As Pulitzer Board Meets, Some Must Often Leave the Room

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By: Joe Strupp

While the Pulitzer Prize Board is famous for offering nary a peek into their secret deliberations in choosing the most famous journalism awards in the world, one aspect of the process deserves further attention: recusals.

As the 18-person group gathers Thursday to conduct its annual two-day review of the newspaper industry’s best work, and completes the task of choosing winners to be announced on Monday, one piece of the procedure is likely its most important rule–anyone with a conflict of interest involving a finalist in any category must leave the room when that category is discussed.

That doesn’t seem unfair or surprising, but there’s an added twist: A board member who works for a newspaper is not only precluded from judging a category in which his or her newspaper is a finalist, but also a category in which any newspaper owned by the same company is a finalist.

“Members recuse themselves if they are part of a news organization that has an entry,” Pulitzer Administrator Sig Gissler said. “It is a long-standing policy.” Gissler also noted that such a policy extends to the board member’s corporate parent.

“If you are part of the Tribune chain, if the L.A. Times comes up, you would recuse yourself,” Gissler added. “It is a very hard and fast rule.”

When one looks at the make-up of the board, it is clear that it comes into play more often than one might think.

Among the 18 voting members of the board this year, 13 have connections to news organizations, with the remaining five hailing from academia. Of those with news organization links, seven board members are connected to outlets owned by a parent company that also owns many other newspapers.

Those seven include Jim Amoss, editor of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans; Amanda Bennett, editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer; Thomas L. Friedman, columnist for The New York Times; Anders Gyllenhaal, editor of the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis; Ann Marie Lipinski, editor of the Chicago Tribune; Gregory L. Moore, editor of The Denver Post; and Richard Oppel, editor of the Austin American-Statesman.

In addition, the board also includes Donald Graham, chairman of The Washington Post and Paul Steiger, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal — two publications that nearly always have a good number of finalists among the contenders.

So what does all of this mean? Likely, more often than not, the winners are not decided by the full board. In fact, there are going to be several times Thursday and Friday that a number of board members will have to recuse themselves from the voting.

Take the Commentary category for example. If E&P’s sources are correct, the finalists include entries from the New York Times, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Times-Picayune. Such a group means that, at a minimum, three of the 18 board members will have to be recused. Friedman, for his Times connection, Oppel, because his company, Cox Newspapers, also owns the Journal-Constitution, and Amoss, because he edits the Times-Picayune.

Oppel and Amoss also are out of the Breaking News category, which reportedly includes a Journal-Constitution and Times-Picayune entry. The third entry in that group, believed to be the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, knocks out Lipinski, whose parent company, Tribune, owns the Fort Lauderdale paper.

If sources are correct, Lipinski could be spending a lot of time roaming the halls of Columbia University’s journalism building. Her employer, Tribune, owns newspapers that are reportedly finalists in six of the 14 journalism categories, which means she will not be involved in picking nearly half of the winners.

The same arises for Graham, whose Post is believed to be a finalist in six categories. For Friedman, whose paper is up in six categories, a lot of free time also will be available. In fact, at least one conflict exists in every category, with 12 of the categories having two or more conflicts.

On the one hand, this is a sign that the board’s make-up includes those from some of the best news organizations in the country. But as the merger of news outlets continues–the current McClatchy takeover of Knight Ridder sale among them–the recusals can only broaden. Things could get a bit tight.

For example, under the current board structure, McClatchy has one board member in Gyllenhaal, with Knight Ridder represented by Bennett. Once the sale commences, each of them will have to recuse themselves if any of the combined papers are entered in a category.

Of course, there is nothing that suggests that any awards are wrongly given because some board members are out of the process. But if the blockbuster deals and expected takeovers continue, there may come a time when more than half of the board is recused from voting on some of the prizes.

In recent years, some critics have charged that the Board inevitably favors large papers because of the generally top-heavy make-up. Others have speculated that, even with a recusal, board members may exert influence in the category just by being intimately involved in the overall process.

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