Pulitzers: Print Media's Electric Moment

An annual ritual will be played out at 3 p.m. Eastern Standard Time today, when journalists around the country crowd around their computer terminals to fetch Associated Press bulletins that reveal the winners of this year's Pulitzer Prizes.

More than anything, the awards will prove once again that despite all the criticism of newspapers, despite the trivialization of news and the corporate pressure for greater profits, there still is some excellent journalism being practiced across America. The winners represent journalism at its best - journalism that exposes police brutality or death camps in Bosnia; journalism that documents people at risk because of shoddy medical laboratory testing or because of rudder problems on certain airplanes.

There is nothing quite like the moment when the winners realize that it is true, that their work has been singled out for the most coveted of journalism awards. In the 11 years since it first flashed on the computer screen that colleagues Dan Biddle and Buzz Bissinger and I won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting, nothing has dimmed my memory of the electric excitement of the moment, of the newsroom filling with people as champagne bottles opened. Or the memory of Buzz standing on a desk in the middle of the newsroom of The Philadelphia Inquirer, profanely pronouncing the newspaper better than The New York Times, declaring the moment second only to the birth of his twins.

The awards currently include 14 journalism categories and seven categories for books, drama, and music. Periodically, the wisdom of the board - a group of editors and academics who make the selections - comes under criticism.

I was lucky to work at the Inquirer during a period when it became the best newspaper not named The New York Times at winning the Pulitzer. Under the tenure of a remarkable editor named Gene Roberts, the newspaper won 17 prizes in 18 years. During that time, the newspaper's staff generally perceived the prize as the result of Gene's editing genius, as appropriately recognized and rewarded by eminent judges. But after he left and the Pulitzers became harder to win, some of those same people saw the results as proof of the politics and arbitrary nature of the award.

The prestige of winning may later create for many winners a particular burden.

Two days after Buzz, Dan, and I won our prize, The New York Times carried a special private message for us. There, inside the newspaper, was an article with the headline, "Prize Winners Find Glory Bittersweet." Playwright Lanford Wilson talked of the difficulty of writing after being identified as a Pulitzer Prize winner. And clinical psychologist Steven Berglas added, "Each time you achieve something significant, people look for an encore." The message was clear: Do not let the winning of a Pulitzer define your life.

But there was another, equally telling article in the Times that day, on the front page. Richard Wilbur had been named as the new poet laureate. In the first paragraph, Mr. Wilbur was identified as "a Pulitzer prize winner." In the last paragraph, the article reported that he'd won his Pulitzer, the prize that the Times used to define him, 30 years earlier. There is no doubt about it. The award matters.

It sometimes matters too much. At times, the quest for a prize seems the reason that newspapers undertake projects - a motivation that is distasteful to those of us who entered journalism with the best of intentions, with a belief in the democratic value of documenting societal wrongs.

But even those with pure motives cannot pretend that the prize does not matter; the interest each year in the gossip about which articles have been selected as finalists, a list that is supposed to be a secret, puts the lie to that fable.

The Pulitzer matters because - in the field of anonymity in which print journalists generally toil - it provides the moment of recognition promised by Andy Warhol. It gives reporters the chance to even get their faces shown - or at least their work mentioned - on the local newscast!

It matters because it serves as a reminder that there is some wonderful journalism still being practiced in communities large and small, even as the public increasingly becomes disgusted with reporters who put their energies and focus into the trivial and scandalous.

It matters because it serves to point journalists to techniques and methods that help improve the state of the art.

And perhaps most, it matters because we live in a world where risk-taking, courageous journalism is threatened by corporate ownership interested in maximum profits. The concern for profits leads newspapers to waste valuable space and resources on entertainment rather than information. It leads newspapers to compete as a pack, chasing the same story as the competition, rather than risk original reporting. It leads newspapers to safeguard editorial spending rather than safeguarding the public trust. In such a world, the risk of newspapers undertaking courageous journalism in pursuit of prizes becomes less odious than newspapers unwilling to undertake projects at all.

The lure of the Pulitzer may still encourage some papers to invest in serious projects, even if for the wrong reason. Bragging rights, after all, count for a lot.

* Fredric N. Tulsky, a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, is currently on leave from the Los Angeles Times. He is studying United States policy on political asylum under a fellowship sponsored by the Alicia Patterson Foundation.

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