Analyzing the 2012 Pulitzer Prize winners (and losers)

Apr 17, 2012

Image: The Associated Press

The 2012 Pulitzer Prize winners were announced Monday, April 16 at 3 p.m. ET. Pulitzer expert Roy Harris discussed the winners in the Pulitzer journalism categories.

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Welcome to the Washington Post’s fifth annual post-Pulitzer Prize chat, which in this day and age makes it a time-honored tradition.

In looking at the announcement yesterday of 14 journalism prizes – we exclude here the seven for arts, letters and music categories – we're taking an approach similar to what journalists call the second-day story. It aims to add vital perspective to understanding a major event that the previous day was dominated by “spot coverage,” necessarily somewhat shortsighted because of the deadline pressures of the moment.

Did a storm ravage a town? The second-day story examines more closely the plight of the victims, the prospects for rebuilding, and such other forward-looking elements as changes in building codes that might lead to less destruction the next time.

Was major wrongdoing by a once-trusted individual or government agency exposed? Second-day coverage may find laxity in regulation that allowed the fraud to occur, and, perhaps, human frailty that let us fall for it. Such reporting looks at what we can learn from the prior day’s story. In that regard, it also adds historical perspective: Just what is a Ponzi scheme anyway? (As it happens, Charles Ponzi’s original scam was among the first major Pulitzer-winning expose, by a Boston newspaper in 1921, the fourth year of the prizes.)

In this 96th “edition” of the journalism Pulitzers, here were a few of the spot-news elements:

--The online Huffington Post's new respectability, the product of winning the national-reporting Pulitzer for a 10-part series on the tribulations of returning U.S. veterans (a story with echoes of the Washington Post’s stunning 2008 public-service Pulitzer-winner, by Dana Priest and Anne Hull, about abuses at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. ) With the Pulitzers looking to honor more online-only work, the Huffington stories by veteran reporter David Wood were the first ever won by a for-profit Web-based outlet. (The ProPublica nonprofit had won previously.)

--The Philadelphia Inquirer, embattled financially and recently sold, which wins in public-service for a series on school violence – a project that was greenlighted by Bill Marimow, the former editor, before he left the paper to teach, and to learn more about the digital world. By coincidence, Marimow was called back as editor earlier this month.

--The continuing power of newspaper investigations, this year perhaps led by the work of 24-year-old Sara Ganim of Harrisburg, Pa.’s Patriot-News. With courageous reporting she broke -- and then meticulously pursued -- the story of alleged sex offenses involving ex-Penn State football defensive coach Jerry Sandusky, which shook a huge, powerful institution that dominates the paper’s 67,000-circulation area.

--Sleepless Seattle reporters, who not only won for one of the Seattle Times's trademark investigations, into deaths caused by legal prescription of the drug methadone, but for feature writer Eli Sanders's dramatic story of a woman’s rape trial, written for the city's small weekly, The Stranger.

--A strong showing, as usual, by the New York Times, with winners in explanatory reporting and international reporting, where, of course, it often does much of its best work.

--And what I’d call, paraphrasing Sherlock Holmes, the dogs that didn’t bark: some non-Pulitzer-winners that may tell us about the nature of this year’s prizes, and perhaps about American journalism itself.

Non-barking-dogs refers not only to newspapers that didn’t win – this year including traditional powerhouses like the Post, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times, all of which had strong journalism all year, and had some Pulitzer finalists. But there’s another non-barker: the entire editorial writing category, where there was no award. (That previously happened in 2008.)

Last year there was a non-award in the breaking news category. But this year numerous strong candidates appeared there, topped by the Pulitzer-winning Tuscaloosa News, which did an amazing job of covering the devastating April 2011 tornadoes that struck Alabama, along with a wide swath of middle America.

But I know that Washington Post readers have their own perspective, and that if you’ve followed the Pulitzers closely enough to be on this site, you’ll probably express it.

So, have at it! The line is open.

Do you feel the award to the journalist from Penn State got a bit of a gift? Someone from the the DA's office (with an agenda) chose to leak a document to her and she's some sort of journalistic hero?

Might as well start off with a bang here.

This was absolutely one of the best reported stories of 2011, with very few "gifts" that I can discern in my examination of the Harrisburg Patriot-News's case. On the contrary, Sara Ganim's reporting was challenged by the Penn State power structure every step of the way, at first. And the cost of getting anything wrong on this story was right up there with getting priest-related details wrong in the 2002 Boston Globe Catholic Church expose.

I know many readers often think of news tips as gifts. But they're really just the starting point of the reporting. In Sara Ganim's case, I can't help but think of a Watergate comparison. (Penn State may be a bigger force in central Pennsylvania than the White House is, after all.) The Post's Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein got many tips along the way -- all of them undergoing the stern examination of Ben Bradlee -- but they were hard-earned details. And, like the Patriot-News stories, many of the Watergate stories of the Post were spurned by other newspapers at first -- until the facts became known.

Stories on sex abuse allegations, by the way, need extra confirmation all along the way.

It looks like the Pulitzer Committee has once again ignored the journalist accomplishments of Fox News. Are you upset?

This wasn't a shaft. The Pulitzers don't go to broadcast organizations or magazines. Fox is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., and so is The Wall Street Journal, which was a finalist  twice this year, and won a Pulitzer last year. It's been a finalist many times since News Corp.  acquired it in 2007.

Mr. Harris: Is it not possible to give a Pulitzer Prize to non-American journalist? What is said about it? Thanks.

Non-Americans certainly can win Pulitzers. And they do. Breaking-news photography winner Massoud Hossaini this year is from Kabul, Afghanistan. But the work must be for a primarily U.S. news organization, or be widely published here. His work was for Agence France-Presse, which distributes its work widely here.

Why should we care? All it is is a circular love fest by a bunch of people who are mostly despised by the rest of the nation (it's rare, but every so often, the media reports on their own dismal poll numbers -- even Congress polls better!) More to the point: Is it really necessary to still have the Pulitzer? With Old Media increasingly becoming obsolete, what is the point of having the prize anymore, except for apple polishing among your peers?

I invite you to look at the list of winners. Take a minute to dig into one that intrigues you -- say, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports on violence in schools and how to reduce it -- and see if that doesn't offer an answer to your first question.

All award programs have elements of a love fest. Journalists are proud of their best work, as are scientists, playwrights and composers, for example.

What the Pulitzers show me each year is that the very top of the profession still reflects the work of hard-driving reporters who will pursue a story regardless of politics -- not because of it. Stories that are all over the Internet, for better or worse, often start with great reporting, such as what David Wood produced for Huffington Post. And if you asked Tuscaloosans about whether they'd have preferred to have no media after the tornado, I think you'd get a different poll result.

Insofar as Pulitzer recognition helps promote those high standards of reporting, yes, I think they're vital to us.

Believe me,  reporters, editors and publishers know the poll results, and the readership figures. And I see a lot written about them, by the way.

I do believe the Pulitzers should be changing faster, however, to reflect the changing media landscape. So in that area, at least, I too am a critic.


Are the Pulitzers likely to lead to any kind of changes in journalism trends, or do they merely reflect it? The Inquirer, for example, did that story despite being embattled, and the Tuscaloosa News has not been particularly noted for reporting (it won a Pulitzer 55 years ago, for editorial writing about segregation at the state university). Will the prizes convince the new owners, or management at other papers, to invest more in investigation and public service? Or are the long-term trends too deeply established?

I think it's more a reflection of the great work that's out there. Attempts to lead to changes, other than by setting great examples, seem pretty rare.

Clearly, there's an effort to encourage online-publication entries, and to acknowledge the best of it when it's deserving. And in terms of subject matter, this year's prizes show that investigative work remains particularly valued.

But many journalists believe the Pulitzers need to do more to recognize how homogenized our exposure to news is becoming. Magazine stories, and broadcast-network stories, often appear first on the Web, competing with Post, New York Times and other journalism. But it can't be considered for Pulitzers. Some think the awards should honor all text-based reporting.

I do believe that cases like the Philadelphia Inquirer, Harrisburg Patriot-News and Seattle Times -- to name a few -- inspire owners. The growth of ProPublica, an online nonprofit, reflects that, even though its bankroll comes from private donations, largely. It's a valued part of American journalism now.

All Pulitzer prize winning stories demonstrate a high degree of difficulty in news gathering, verification and writing. They aren't easy "gets." What was the degree of difficulty in Eli Sanders's feature about a rape trial?

Feature writing can be a strange category. A story that's beautifully or powerfully written can not only blow away the reader, but can capture the Pulitzer jurors and the Pulitzer board, too. (The Prizes are judged in a two-step process.)

I think immediately of Gene Weingarten's article on Joshua Bell playing his violin in the Metro, which won the Pulitzer a few years ago. Amazingly written, as well as a great idea.

Sanders's feature was absolutely gripping. But the greater "difficulty" might have been beating out the Pulitzer finalists here: Corinne Reilly of the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk, for descriptions of life-saving efforts of medical professionals at a Afghanistan combat hospital. John Branch of the New York Times also was a finalist, for his stories about brain-damaging violence in professional hockey.

Do you have any comment on the lack of Fiction prize awarded this year? It seems rare, though not unheard of. Are the works just not considered up to snuff?

Competition among great novelists is really an area outside my expertise. (I'd give Michael Connelly the Pulitzer every year.) But I can say that the Pulitzer board requires that a winner have a majority of board votes to win. So if there's a three-way split, and board members aren't willing to compromise, there will be no winner. That's likely what happened in the editorial writing category this year, and breaking news last year.

So I wouldn't read into it any vast Pulitzer-board conclusion that there aren't any more fiction writers out there. Next year, I'd suspect they'd bend over backwards to name a winner.

So Michael Connelly may still have a chance!

Did the Washington Post submit any Pulitzer entries this year? I didn't even see any finalists from the organization, let alone any wins.

I don't have a definitive answer on Post entries. But one of its top editors advises me that "the usual complement" of entries was made this year, reflecting a range of reporting-based and opinion-based work.

Philip Kennicott was a finalist in the criticism category, which was won by Boston Globe film critic Wesley Morris.

Just one example of an entry for which the paper had high hopes was Debbie Cenziper's HUD investigation, which was a finalist for an award from the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE.)

But results are really unpredictable when you look at the best work submitted by hundreds of outlets. Last year the Post won one Pulitzer and had two finalists, and in 2010 it won four, with one finalist.

Were there any Post nominations/finalists? If so, what were they?

I've just answered that question, noting Philip Kennicott as a finalist in criticism. But I'll add that it's indeed surprising to me the way the numbers fall this year, since there are 42 winner or finalist slots overall.

As measured by Pulitzers, the Post is one of the top engines of great reporting and opinion-writing in the U.S. It had six winners and one finalist in 2008, and followed that the next year with one winner and five finalists.

The 61 Post entries that, since 2000, have made it to either Pulitzer winner or Pulitzer finalist, mark it as the second-most prolific of Pulitzer competitors. In a quick check, the New York Times weighs in at 77 winners or finalists over that time.

The questioner [who titled the query, "Why?"] doesn't understand that true reporting is based on facts and reality, not far-right propaganda.

I wouldn't be quite as hard on "Why?" since excessive backpatting can indeed be a sin. I just think the Pulitzers are the cream of the crop, and worth preserving as such.

Plus, "Why?" is correct that the Pulitzers need to become more of a model for what we call "new media" as well. One recent Pulitzer winner that showed it was willing to move forward: the PolitiFact fact-checking effort of the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times.) PolitiFact, which is widelty used as an online tool, offers a terrific example of how to  hold all public figures and the  media -- new or old -- to a higher standard. I love its "Pants on Fire" rating for claims by politicians who didn't do the research, or who did, and then disregarded it.

Why was there no Editorial award this year? Does this mean that editorial-writing is in decline?

I pointed out the Pulitzer board's approach, requiring a majority vote -- meaning 10 among the current 18 voting members -- before a prize can be awarded. But I do feel it's also true that a message is sent with these no-prize votes.

Board members, like members of a jury in a legal case, don't want to wrap up their service with a no-decision in a category they're charged to fill. They know there have been excellent editorials written, and they often are willing to take their second-choice, if it means acknowledging, say, an editorial writer with a prize. (This year the finalists were from Bloomberg News, the Tampa Bay Times, and Vermont's Burlington Free Press.)

So perhaps there is at least a subtle message: To win a Pulitzer, an editorial entry must either fill you with rage, or make you want to stand up and cheer.

I'm really confused by the win for the NYT in the explanatory category. I followed that series very closely (I'm in the tax business) and the stories were rife with errors (some of which were corrected) or built on strawmen premises. So, from my perspective, they didn't explain the tax situation well at all. How does the awards committee make these decisions? Are some subjects (like tax) such black holes that they are more easily impressed?

How representative of this era for the American press that we end with a question that casts serious doubt on the quality of a reporting effort, as well as the judgment of the Pulitzer board.

David Kocieniewski of the New York Times wrote, in the board's view, a "lucid series that penetrated a legal thicket to explain how the nation's wealthiest citizens and corporations often exploited loopholes and avoided taxes."

The entered stories ran from March 25 to Dec. 30 last year, so there was plenty of opportunity for objections to be raised. You note that there were corrections published, and certainly that would be taken into consideration by the jurors and the Pulitzer board.

It's great that you're questioning here. And Pulitzer Prize-winners are hardly infallible, something that even today makes the skin crawl among some among Washington Post editors. (See: Janet Cooke, whose feature-writing Pulitzer was returned in 1981.)

I'd suggest writing to Arthur Brisbane, the Times's public editor, who would be only too happy to take detailed criticisms from you under advisement.

What better story for a newspaper than to prove that  a respected institution -- like the Pulitzer Prize organization, or like Penn State or the Catholic Church -- let its standards down so miserably.

If you're right, the public certainly would be the better for the ensuing scandal. And we might have the first case, next year,  of an ombudsman winning a Pulitzer.


Thanks, all, for stimulating questions, and for your continuing interest in journalism at the highest level. Post readers never let me down.

And congratulations to all Pulitzer winners and finalists, and to the readers who so richly benefit from their hard work, insight, and love of democracy.


In This Chat
Roy Harris
Roy J. Harris Jr. is the author of "Pulitzer's Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism," which the University of Missouri Press released in paperback in 2010. A veteran of 23 years as a Wall Street Journal reporter, and 13 years in the Economist Group organization, he now lives in the Boston area. He also teaches a course at Emerson College called "Impact Journalism." This is his fifth year hosting a Washington Post chat on the Pulitzer Prizes.
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