the field, the board itself mostly consists of editors and academics. That’s a problem, Two Bulls said, since they have the final say over who wins.
“To be considered for a Pulitzer is almost the pinnacle of a lifetime of work, a lifetime of study,” Two Bulls said. “The only ones who could really understand it are the cartoonists. Artists, we can tell how good a person is just by glancing at their work and know how much time and effort they put in studying the craft to get to that point.”
Bolling learned that he was a finalist while attending his daughter’s high school graduation ceremony. He was already emotional from the day’s events, and the Pulitzer news left him stunned and moved.
Those feelings evolved as he thought more about the Pulitzer Board’s decision not to name a winner. At first, he was confused, wondering if maybe the board hadn’t been able to come to a conclusion.
“But the more I thought about it over the course of the day and the subsequent days, the more I feel as though the answer really must be that they made a determination that no cartoonists among the finalists, or otherwise, did work that was Pulitzer-worthy,” Bolling said. “Otherwise, I feel as though they could have named a tie or just done their job and hashed it out.”
Bolling said he is ambivalent towards awards in general — though he is honored to have been named a Pulitzer finalist. He has won some awards and lost many more, and he has never felt that he deserved anything.
“I feel like judges make a subjective determination, and everyone moves on. So I’ve never once complained about any award or even felt the impulse to,” Bolling said. “But this feels different. This feels like it’s an insult to the entire profession.”
Pulitzer Prizes are awarded for work done in the previous calendar year. Alcaraz pointed out that 2020 was a particularly newsworthy year, each day bringing new stories about politics, upheaval and the pandemic. The decision not to award a winner gave the impression that the board didn’t think the profession’s commentary last year was “valid,” Alcaraz said.
In his work last year, Alcaraz tried to cover the concerns of the Latino community, touching on everything from culture to immigration to economics. He wanted to bring a front-line perspective to a larger mainstream audience. But he felt that the Pulitzer Board had just disregarded his work.
“The three finalists this year were a Jewish man; me, a Chicano artist, a Mexican American cartoonist; and a Native American cartoonist,” Alcaraz said. “Pick any of us, and it would have made a statement against the tide of hate and racism … in this country. But nah. They tossed it.”
In its statement, the AAEC called on the Pulitzer Board to refund participants’ entry fees. Counterpoint, a daily newsletter that includes work from 16 editorial cartoonists, similarly requested that the board either refund entry fees or reconvene to pick a winner.
Both Alcaraz and Bolling hope the board addresses the issue before next year. Two Bulls said he is worried this year’s events will influence what kinds of work cartoonists submit in the future.
“With this controversy, will cartoonists start thinking about submitting cartoons that appeal to the board’s sensibilities and not what they think is good?” Two Bulls said. “That would be tragic.”
Though Alcaraz and Two Bulls both said they plan on submitting their work for consideration again in the future, Bolling said he is unsure.
“I think that if I could ever get a statement that the Pulitzer Board will never give me the prize, I think that was made clear this year,” said Bolling, who was also a finalist in 2019. “They would rather throw it in the garbage … than give me the award or any of my colleagues.”
This article has been updated to include statements from Bud Kliment and Marty Two Bulls Sr.