By: M.L. Stein
Board member and two-time winner says the competition
is controversial, but process is pure and pressure-resistant sp.
THE PULITZER PRIZES are controversial “and probably always will be,” but the process in selecting winners is pure and pressure-resistant, according to an insider.
James Risser, a member of the Pulitzer board and two-time winner of the award, offered a rare glimpse into the arcane world of its selection system at the recent California Newspaper Publishers convention, as part of the group’s one-day trip to Stanford University from San Francisco.
Risser, a Stanford professor of communications, allowed there are faults in the Pulitzer process but contended that it is “much better than I would have ever imagined” and “is largely free of lobbying pressure or horse-trading and is marked by a great deal of integrity.”
Discussions by the 18-member board are conducted at a “high intellectual level, and there really is a concerted effort to choose the best,” he added.
Risser said there is a “surprising lack” of outside pressure, which, he speculated, might be owing to the fact that either editors, publishers and candidates are highly principled or that “they’re smart enough to realize that lobbying or putting pressure on a board member is likely to be counterproductive.”
Still, the speaker noted, around the first of the year, he “mysteriously” began receiving in the mail unsolicited reprints of stories or series from various newspapers ? “handsome reprints with lots of color and ink that doesn’t come off in my fingers.”
Although the mailings have no effect on his decisions, Risser stated, they are not entirely wasted. He picked some as teaching aids in his courses.
Risser, former Washington bureau chief for the Des Moines Register, observed that complaints about the Pulitzer procedure usually arise from the few times the recommendations by the Pulitzer jury are rejected by the board, or the so-called “wrong” person becomes honored.
Sitting beside Risser was a jury member, historian David Kennedy, who bore witness to Risser’s statement. In 1994, the history jury, of which Kennedy was a member, submitted three recommendations that were all turned down by the board. Kennedy, who also teaches at Stanford, said he was outraged by the decision, particularly in view of the fact that the board was primarily composed of editors and publishers with no credentials in history.
That happens sometimes, Risser conceded, pointing out that the board also has rejected jury submissions in newspaper categories. In 1993, he recalled, the board awarded no prize in editorial writing “because it simply found that . . . the three finalists not to be of sufficient merit to warrant a prize.”
When such a decision is made, Risser said, there are often charges that the board is “running amok, ignoring juries and acting arrogantly.”
In fact, he insisted, the board almost always awards a prize in a category and nearly always chooses one of the finalists sent up by a jury.
Moreover, Risser asserted, the board’s membership, which includes academics, reflects a wide variety of expertise that qualifies it to judge the nominations in history, books, drama and music as well as journalism.
Kennedy countered that the history jury had made a good-faith recommendation that its selected books were worthy of a prize. At the time, one board member, John L. Dotson, publisher of the Akron Beacon Journal, termed all three history nominees “flawed in some way.”
In the newspaper awards, “big, prestigious and highly regarded” papers win most of the Pulitzers, which should not be surprising, Risser said. “These papers are prestigious and highly regarded for a reason,” he noted.
However, small newspapers have joined the winner’s circle, among them the Albuquerque Tribune and the Boston Phoenix last year, the panelist pointed out.
Risser disclosed that the Pulitzer operation has changed in recent years to reflect the changes in newspaper journalism.
“All of us, I trust, believe that newspapers are still searching to find their way in the new media climate,” he went on to say.
“And I think most of us agree that one advantage newspapers still hold over broadcast news, and many other kinds of print media, is the ability and resources to do reporting in depth, to explain, to investigate.”
This, he said, has led to the expansion of the Pulitzers to include such categories as beat reporting, investigative reporting, and explanatory journalism.
The board itself has changed over the years to become more diverse in its makeup, Risser said, noting that it currently consists of 11 men, seven women and two members who represent ethnic minorities.
Thirteen are from areas east of the Mississippi River, and five from places west of it.
Of the 12 members in the newspaper industry, he reported, six are with large metropolitan papers, four from medium-sized dailies, and one from a 12,000-circulation daily.
A wire service member rounds out the group.
“Undoubtedly, more such improvements can and should be made, but my overall view is that the Pulitzer process works remarkably well most of the time,” Risser concluded.