By: Sasha Abramsky
A few hours after being notified formally that he had won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, ex-banker Colbert I. King, 63, fell asleep in front of his TV as he watched a basketball game. But sleeping on the prize didn’t make it seem any more real to him.
“I still can’t get used to the idea,” The Washington Post editorial writer and columnist explains. “It’s overwhelming. This job is something I would pay to do. I love writing editorials; I enjoy the editorial-board meetings. The column has always been a sideline. I still feel I’m the new kid on the block as far as journalism goes.”
An odd thing for a man nearing retirement age to say. But King’s career has hardly followed any traditional journalistic route. When he got out of the Army in 1963, he applied for a job with The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. The paper offered him work covering local weddings and writing obituaries, but the job came with only a one-year contract. Having recently married and had his first child, King felt he needed something that offered more stability, so he went into banking. Over the years, the Howard University graduate rose to the position of deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. treasury before becoming the nation’s executive director of the World Bank during the Carter administration.
But King’s love of the news industry never deserted him. In the early 1990s, after his youngest daughter finished law school, he phoned a friend at the Post, told her that he no longer needed a banker’s salary, and asked her if the paper would hire him on. The paper did — and, as they say, the rest is history.
The new kid King may be, but his weekend columns, focusing on abuses of power by the rich and privileged — and the neglect suffered by the poor and unprivileged — in the nation’s capital, have come to represent one of the newspaper’s most iconoclastic voices. “He has just a tremendous impact in the city,” Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt says. “He writes about people who otherwise would get ignored, people who don’t have much of a voice in the city. He goes back and tells their story and holds officials accountable. He shines a pretty powerful spotlight.”
Recent columns — which Hiatt describes as being crafted in a “controlled fury” — include scathing attacks on officials who have shown indifference to crimes against poor people in poor neighborhoods; mocking denunciations of the Saudi Arabian government’s treatment of women and of the U.S. government’s reluctance to critique it; and continuing expos?s of U.S. Sen. Trent Lott’s connections to racist organizations. His descriptions — of young men shot dead in northeastern Washington, of a woman stabbed for her purse, of callously indifferent judges and ingratiating civil servants and lobbyists — are designed to trigger outrage, to shake readers out of their apathy.
“I see myself as reacting to a set of conditions,” King says. “I don’t like to see the strong taking advantage of the weak. People deserve justice in their lives.”
See the complete list of Pulitzer winners, including links to the work that won the prizes.
E&P welcomes letters to the editor: email@example.com.