By: Rob Tornoe
The murmur among journalists is often that the Pulitzer Prize board tries to send a message each year with its award choices.
So, in a year that saw big news stories such as the devastating earthquake in Haiti and the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, what message did the Pulitzer board send by not awarding any prize in the Breaking News category?
“No entry received a majority vote,” is all Sig Gissler, Pulitzer Prize administrator, was willing to say. He suggested that the emphasis, as explained in the citation of the Breaking News category, is a focus on local reporting — events in the newspaper’s home area or backyard.
There were three finalists in the Breaking News category: the Chicago Tribune for its coverage of the deaths of two firefighters killed while searching for squatters in an abandoned building; The Tennessean for its coverage of the most devastating flood in the history of middle Tennessee; and The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, for their combined coverage of the earthquake in Haiti.
It’s not the first time an award for a category hasn’t been given, but this year marks the first time in the award’s 95-year history that the category many consider to be the bread and butter of journalism hasn’t been recognized.
However, Gissler cautioned journalists not to view the lack of an award as a strike against breaking news reporting.
“There were only 31 entries submitted in the Breaking News category,” Gissler said. “But there were 151 entries in the Local Reporting category, making it more robust than ever.”
Looking at this year’s slate of winners, the message for online-only news outlets was also decidedly mixed.
In a Pulitzer first, the board honored a story that was never printed on a sheet of newsprint, giving the award for National Reporting to Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein of ProPublica for their work exposing questionable Wall Street practices that contributed to the economic meltdown. The judges cited the duo’s use of digital media to help explain a complex subject.
However, online-only local websites such as MinnPost and Voice of San Diego were shut out for the second straight year, as was the controversial Web outlet WikiLeaks. Also missing were national political outlets such as the Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, and POLITICO, even as 60 different online-only organizations submitted about 100 entries, the largest number since the rules were changed last year to allow online submissions.
The Washington Post’s Carol Guzy became the first journalist to receive four Pulitzers, winning the award in the Breaking News Photography category along with colleagues Nikki Kahn and Ricky Carioti, for their “up-close portrait of grief and desperation after a catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti.”
Also noteworthy was the fact that The Wall Street Journal won its first Pulitzer since being purchased by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in 2007. Joseph Rago was awarded the Pulitzer in the category of Editorial Writing “for his well-crafted, against-the-grain editorials challenging the health care reform advocated by President Obama.”
Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein
Maybe the best comment on this award comes in the form of a headline from The Stir, a blog at the popular website CafeMom: “ProPublica Pulitzer Proves the Internet Isn’t Just for Porn.”
The nonprofit news organization, formed in 2007, won its second Pulitzer Prize in as many years, this time for a series of stories that tackled how Wall Street bankers crippled the entire nation’s economy in their quest for personal gain.
Although ProPublica was awarded a Pulitzer last year for its look at the actions of an overwhelmed hospital staff during Hurricane Katrina, this year’s award is especially noteworthy as it was for work that didn’t involve a partner newspaper. In a congratulatory letter posted on the site, ProPublica editor-in-chief Paul Steiger wrote, “This year’s Prize is the first for a group of stories not published in print.”
Although radio reporting is not eligible for the Pulitzer, Steiger acknowledged the organization’s partnership with NPR’s “Planet Money” and “This American Life” as contributing to the win.
But for Steiger, celebrating the accolades and partnerships comes second to the central point of ProPublica’s story, and its ultimate mission.
“The mores of Wall Street, at least in the period 2006-2008, were not consistent with the public interest or the national interest,” Steiger wrote. “Our ultimate test for our work at ProPublica is impact, and we believe this reporting has helped spur activity by the SEC and Congress.”
Clifford J. Levy and Ellen Barry
The New York Times
The nine-part series “Above the Law” by reporter Ellen Barry and Clifford Levy, a former Moscow bureau chief and recently inaugurated deputy editor of the Times’ metro section, explored corruption, political and judicial misconduct, and the abuse of power in post-Communist Russia using print, audio, and video material to highlight violence against rights and opposition activists, jurors, and journalists.
But the series’ greatest impact might be the heralding of a newfound influence of foreign media taking shape inside Russia.
“I know that not just my colleagues from human rights organizations but many, many Russian journalists read these reports very carefully,” Tanya Lokshina, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Moscow office, told The Moscow Times.
Sites such as Inopressa.ru and the government-run Inosmi.ru get a lot of traffic and translate every western story written by local bureaus into Russian to feed local readers’ appetite for foreign coverage.
“Russians have an ambiguous relationship with foreign media,” Levy said. “On the one hand, they view foreign reporters, especially from the United States, as biased against Russia.
“On the other hand, they’re almost obsessed with what American journalists write about Russia.”
In addition to the series of nine articles, the series has a robust online component, featuring audio as well as six videos that Levy shot himself and edited with producers in New York.
“The videos were a large part of why the stories had so much impact, both in Russia as well as the U.S.,” Levy said. “I’m not so sure we would’ve won without them.”
The videos were translated and subtitled in Russian by Inosmi.ru and widely circulated along with the main stories. (A couple even overdubbed Levy’s narration with that of a Russian translator.)
It’s Levy’s second Pulitzer, having won in 2003 for investigative reporting on a series that exposed the neglect of mentally ill people in U.S. adult homes.
“I know it’s a cliché, but I owe a lot of people at the Times a thank you. This series wouldn’t have been completed without them.”
Frank main, Mark Konkol, and John J. Kim
On Chicago’s Westside, a 17-year-old named Robert Tate had been shot in the chest and was dying when the police showed up. An officer asked Tate if he knew who the shooter was. Tate responded just before he died, “I know, but I ain’t telling you s—-.”
This is the same “no snitch” code that Sun-Times reporter Frank Main encountered when he spent four months following two Chicago homicide detectives trying to solve the gang-related murder of a teenager. The case was encumbered by the culture of silence prevalent among victims, witnesses, and entire neighborhoods.
The series of stories by Main, reporter Mark Konkol, and photographer John Kim also revisited a violent weekend in April 2008 during which 40 shootings — seven fatal — led to only one case going to trial because of the same code of silence.
Despite the hardships inherent in trying to document the violence in Chicago neighborhoods, it was the harsh blizzard that struck Chicago last February that almost prevented the Sun-Times from taking home its first Pulitzer Prize in 22 years.
“The entry had to be postmarked Feb. 1 to be eligible,” Main said. “So my editor (Sun-Times metro editor Paul Saltzman) had the package ready at about 8:10. That night was the biggest snowstorm to hit Chicago in years, and the mailroom was closed.”
The two braved the snow and wind and flagged down the only taxi they could find to take them to a UPS facility. Despite hazardous driving conditions, the pair made it, only to find several people waiting outside the closed facility with packages they were hoping to mail.
They directed the taxi to drive around back to the landing area. A guard told them to get lost, but Saltzman got out of the car and waited in the blizzard for a warehouse employee to exit for a cigarette.
“He told the guy that the newsroom always used UPS, and they’ve never let us down,” Main said. “The guy thought about it for a second, took the package and disappeared.” He returned about five minutes later empty-handed.
“Well, if you wanted it mailed tonight, that’s not going to happen,” the warehouse employee told a frustrated Saltzman.
“But, I did get it stamped for tonight. Is that OK?”
Staff of the
Los Angeles Times
The first story in what would turn out to be Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives’ Pulitzer Prize-winning series about public corruption and malfeasance appeared last July in the Los Angeles Times under the headline “Is a City Manager Worth $800,000?”
In the small town of Bell, Calif., one out of six people lives in poverty, while its homeowners pay property taxes higher than those in Beverly Hills. That didn’t stop officials of the struggling city of 37,000 from raising property taxes and other fees to enrich themselves. In the city manager’s case, he drew a salary and benefits package of $1.5 million a year.
And they might not have uncovered the story at all if it wasn’t for the neighboring town of Maywood.
“Due to the town’s deficit, Maywood was forced to lay off almost all of its city employees and outsourced its municipal services to Bell,” Gottlieb said. He contacted the district attorney’s office, who told Gottlieb they weren’t currently investigating anyone in Mayood.
“I don’t know why, but I asked ‘What about Bell?’” Gottlieb said.
As it turned out, the district attorney’s office was investigating the high salaries of their city council members, who were earning annual salaries of $100,000 for a part-time job, when the median income of Bell was only $38,000 a year.
Things got even more suspicious when the duo attempted to obtain public records about city council meetings, expenses, and employment information. After first being told their records request would take 10 days, the city clerk called Gottlieb nine days later and told him that Robert Rizzo, Bell’s former city manager, had the requested documents and wanted to set up a meeting.
“I assumed we were going to meet at city hall, but they wanted to meet in Little Bear Park,” said Gottlieb, giving him the sense something was really wrong in Bell.
“I arrived at the park 10 minutes early and wrote down all the license plate numbers,” Vives said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. For all we knew, a couple of masked guys could have shown up and dragged us away.”
Rizzo did show up but also brought with him the police chief, city attorneys, and a couple of council people, which Gottlieb clearly thought was an attempt by the city to intimidate them.
Turns out, they did the reporting duo a favor.
“The put all their eggs in one basket,” Vives said. “They forced themselves to be stuck in a room with us for four hours.”
Both Gottlieb and Vives were able to grill the city employees, who felt pressured and ended up revealing their high salaries and got the ball rolling on what is still an ongoing series of reporting.
The former city manager and seven other ex-officials are awaiting trial on fraud charges. The entire City Council was thrown out of office in a recall election in March, all based on the reporting by the Times.
Los Angeles Times
Crime statistics may be down in Los Angeles, but for Times photographer Barbara Davidson, it was her focus on the innocent victims caught in the crossfire of gang violence that led to her winning her second Pulitzer Prize for photography.
“Normally we don’t cover stories after three days,” Davidson said. “Usually after the funeral, we say goodbye to these families. My goal was to spend a lot of time with them and find the faces behind the crime stats.”
The Montreal-born photographer immersed herself in the daily lives of the victims, building a relationship and a level of trust with the families and often visiting them multiple times, allowing for the amazing level of intimacy apparent in her work.
The one thing Davidson didn’t count on was the emotional toll the assignment would take on her. Surrounded by death and heartache, Davidson covered more funerals in one year than she’d previously covered in her 17-year career.
“I didn’t realize how big the story was going to get,” she said. “I didn’t have the ability to decompress because I lived it 24/7.”
But for Davidson, who used to be an aid worker and refers to herself as a “visual humanitarian,” her personal comfort was less important than her desire to get the story out.
“It’s a very underreported story, and it’s easy for people to turn a blind eye,” she said. “It’s overwhelming how much it has resonated with so many people.”
Paige St. John
Sarasota Herald-Tribune editor Matthew Doig posted a job description in March that Mother Jones labeled as “The best journalism-job want ad ever.” Looking to add some talent to the paper’s investigative team, Doig wrote that he dreams “that one day Walt Bogdanich [The New York Times] will have to say: ‘I can’t believe the Sarasota Whatever-Tribune cost me my 20th Pulitzer.’”
Well, Doig got his wish a little early, as investigative reporter Paige St. John took home the Herald-Tribune’s first Pulitzer Prize for her two-year investigation into Florida’s property insurance crisis.
“I told my editor that I’d like to take a look at what’s beneath the insurance issue, what’s really driving it,” St. John said. “We had no clue what we were in for.”
St. John’s two-year investigation focused on the increasing insurance costs in Florida, even though the state hadn’t suffered a natural disaster in years. However, during St. John’s investigation, her work was threatened when it appeared Hurricane Ike would strike Florida.
“If Ike had struck, it would have shifted all the focus of my reporting,” St. John said. “All of it would still have been true, but it’s human nature to focus on a disaster.”
Fortunately, Ike diverted at the last minute and passed through the Gulf, leaving Florida and St. John’s reporting unscathed.
“We’re not an advocate, and we haven’t done any stories on how to fix the problem,” St. John said. “I feel like my role is to educate the people having those discussions. That’s the necessary first step.”
2011 Pulitzer Prize Winners
Los Angeles Times
Breaking News Reporting
Paige St. John of Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Mark Johnson, Kathleen Gallagher, Gary Porter, Lou Saldivar, and Alison Sherwood of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Frank Main, Mark Konkol, and John J. Kim of Chicago Sun-Times
Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein of ProPublica
Clifford J. Levy and Ellen Barry of The New York Times
Amy Ellis Nutt of The Star-Ledger, Newark, NJ
David Leonhardt of The New York Times
Sebastian Smee of The Boston Globe
Joseph Rago of The Wall Street Journal
Mike Keefe of The Denver Post
Breaking News Photography
Carol Guzy, Nikki Kahn, and Ricky Carioti of The Washington Post
Barbara Davidson of Los Angeles Times