Gene Weingarten Reacts to the Reaction to His Pulitzer Prize Piece

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By: Dave Astor

When Dave Barry heard Gene Weingarten won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing this week, he humorously lamented that he could no longer lord his own Pulitzer over his pal.

But Weingarten, in a phone interview with E&P, said Barry may still have the last word. “Next time, he’ll say he’s better looking than me,” joked the Washington Post writer, who met Barry when he hired him at The Miami Herald more than 20 years ago.

Weingarten’s Pulitzer-winning story described the minimal reaction of many morning-rush-hour commuters to famous violinist Joshua Bell playing in a D.C. metro station. But there was maximum response to Weingarten’s story when it was published in The Washington Post Magazine and on in April 2007. “I stopped counting after I received 2,500 e-mails,” he recalled.

Weingarten said “99% of the reaction was positive.” When asked about the 1% who felt otherwise, he told E&P that some felt the piece was not only a “stunt” but a “flawed stunt.” For instance, there were questions about why Bell wasn’t asked to play in a metro station during non-rush hour, or in a park, so that onlookers would be less harried.

The Post writer added that some critics missed a major theme of the story. “I was not saying that people who passed Joshua Bell were unsophisticated,” said Weingarten. “The point was one of priorities. Should we be living at such a hectic pace, and should we be so busy and scheduled, that we can’t appreciate something that’s beautiful and happens once in a lifetime?”

Weingarten’s article quickly circled the world. “I got an e-mail from a man I know in China who heard two people in an Internet cafe discussing the story in Beijing,” said the Pulitzer winner.

One reason why the story got such a strong — and global — response was that it was accompanied by audio and video on “The video was embedded at the appropriate points of the story,” said Weingarten, adding that having access to the video footage while writing the piece helped him count the number of people passing Bell, see once again what they looked like, etc.

Weingarten actually had the idea for the story more than four years ago. “I was coming out of a metro station and heard this keyboardist who was terrific,” he recalled. “I looked in his cup and there was only a buck-twenty-five. I thought to myself that even if Yo-Yo Ma was playing here, no one would listen.”

So Weingarten tried to get the superstar cellist to play for Washington commuters, but wasn’t successful. He then asked Bell, who was more than willing to risk the “total humiliation” of being mostly ignored by people rushing to work.

Indeed, Weingarten wasn’t surprised that most commuters didn’t pay much attention to Bell, though some Post editors thought there might be the opposite result of the virtuoso violinist getting mobbed by fans.

Bell’s agent, Jane Covner, gave permission for her client’s January 2007 metro performance on the condition that the story not run until April 2007. That’s because she knew Bell would be awarded the Avery Fisher Prize that month, and wanted some double-barreled publicity.

“I’m not THAT slow a writer,” Weingarten said, when explaining the three-month lag time.

With Bell ready to participate, Weingarten was refused permission for the violinist to play inside a metro station. (The performance had to be inside, because Bell would be using his multimillion-dollar Stradivarius instrument.) “I was told that if he attempted to play, he would be arrested,” Weingarten said incredulously.

Finally, in the nick of time, a private mall-management company that owned indoor space just several feet from metro property quickly agreed to let Bell play.

Thirteen months later, Weingarten was giving a Pulitzer speech in the Post building. “There was something deeply gratifying about looking out at a newsroom full of deeply talented colleagues,” he told E&P. “It was a more moving experience than I expected.”

Then Weingarten started hearing from all kinds of people, including a seventh-grade classmate he hadn’t spoken with in decades.

In addition to feature writing, Weingarten also does the “Below the Beltway” humor column syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group. Which journalism genre does he prefer?

“I feel blessed that I can do both,” he replied.

And doing both enabled Weingarten to pull even with Barry in their Pulitzer race.

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