On the sixth floor of their midtown Manhattan offices, Wall Street Journal team members huddled around the Page One department, awaiting word about how their “Trump Hush Money” series fared in the 2019 Pulitzer Prizes. Their category, National Reporting, was about to be announced — when suddenly a cheer went up across the office, leaving them perplexed.
Then, their TV delivered the result, on a live-stream feed that, it turned out, was running 30 seconds behind: The Journal had won. The cheering spread floor-wide.
It was the last little mystery surrounding media-industry reaction to the Journal’s domination of the story of payments made to two women during the 2016 presidential election on Donald Trump’s behalf. The women — adult-movie star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal — had threatened to publicize, in one case via the National Enquirer, damaging reports of alleged extramarital affairs with the then-candidate. Strangely, in the staff’s view, the scoops hadn’t won any other journalism competitions leading up to the Pulitzers, although they had been cited as finalists in other prizes.
“I don’t know if it makes it sweeter” that their first prize was a Pulitzer, one of the lead reporters, Joe Palazzolo, told Poynter in a telephone interview shortly after the announcement. His head still ringing with “total jubilation,” as he described the office reaction, it seemed as if there had been no mystery at all.
In post-announcement conversations, investigative editor Michael Siconolfi, along with Palazzolo and fellow lead reporter Michael Rothfeld, shared their thoughts about the work that had gone into the hush-money coverage. It’s work they still are pursuing, they say, as investigations of potential election-related violations continue in the Southern District of New York.
“I give the reporters all credit; they were the beating hearts of all this,” Siconolfi said. “They took it upon themselves to conspire with each other to get to the bottom of each development. I’ve rarely seen reporters adopt that much camaraderie, being so respectful of each other, and generous with bylines and sources.”
Siconolfi pointed to three Journal domestic bureaus that shared heavily in the coverage through the many months of reporting. Rebecca Ballhaus led the pursuit of many Washington reporting angles. And in Boston, Mark Maremont contributed significantly, as did Alexandra Berzon in Los Angeles — both drawing on past experiences interviewing the president’s then-attorney, Michael Cohen. (Siconolfi said the reporters originally went by the informal name “Team Cohen” in the initial stages of working together.) Other major contributors in the New York bureau included Nicole Hong, Rebecca Davis O’Brien and Lukas Alpert, and editors Ashby Jones and Jennifer Forsyth.
Palazzolo remembered the first 2016 whispers about payoffs to women coming to the Journal in a tip heard by his direct editor, Jones. And by 2018, each Journal exclusive tying payments closer to the president forced others to follow the Journal’s lead.
Asked about the biggest breaks in the story, Rothfeld cited two.
“The first big break was getting information that it was Michael Cohen who had paid Stormy Daniels, because that was a direct link to Trump. The second big break was being able to link the president directly to the scheme — after he’d been denying it for months.”
The biggest lesson to the public from the stories, Rothfeld added, was that President Trump “had these secrets, and this was a tactic designed to deprive Americans of information during the campaign. And we felt it was newsworthy for people to know how they were operating. We got a lot of readers thanking us for the coverage,” while others criticized the Journal for sinking to the National Enquirer’s level of scandal-mongering.
He laughed, “Of course, it was the National Enquirer that was doing the opposite, in trying to keep it quiet.”
While the Pulitzer cited Journal stories starting in January 2018, Siconolfi noted that the first Journal exclusive had come before election day in 2016.
Elsewhere in the media — and from some voices at the Journal — there had been criticism of the paper’s overall Trump coverage, usually focusing on then-editor Gerard Baker, who was seen as soft on the president. Of course, the Journal’s ownership by Rupert Murdoch, since 2008, also made its reporting suspect in some eyes. (The controversy is covered well by Paul Fahri in the Washington Post.) But Siconolfi, Palazzolo and Rothfeld all praised Baker, and his successor Matt Murray, for supporting the hush-money work. There never was any sense of push-back from Murdoch, Siconolfi said.
All three journalists expressed disappointment that fellow Journal reporter John Carreyrou’s 2018 book “Bad Blood” wasn’t among the finalists for General Nonfiction. That prize went to Eliza Griswold for “Amity and Prosperity,” about an Appalachian family dealing with environmental destruction from the oil fracking industry. One of the puzzles of recent years at the Journal has been why Carreyrou’s reporting in 2015 and 2016, exposing fraud at the highly touted medical diagnostics company Theranos, and the role of charismatic founder Elizabeth Holmes, hadn’t won a Pulitzer.
But Siconolfi said that disappointment briefly was forgotten yesterday — at least for the moment — in the celebration of the National Reporting prize. The newspaper’s intensive work to develop proof of secret payments during an election was “a historic moment in journalism,” he said. “And these reporters seized this moment and got everything out of it.”