It seems that a stray reporter did something unthinkable within the established and calcified hierarchy of the New York Times. He up and put his own work in for a Pulitzer Prize and then, as an additional affront, he managed to win the award for international reporting.
When the Pulitzers were announced earlier this week, Jeffrey Gettlemen had won for the Times with his reporting on famine and conflict in East Africa, a corner of the globe routinely ignored as a matter of course. A petulant Times foreign editor, Joseph Kahn, was quoted in the paper’s own coverage as noting that “while some reporters might have felt his editors knew best” about the nomination, Jeffrey put himself forward for the Pulitzers — and for that, Jeffrey, bless your heart.”
What arrogance. What narcissism. What ego.
Not Mr. Gettlemen, mind you. But rather Mr. Kahn in as much as his words represent the prize-culture temperament at America’s last great newspaper.
All in all, I’m on record as being no fan of what that culture has done to high-end journalism. The lobbying and gamesmanship that goes on within the Pulitzer committee and on the board is certain and fixed and will always be so. But no matter. The Pulitzer game is no different than any other spoil system; one can’t think of an award that’s given anywhere for anything that doesn’t embrace politics and maneuver as fundamentals of process.
But who sends the work to the judges? This is worthy of snark? Really?
The real ugliness happens when major news organizations — and ranking editors who should know better — shape and manufacture Pulitzer campaigns as they conceive and execute projects. The real sin is keeping the prizes in mind as you set priorities in terms of coverage or the use of newsroom resources, or in carefully boxing up whatever self-contained outrage seems likely to garner the attention of a prize committee, rather than actually addressing complicated, complex issues. And, too, that sin is magnified when newspapers then spend the rest of the calender year waxing hyperbolic about the meaningful change that the Pulitzer-worthy coverage has wrought. That’s where the real deviltry is – before the journalism.
Pay attention, because it’s really, really simple:
If in January, you sit there contemplating what you should report and write in order to win a Pulitzer Prize during the coming year — or if you harbor such thoughts at any point during the year – you are hack and a whore and part of the problem.
If at the end of December, you look back on the work you did and feel pride enough in some of it to offer it up for a prize or two, fine. No harm, no foul – so long as you did clean work and went where the story took you.
Mr. Gettlemen, it would seem, is in the latter category.
The idea that Pulitzer entries need to be sagely managed by editors from on high is a fixed one in many newsrooms – but why, I have no clue, save for the fact that the people who play this game are deeply invested in maintaining the highest possible level of institutional maneuver and control. If the Pulitzers wanted to only hear from high-ranking sachems as to which stories they favor for recognition, then the rules for the prize wouldn’t permit individual reporters to submit. Yet the rules allow for precisely that.
This fellow did some work. At the end of year, he was proud of it. He threw it against the wall and it stuck. Compared to the rank dishonesty, manufacture and hype that enveloped many prize campaigns undertaken in newsrooms where I once labored – yes, John Carroll, you understood the process too, too well – this all seems rather benign. That there are Timesmen who have their undies in a bunch over it speaks to the newsroom culture and what the Pulitzers represent to that culture, not to the journalism itself.