The Early Buzz on Pulitzer Picks

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By: Joe Strupp

As the 18 members of the Pulitzer Prize board engage in the arduous task of choosing winners in each category, which will be announced April 5, buzz surrounding the finalist list centers on the dominant showing by the Los Angeles Times, the unusual dearth of nominees for The New York Times, and a somewhat lukewarm reaction to Iraq war coverage.

According to a finalist list first published by E&P on March 8 — and not disputed since — the Los Angeles Times (Click for QuikCap) had nine finalists among the 14 journalism categories, more than twice as many as any other newspaper. Each category includes three finalists chosen by 14 committees of jurors who met in February.

Some newspaper editors surveyed by E&P this week view the L.A. Times showing as a sign that the paper has put itself back on top after years of difficulties. Most credited Editor John Carroll with guiding the daily back to prominence.

“The most surprising thing was the L.A. Times,” said Bill Ketter, editor of The Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass. and a former Pulitzer jurist. His small paper won a Pulitzer last year. “But they have been doing remarkable work.”

Doug Clifton, editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a four-time jurist, agreed, adding that the Los Angeles paper’s ability to nab two of the three finalists in the criticism and editorial categories is even more remarkable. “Typically, there is sufficiently strong material (in those categories) to choose from that you don’t have to end up having two of the three from one newspaper,” he said.

Clifton was also among those surprised that The New York Times had far fewer finalists, with its entries present only in the commentary, editorial and investigative slots. “It does surprise me that they did not have finalists in national reporting or foreign reporting,” Clifton observed. “They are also typically competitive in explanatory journalism.”

The New York Times and Los Angeles Times have always been in a fierce competitive battle, but the rivalry intensified in recent years as the Los Angeles paper began hiring away prominent staffers from New York, notably Dean Baquet, the current L.A. Times managing editor, and respected reporters Sam Howe Verhovek and Kevin Sack.

Most editors who spoke with E&P, however, were reluctant to see the finalist list as an indication that The New York Times had lost a step. Although several observed that the Jayson Blair scandal had likely been a distraction, none would say the New York Times’ limited showing meant the L.A. Times had taken over.

“If you look at the year The New York Times went through, it was a very difficult year,” said John Temple, editor and publisher of the Denver Rocky Mountain News. “They still continued to produce great work.”

Margaret Sullivan, editor of The Buffalo (N.Y.) News and a two-time jurist, agreed. She pointed out that, in choosing finalists, sometimes more than three are worthy. “When you get to the last five or 10, you could probably pick any of those and be on solid ground,” she said. “It gets to be a very close call at the last level.”

Another surprise for many was the lack of Iraq war-related finalists. Out of the 42 finalist slots, only six went to war-related coverage, with two for photos. Of the four other finalists, only two — Anthony Shadid of The Washington Post and David Zucchino of the Los Angeles Times — were recognized for coverage in Iraq itself. Of the hundreds of embedded reporters, only Zucchino gained a nod. Shadid was based in Baghdad before and after the war.

The remaining two Iraq-related nominations went to: Anne Hull and Tamara Jones of the Post, for coverage of the plight of war veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.; and the Post’s Barton Gellman, who reported on the fruitless postwar search for weapons of mass destruction, primarily from Washington.

“I figured Iraq would be the dominant story,” said Temple. “Maybe people looked at it and said ‘no one got the big picture.'” Another editor and former jurist, who requested anonymity, found little Iraq coverage that stood out. “There were people doing good work, but most of the stuff was basically the same,” the editor said.

Zachary Stalberg, editor of The Philadelphia Daily News and a two-time jurist, said some people’s ambivalence about the war may have been reflected in the finalists. “The country seems to not know quite what to think about the war,” he said.

Other finalists receiving editors’ notice were The (Toledo, Ohio) Blade’s Vietnam atrocities series, nominated in the investigative category; and The Providence (R.I.) Journal’s nightclub fire coverage, a front-runner finalist for public service.

Leonard Pitts of The Miami Herald, a finalist in the commentary category, was singled out by Clifton, who said his nomination “was long overdue.”

It’s important to note that the Pulitzer Prize rules allow the full board in its final deliberations to switch any finalists to another category or to consider entries that didn’t make the finalist list.

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