Pulitzer Prize disses National Enquirer, Iran, and health care, gives props to local news
The madness is at an end. No longer will the American commentariat need to contemplate the possibility that the National Enquirer would win a Pulitzer Prize for revealing an extra-marital affair carried out by John Edwards. Edwards, a one-term senator who inertiaed his way into a vice presidential nomination in 2004 and then worked in 2007-08 as one of the numerous men standing on stage between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, was hardly a newsworthy character, yet the Enquirer saw fit to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars stalking him and his mistress. Of course, this is the same tabloid that ignored the Jonestown story when they had it, so it goes to show how good their news judgment ever was.
So, lest we get lost on what the Pulitzer Committee didn’t pick, it’s important to look at what they did select: a whole lot of local news.
If the Academy is making a statement about the film business when it votes for the Oscars every year, the Pulitzer Committee must be doing the same thing when it hands out the medals every year. And while previous years have shown a focus on the big picture issues affecting our republic writ large, many of the reporters honored for the 2010 prizes wrote stories that placed a big emphasis on the local impact. More microscope than macro. Consider:
Public Service: “Awarded to the Bristol (VA) Herald Courier for the work of Daniel Gilbert in illuminating the murky mismanagement of natural-gas royalties owed to thousands of land owners in southwest Virginia, spurring remedial action by state lawmakers.”
Breaking News: “Awarded to The Seattle Times Staff for its comprehensive coverage, in print and online, of the shooting deaths of four police officers in a coffee house and the 40-hour manhunt for the suspect.”
Investigative Reporting: Sheri Fink of Pro Publica and the NYT Magazine share the prize for their expose on doctors’ dilemmas at a New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina with “Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman of the Philadelphia Daily News for their resourceful reporting that exposed a rogue police narcotics squad, resulting in an FBI probe and the review of hundreds of criminal cases tainted by the scandal.”
These stories all share a level of localness to them that is striking – they are not news stories that can be generalized to America or the world as a whole – they are about specific problems in specific locales. The committee’s message, to me at least, is that reporting on local affairs remains very much important to journalism’s purpose. The prize will honor news organizations who do this work in categories other than ‘local news.’
What’s also striking is how little acknowledgment there appears to be in the Pulitzer committee’s choices of the way that the world of online news and social media are affecting the news business. Consider the choice made for international reporting – the Washington Post’s Anthony Shadid for stories on the state of Iraq as America prepares to withdraw. Of course, the burning red international news story of 2009 was Iran, and the way that social media became such an important, at times too important means of transmitting what was happening on the ground.
The work of the LA Times’s Borzou Daragahi on Iran touched more on these questions, and he was passed over. And while it seemed unlikely that an online-only news outlet would win the prize this year – indeed, which online news organization produced a work that would stand the test of time? – failing to reward someone for reporting on Iran telegraph the message pretty well. In choosing a story to recognize from international reporting, they chose the one that in many ways has the least to do with the chaos in the current information age caused by new technologies. And the looming concern on Iraq reportage is who still wants to pay for it after all these years? And Pulitzer is saying, “if you pay for it, you can win for reporting on it.”
So the Pulitzer committee’s message strikes me a bit as “out with the new, we’re sticking with the old.” And even with new-fangled online news outlet people like Politico’s Jim Vandehei as judges, it’s hard to imagine we’ll be any closer to a tipping point that looks more deeply into the web and its potential for reporting.
Last point: what about health care reform? Is the Pulitzer Committee saying this year that if you talk about one big issue too much for too long, it stops being prize-worthy?