The Awards Culture Revisited

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.






  • At some point in time, there must have been a good reason to dole out an award: recognize good work and encourage more of it or, barring that, protect your 11-year-old from thinking he stinks at kid-pitch baseball. Of course any practice that hangs around long enough forgets its intent and becomes foremost about protecting the institution of itself. It’s why every year the Oscar telecast treats its audience to a brief, awkward introduction to the accountants who count the Oscar ballots. Because it’s so. Fucking. Important. To get. This. Right.

    But of course awards almost never get anything right. At least the most recognizable ones seldom seem to. The most oft-quoted example for anyone making this evergreen argument is that “Citizen Kane” didn’t win the Best Picture Oscar the year it was nominated. That’s right, the movie everyone (even those who’ve never seen it) tells you is the BEST FILM OF ALL TIME lost out on the big trophy in 1941 (I believe) to “How Green Was My Valley.”

    Tellingly, Orson Welles makes a better argument as to why awards are misguided in his 1974 proto-documentary “F for Fake.” Welles delivers a convincing (and generously entertaining) film essay depicting a culture of duped experts and forgeries that are qualitatively the match of their originals, if not better. It’s not even about comparing apples to oranges, comedy to drama, war correspondence to famine reporting, the gregarious Welles shows us. We can’t even tell whether an apple is an apple.

    I recall reading this article some time ago about a study that showed we are inclined to like the music we WANT to like, that some circuitry in my brain allows me to be influenced, in part, by what I think is cool. So my love for the Clash and the Velvet Underground, for Bob Dylan and Otis Redding, are these pure loves or am I the cuckold of my own elitism? And alternately, could I actually like boy bands and American Idols if I just loosened some inner, arbitrary strictures?

    It used to bother me that shows like “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “The Wire” got such scant Emmy love. But in some alternate reality where “Homicide” consistently drew an 18 share during its seven-season run and was absolutely festooned with cheap gold hardware, maybe there’s a me that loved it less because it was so widely approved.

    And maybe it’s all because I sucked at kid-pitch baseball when I was 11.

    At any rate, awards seem best appreciated in the obits. And by that time, who gives a shit who won the Pulitzer for international reporting in 2012? Certainly not the dead bastard what won it.

  • One of my journalism teachers was a part of this year-long package at the Chicago Tribune concerning the rising death toll of children in 1993. The Trib kept a running tally on the front page of each child murdered in 1993, and had a story to accompany it. I kept looking to see if this mentality you speak of drove this, but to my untrained eyes it seemed like genuine, outrage-driven journalism following the death of a seven-year-old by sniper in late 1992. It went up for a Pulitzer, but I don’t think they had it in mind from the beginning.

    Of course, that was a different era. I feel stories like this wouldn’t and couldn’t be reproduced today, and if they could it would be for all the wrong reasons.

    Here’s the intro piece for anyone interested:

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