Pulitzer Winners Not the Best-Kept Secret

By: Joe Strupp

When the Pulitzer Prize Board announced the winners of its prestigious annual awards on Monday at 3 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, after a top-secret selection process just days before, the results, contrary to common perception, were not exactly a surprise to many of the finalists. Some, perhaps most, of them had been tipped off as early as hours after the board’s final vote last Friday, E&P has learned from interviews with a dozen of the finalists or their editors.

“I did hear word of it and it was nice to hear,” said Leonard Pitts, Jr., the syndicated columnist for The Miami Herald who found out Friday that he had won the commentary prize, but declined to reveal how. “In a way it made me more nervous because it was a prime opportunity to be disappointed.”

Others who got advanced notice through leaks included several finalists who found out they had not won. “It didn’t surprise me that once decisions are made leaks would get out,” said Joel Rawson, executive editor of The Providence (R.I.) Journal, who found out Sunday night that his paper, which had been a finalist in the Public Service category, lost to The New York Times.

Cynthia Tucker of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a finalist for commentary, and Erika Niedowski of The Sun in Baltimore, who made the finalist cut for explanatory journalism, both admitted getting advance word that they had not won. “I knew it on Friday,” said Niedowski. “There are a lot of sources through the grapevine.”

“Our general rule is that what goes on in the room stays in the room,” Pulitzer Administrator Sig Gissler said about the Pulitzer Board judging, which occurred last Thursday and Friday. “Our rule is that we announce it on Monday. I can’t speak for all of the board members.”

Gissler emphasized that his office does not inform any winners or non-winning finalists about who the prizes will go to until the formal Monday press conference. “It is a very tightly-held list of information,” he stressed. “There is no advance notification.”

But that does not seem to have stopped leaks from occurring over the weekend, according to sources at several newspapers.

“I had heard about it on Sunday,” said one of several winners at the Los Angeles Times who admitted finding out early, but declined to be named. “I received a phone call.”

Daniel Golden of The Wall Street Journal had a feeling he was about to win last Monday, but not from a leak. His tip-off was the case of champagne that was delivered to the Journal’s Boston bureau, where Golden works, about 15 minutes before the official announcement took place.

“When I saw the champagne coming in, I had an idea that something was happening,” said Golden, who took the prize for beat reporting, one of two won by the Journal this year. “It looked pretty good at that point.”

Kevin Helliker, another Journal writer who shared the explanatory reporting prize with fellow Journal reporter Thomas M. Burton, told a similar story. “I was in the dark until a messenger walked in with champagne,” said Helliker, who works out of the paper’s Chicago bureau. “Someone knew beforehand.”

That someone was Journal Managing Editor Paul Steiger, a Pulitzer Board member who had ordered the champagne for his paper’s three winners, but expected it to be delivered after the official announcement. “I felt it was OK to send the champagne; I didn’t tell people in advance,” Steiger said. “But they delivered it before.”

Leaks have become a tradition at the Pulitzers in recent years as lists of finalists — which are supposed to be kept confidential — have circulated more and more. During each of the past three years, E&P has obtained lists of finalists and published them online. This year, the entire list was placed on the E&P Web site, without any inaccuracies.

Gissler has regularly criticized the finalist leaks, which occur despite a requirement that each member of the 14 juries choosing journalism category finalists sign a pledge not to reveal them.

But while the finalist leaking might be understandable because they come from 14 nominating juries that include dozens of judges, the leaking of winners — who are chosen by the 18-member Pulitzer Board — involve a smaller group that is supposed to represent a more responsible level of journalistic respect.

Gissler said the leaking of winners is a concern, but not as much as the finalist leaks, which he said can spark lobbying of the board members by potential winners or their newspapers. “What happens over (last) weekend is not something I concern myself with,” he said.

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