From Journalism's Summit, a Note of Warning

This year's Pulitzer Prize process underscores the shrinkage of foreign reporting, right when it's badly needed

Some 60 editors from around the country met at Columbia University in New York last week for the annual ritual of screening Pulitzer Prize entries in journalism.

Entries are submitted in 14 different categories, which range from spot news and investigative and international reporting to criticism and editorial writing and photography.

For three days, small groups of editors assigned to each category sift what are widely believed to be the finest examples of American journalism published in the previous calendar year. Some editors come from major newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Wall Street Journal. Some come from smaller, regional papers like the Idaho Statesman in Boise. Some editors have themselves won Pulitzer Prizes. Most are selected for expertise in a particular area.

By the end of the three days, these jurors are obliged to nominate three finalists in each of the categories. These go to the Pulitzer board, itself largely made up of senior journalists. The board makes the final call.

In most categories, the prize now carries a $5,000 award and a certificate. But besides the money and the honor, it usually means a pay raise and upward mobility within the news organization for which the winner works.

Some journalists, like Tom Friedman of The New York Times, have won Pulitzers twice. Mr. Friedman won one Pulitzer for his superb coverage of the Arab world, then won another for his just-as-superb coverage from the Israeli side of the Middle East confrontation. He has gone on to become a columnist.

Some journalists who are already established columnists have won Pulitzers for good old-fashioned reporting, instead of pontificating. William Safire, for example, got his Pulitzer for persistent coverage of questionable activity by President Carter's banker-buddy Bert Lance.

Though there are many prizes - some of them rather questionable - awarded for journalism these days, the Pulitzer remains the one for which many journalists strive as the ultimate recognition by their peers.

Last week we jurors were enjoined to secrecy about our nominations until after the Pulitzer board meets next month and has announced its decisions shortly thereafter. This column will not breach that confidentiality, but is not precluded from discussing the interesting process itself and the lessons that might be learned from this year's submissions.

I was assigned, with four colleagues, to the international reporting category - to consider reporting by American correspondents and news organizations on a string of topics ranging from violence in the Middle East, to the cruelty of the Taliban in Afghanistan, to genocide in Africa, the oppression of Tibetan monks by China, slavery in Sudan, and the flaunting of their freedom by war criminals in Bosnia. Often the correspondents had faced obstruction, hardship, and sometimes hazard to their lives to bring to their readers dispatches of distinction that were both compelling and instructive.

But there was one ominous note. Though the quality of the reporting was high this year, the quantity - or lack of it - should be of concern to all of us. The international category drew only some 40 or 50 entries, compared with several hundred in other categories. This means that news organizations are paying less attention to events in the world at large - events of immense significance to Americans.

The reasons are several.

Budget-cutting is hampering foreign correspondence. TV networks in particular have closed some and decimated many of their foreign bureaus. Print journalism has also been set back. While several large newspapers that have traditionally attached importance to foreign coverage have by and large maintained their staffs, others have cut back, particularly in capitals where the upkeep of a resident correspondent is especially costly.

With the end of the cold war and the demise of communism, many Americans are paying more attention to events at home. Editors sometimes reflect these changing attitudes. In the corridors last week between judging sessions, most of the gossip was about President Clinton's fund-raising scandals, and whether Al Gore's presidential hopes are dashed by him too having been found with his hand in the fund-raising cookie jar. There was far less talk of Boris Yeltsin and the leadership succession in China.

The cold war may be over. But regional crises still abound. If the American people are to make intelligent judgments about them - and on such issues as when and where the United States should intervene - our foreign press corps, like our military, needs to be expert, well-positioned, and well-supplied with resources.

* John Hughes is editor of the Deseret News and a Pulitzer Prize winner.

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