2019 Pulitzer Preview: Not all, but many, winners may be about the president

As the Pulitzer Prize Board prepares to select its slate of 2019 winners to announce next week, likely little time will be spent reacting to presidential tweets — such as the March 29 one that urged the board to invalidate last year’s National Reporting prizes to the Washington Post and New York Times.

“There was so much extraordinary work submitted” this year, Pulitzer Administrator Dana Canedy told Poynter in an email, “even in a year when journalism is yet again under relentless assault, including from the highest office in the land, and when the security threats remain high for journalists simply seeking to do their jobs.”

Naming new winners is the 18-member Board’s main job now, of course. And the result of its secret deliberations to honor the best work in 14 journalism categories, and seven for arts, letters and music, will be livestreamed from Columbia University by Canedy next Monday, April 15 at 3 p.m. Eastern time. Typically, one winner and two finalists are announced in each category, based on the recommendations of jury panels.

Pulitzer jurors met in late February, also in secret, to cull this year’s 1,162 total journalism entries. But since their “nominated finalists” aren’t revealed in advance — and there’s no longer an active rumor mill based on juror leaks — this annual Poynter preview seeks to proffer some possible winners by gleaning results of earlier journalism competitions. It’s an imperfect approach, because there’s no system quite like the 103-year-old Pulitzers. (Vanity Fair tried a little Pulitzer handicapping last month, with Joe Pompeo noting some candidates based on what “people were whispering about.” Among the work mentioned: The Washington Post’s Jamal Khashoggi coverage as a Public Service contender, and The Wall Street Journal’s stories on “Trump’s Hush Money” and ProPublica’s coverage of immigration, both for National Reporting.)

This preview focuses on news-based categories: Public Service; Investigative, Breaking News and Explanatory Reporting; and Local, National and International Reporting. It excludes the more opinion-based Commentary, Criticism, Editorial Writing and Cartooning areas, along with Feature Writing and both Breaking News and Feature Photography. (Poynter president Neil Brown, a Pulitzer Board member, was not consulted for this article.)

Some Pulitzer-winning work last year involved investigating cases of sexual harassment. Public Service gold medals in 2018 jointly honored The New York Times and The New Yorker magazine for exposing “powerful and wealthy sexual predators,” most famously Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Meanwhile, The Washington Post’s disclosures about Alabama’s U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore won for Investigative Reporting, exploring his history of “alleged past sexual harassment of teenage girls, and detailing subsequent efforts to undermine the journalism that exposed it.” But other 2018 winners — including that of the Times and Post in probing Russia’s election interference, and the Arizona Republic and USA Today Network’s Explanatory Reporting on “difficulties and unintended consequences” connected with the president’s promised border wall — got chilly receptions in the White House for what they said about the president’s campaign and post-election policies.

The 2019 Pulitzer winners, too, are likely to reflect a thorough mix of Trump-related coverage and work that has little relationship to him.

Consider the announced finalists for the 2019 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, a $25,000 award won in March by the Dallas Morning News for its project “Pain and Profit,” about extreme abuses by the private health insurance companies that Texas hired to manage taxpayer-funded Medicaid. (Pulitzers come with $15,000, except Public Service, which is accompanied by a gold medal.) Two finalists did delve deeply into matters concerning President Trump. One was “Zero Tolerance,” a graphic ProPublica exploration of life inside a border patrol detention center where immigrant families were being separated. The other: those Wall Street Journal stories on hush-money payments made during the 2016 campaign — payments said by the WSJ to have been personally orchestrated by then-candidate Trump, to prevent two women from publicly alleging affairs with him. The Journal’s groundbreaking stories began being published in January 2018.

RELATED STORY: Puzzling over Pulitzers at The Wall Street Journal

Yet three finalists in the Goldsmith competition, run by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, were local projects. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s “Toxic City: Sick Schools” exposed widespread unsafe conditions that endangered students. The Alabama Media Group broke open the “Beach House Sheriff” scandal, involving misuse of state funds by a county law officer, and mistreatment of inmates in a jail he ran. And Indiana’s South Bend Tribune, along with the investigative consortium ProPublica, revealed criminal-justice abuses in the town of Elkhart.

Another big-money prize, the $50,000 Selden Ring Award, given by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School, went to the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal organization for “Kept Out,” a series that explored discrimination in home lending across the United States (Runners-up were the Inquirer’s “Toxic City: Sick Schools” and Alabama Media Group’s “Beach House Sheriff” projects.)

Long Island University’s George Polk Awards, which have nine separate reporting categories, gave their political reporting award to David Barstow, Susanne Craig and Russ Buettner of The New York Times for their study of President Trump’s financial history. That series detailed “dubious tax schemes,” as the paper described them, and showed how much of his personal wealth is inherited. In the area of justice reporting, a Polk went to Julie K. Brown of the Miami Herald for “Perversion of Justice,” her series on hedge fund manager Jeffrey Epstein and the generous plea deal he received after being charged with sexually abusing underaged girls and luring them into prostitution. (The story had a Trump connection; it implicated Alexander Acosta, then a federal prosecutor, in negotiating a soft penalty. Acosta now is the president’s Secretary of Labor.)

The Polk national reporting award went to The New York Times staff for investigative reports on the power over regulators held by Facebook and other media giants. The Tampa Bay Times’ Kathleen McGrory and Neil Bedi won local reporting honors for “Heartbroken,” examining how 11 patients at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, had died in a short span after heart surgery. And in foreign reporting, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo of Reuters won for their “Massacre in Myanmar” stories, exposing paramilitary executions of Rohingya Muslims there, work that led to the reporters’ imprisonment for violating Myanmar’s national secrets act.

The Reuters Myanmar coverage seems a strong candidate for the International Reporting Pulitzer, although the Scripps Howard Foundation gave Reuters’ overall Myanmar coverage its investigative award. Scripps’ business-financial award went to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the Associated Press and NBC News for “Implant Files,” an investigation of the medical-devices and implants industry and related injuries and deaths. For environmental reporting, National Geographic won for “Planet or Plastic?” detailing the growth of plastic waste in the world. And the Scripps breaking-news award went to South Florida’s Sun Sentinel for its coverage of the Parkland school shootings — work that Scripps said involved “long-term commitment” to Parkland coverage.

Indeed, the News Leaders Association Awards, managed jointly by the American Society of News Editors and Associated Press Media Editors, saw the Sun Sentinel’s Parkland coverage in a wider context, naming it the year’s winner for “impact in public service journalism.” (The Journal’s “Trump’s Hush Money” was a public-service finalist.) For breaking news, the News Leaders Awards named the Capital Gazette of Annapolis, Maryland, along with the Baltimore Sun, as winners for their work during and after last June’s shootings at the Capital Gazette’s offices.

Magazines, which only in recent years have become eligible to compete for Pulitzers, didn’t have many winners this year in journalism competitions like the Polks, Scripps and News Leaders. In their own Ellie Awards, from the American Society of Magazine Editors, however, The New Yorker was a dominant player. It won for Ben Taub in reporting and Sarah Stillman in public interest, two of the areas that correspond closely to Pulitzer categories.  Taub’s article was “Shallow Graves: Iraq’s Post-Isis Campaign of Revenge.” Stillman’s winner was titled “No Refuge: When Deportation Becomes a Death Sentence.” (Plus, New Yorker writers also won Ellies for commentary and feature writing.)

Even with the 2019 Pulitzers so close to being announced, the Pulitzer organization wasn’t totally silent on the president’s Twitter objections over last year’s National Reporting prizes given to the Times and Post. The Pulitzer website features a link to a New Yorker piece written by Board member Steve Coll — Columbia’s journalism school dean, and a former Post managing editor — defending the two papers’ work exploring Russia’s election interference. “President Trump, for all his demagoguery, has yet to marginalize professional reporting,” Coll wrote. “In many newsrooms, investigative journalism is enjoying a renaissance, and is having a strong impact, within and beyond Washington.”

Stay tuned to see if Monday’s Pulitzer Prize announcements provoke a new tweet storm from the White House.

Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and author of “Pulitzer’s Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism,” writes for Poynter about prize-winning reporting and other topics. He lives in Hingham, Massachusetts.

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