Photo Pulitzer Wasn’t Picture-Perfect

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By: Wayne Robins

Shoptalk Column

All of the winners from the five newspapers representing four large media companies earned their Pulitzer Prizes legitimately. But that is not to say that every prize was bestowed fairly. It is the breaking-news photography prize, won by the staff of The New York Times for its World Trade Center coverage, that sticks in the craw of many journalists.

Again, this is not to denigrate the vivid, compelling, and authoritative work of the Times‘ photo staff, whose artistry and relevance is sometimes overshadowed by the excellence of the Times‘ reporting, writing, and editing.

But there was a consensus before the prizes were announced that Thomas E. Franklin, staff photographer for The Record in the New York suburb of Hackensack, N.J. had executed a perfect triple axel with his inspirational shot of three fireman raising a tattered American flag upon a pile of rubble at Ground Zero. A Pulitzer for The Record seemed a gimme.

Others have reported both the pride and disappointment of Franklin and his paper. But the chagrin goes beyond one newsroom.

“Our photographers are all angry about Franklin not getting it,” said Rex Smith, managing editor for news at the Times Union in Albany, N.Y., and himself a Pulitzer jurist. This year, however, he served on the beat reporting jury.

“The range of the photography that won for the Times is fabulous,” Smith said. “But The Record photograph is the emblematic image of the event, in just the same way that the photograph of the baby being held by the fireman was emblematic of the Oklahoma City disaster, and the image of Eli?n Gonz?lez grabbed from a closet was emblematic of that story — and both of those were prize-winning photos.”

One might also mention Richard Drew, photographer for The Associated Press in New York. Drew’s horrifying shots (including a body falling against a backdrop of a still-standing tower) eloquently told the story of the unprecedented horror and tragedy to millions of Americans reading hundreds of newspapers without their own cameras at the scene. Drew wasn’t even a finalist.

The loudest, strangest voice arguing for Franklin was that of Andrea Peyser of the New York Post. Peyser used to report and write in what seemed to be a natural, feisty New York accent. As a Post columnist, she rants in Australian, as if she’s being prepped to fill Steve Dunleavy’s chair at Langan’s midtown saloon.

Peyser is right: Franklin should have won. But Peyser is wrong: The Pulitzer panel might have made a poor, if marginally defensible, judgment, but it wasn’t based on her knee-jerk name-calling over “political correctness” (the firemen in Franklin’s photo, in her view, were not racially balanced enough for Pulitzer panelists). As Dan Kennedy of the Boston Phoenix pointed out, it’s the rule that allows staff portfolios to compete against individuals that’s at fault. The rule should be changed.

Peyser’s righteous April 9 column may have carried more weight if her own paper had showed Franklin’s photo any kind of respect when it was poached (legally) from the AP wire and appeared on Page One of the Post on Sept. 13. But the Post ran it uncredited: no mention of Franklin, The Record, or even AP.

When I called the Post at the time to ask about this apparent lack of professional courtesy, a spokeswoman said it was the paper’s privilege.

Another issue — the concentration of prizes being split among the Biggest Dogs of Journalism — has been widely discussed, with Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post (a paper that won two Pulitzers this year) going so far as to suggest the creation of different categories for newspapers based on circulation ranges to level the playing field.

Any number of pundits compared the Times sweep to the (predictable) post-season dominance of the New York Yankees. But the metaphor is not quite apt. The Times‘ magnificent seven are more comparable to the Oscars swept by Titanic in 1997 — though I haven’t heard about any of the Times‘ exuberant leaders shouting, ? la James Cameron, “I’m king of the world!”

Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., the Times‘ publisher, does not outspend George Steinbrenner for talent — but he does keep his eye on the ball.

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