Journalism’s Worst Kept Secret: Pulitzer Finalists

By: Joe Strupp

It’s the worst kept secret in journalism.

Despite promises by jurors to Pulitzer Prize Administrator Seymour Topping that they will not disclose the finalists chosen for the annual awards, and the signing of documents vowing to keep mum on the contenders until the day when winners are announced, the leaks inevitably ensue. This year is no different.

Almost within hours of the Pulitzer finalists being chosen during meetings at Columbia University last week, phone lines were burning up and e-mail boxes overflowing with names. Alleged lists of those nominated for the prizes are also circulating this week.

The finalists are supposed to be a secret within the 14 Pulitzer juries who chose the top three entries in each category almost two weeks ago and forwarded them to the 18-member Pulitzer Board. The board will choose one winner in each category during its deliberations on April 5 and 6, and announce them April 8.

But to say some leaks occur is an understatement. The Pulitzer finalist rumor mill always starts churning between the time finalists are chosen and winners announced. For some, it’s a guessing game akin to picking the Oscars, while others see it as a needless distraction that turns some newsrooms upside down with speculation.

“You have people who are nervous wrecks for four weeks,” said Sandra Mims Rowe, a Pulitzer Board veteran and editor of The Oregonian, the Portland paper which won two Pulitzers last year.

Secrecy is such a concern that jurors are required to sign statements agreeing to keep the identity of finalists confidential. But although jurors say the leaks are unfortunate, they are not a surprise — considering that newspeople are involved. “Telling a journalist to keep a secret is one of the riskiest endeavors you can embark upon,” said Tim McGuire, editor of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and a five-time Pulitzer juror.

Among the leaks is a list of finalists obtained by E&P, purportedly originating with a Pulitzer juror and passed through journalists at two major newspapers. Although there is no proof that any of the finalists on the list are authentic, it at least has the ring of truth with:

* The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Daily News leading the breaking news competition with their Sept. 11 coverage;

* the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News battling The Seattle Times and The Washington Post for investigative honors; and

* the foreign news competition supposedly narrowed down to two entries from The New York Times and one from The Washington Post.

E&P‘s own Nat Hentoff appears on this pseudo-list as among the three competitors under “commentary” for his columns in the Village Voice, up against the Times‘ Thomas Friedman and the Daily News‘ Michael Daly.

The publisher of one paper among these rumored finalists told E&P he had “excellent sources” confirming the selection — and added, “I know the other two finalists in that category, too.”

If the list is real, an interesting contest is shaping up in the national category between The Washington Post‘s coverage of 9/11, the Baltimore Sun‘s take on financing medical research, and The New York Times Magazine‘s controversial profile of Bob Kerrey’s Vietnam story.

Topping declined to discuss the subject of leaks involving finalists, other than to say, “I deplore it.”

But John Carroll, Pulitzer Board chairman and editor of the Los Angeles Times, said, “I’d rather [the leaks] didn’t happen, but I don’t see it as a major problem.”

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