Puzzling over Pulitzers at The Wall Street Journal

April 9, 2019

At the time it was remarkably tough stuff for a news report to say about a sitting president.

The Wall Street Journal broke the story in January of 2018 about a $130,000 hush-money payment having been made in Donald Trump’s name during the 2016 election campaign. The payment was to prevent news of an alleged extramarital affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels from going public. And later there was more from the Journal: details about a payment made to get the National Enquirer to kill a story about another affair, alleged by former Playboy model Karen McDougal. (The Journal had broken that story four days before the 2016 election.)

It was just the beginning of a year of Journal scoops that other media outlets had to follow. And by the end of 2018, its reporters were delivering exclusives detailing the central role of Trump himself in the pay-offs. As the WSJ eventually put it, the articles acted to “refute a pattern of denials” by the president, and raised “the possibility” that he had violated federal campaign-finance laws.

Not surprisingly, the 2018 Journal coverage has showed up in a number of journalism prize announcements  – though not yet as the top winner. Last October the Journal’s work was cited with a silver award from the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism. And it was mentioned as a runner-up for the Goldsmith Prize, and also in Scripps Howard and the News Leaders award competitions. But can it still win the big one: a 2019 Pulitzer Prize, perhaps for National Reporting, where it is said to have been entered?

That won’t be known until Monday’s announcement from Columbia University, of course. But among Journal editors and fans of the paper, there’s at least some concern that the story could be overlooked. Indeed, some see the WSJ as having hit something of a cold streak with the Pulitzers, despite some terrific reporting in recent years.

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

When asked about prize prospects, Journal editors can be just as quiet as the secretive Pulitzer organization. Everybody’s afraid of a jinx in the days leading up to the prize decision. Some at the paper, though, still harbor painful memories about what happened after a series of Journal revelations in 2015 and 2016, about the medical diagnostics startup Theranos and its charismatic founder Elizabeth Holmes. They were exclusives that seemed to the staff a sure bet for a Pulitzer, but that ended up without being even a finalist. The puzzlement was heightened after the multibillion-dollar private company’s shocking fall. The Theranos collapse and the Journal’s part in it recently were featured in an HBO documentary “The Inventor.” And they are the subject of the 2018 book “Bad Blood,” by the Journal’s reporter on the story, John Carreyrou.

Some Journal people blame the Pulitzer shut-out on the calendar-year cycle that seems to guide the judging of some Pulitzer entries. The Dec. 31 end date for stories that can be entered meant that the Journal’s early stories on the company’s problems, and the paper’s deep coverage of its decline and fall, couldn’t be entered in one strong package. Still, Carreyrou did win other awards early in his Theranos coverage — including a Polk Award for financial reporting and a Loeb Award for beat reporting.

Of course, Journal staffers understand that the strong competition for Pulitzers means that many worthy stories fail to be named finalists each year. And that’s certainly true in covering today’s White House, where one scandal report seems to follow another. Still, the failure of Theranos to win stumps them.

There’s also suspicion that some in the Pulitzer organization may be biased because of the Journal’s now decade-long ownership by Rupert Murdoch, seen by the left as something of a pariah among mainstream publications because he also owns Fox News, and backs the president.

The Journal, though, has won Pulitzers in the past decade – including a 2015 Investigative Prize for exposing Medicare fraud – even if its wins don’t come quite as often as in previous years. Staffers there also note that the hush-money story and the exposing of Theranos (a company in which Murdoch was said to have personally lost on a large investment) prove that the Journal remains independent enough to tell truth to power, including the power of its owner.

In an interesting twist, it’s been suggested – including in a recent Vanity Fair article about this year’s Pulitzer Prizes – that the Theranos story may still have a shot at a Pulitzer this year, if Carreyrou’s “Bad Blood” happens to be named as winner of the General Nonfiction prize on Monday.

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.