Tuesday, April 06, 2004

When Everyone Gets a Ribbon

What would Joseph Pulitzer do?

This year's Pulitzer prizes were awarded yesterday.
In the latter years of the 19th century, Joseph Pulitzer stood out as the very embodiment of American journalism. Hungarian-born, an intense indomitable figure, Pulitzer was the most skillful of newspaper publishers, a passionate crusader against dishonest government, a fierce, hawk-like competitor who did not shrink from sensationalism in circulation struggles, and a visionary who richly endowed his profession. His innovative New York World and St. Louis Post-Dispatch reshaped newspaper journalism. Pulitzer was the first to call for the training of journalists at the university level in a school of journalism. And certainly, the lasting influence of the Pulitzer Prizes on journalism, literature, music, and drama is to be attributed to his visionary acumen. In writing his 1904 will, which made provision for the establishment of the Pulitzer Prizes as an incentive to excellence, Pulitzer specified solely four awards in journalism, four in letters and drama, one for education, and four traveling scholarships. In letters, prizes were to go to an American novel, an original American play performed in New York, a book on the history of the United States, an American biography, and a history of public service by the press. But, sensitive to the dynamic progression of his society Pulitzer made provision for broad changes in the system of awards. He established an overseer advisory board and willed it "power in its discretion to suspend or to change any subject or subjects, substituting, however, others in their places, if in the judgment of the board such suspension, changes, or substitutions shall be conducive to the public good or rendered advisable by public necessities, or by reason of change of time." He also empowered the board to withhold any award where entries fell below its standards of excellence. The assignment of power to the board was such that it could also overrule the recommendations for awards made by the juries subsequently set up in each of the categories. Since the inception of the prizes in 1917 the board, later renamed the Pulitzer Prize Board, has increased the number of awards to 21 and introduced poetry, music, and photography as subjects, while adhering to the spirit of the founder's will and its intent.[Nitpicker emphasis]
Given Pulitzer's intent and the Prize Board's broad discretion, it's difficult to understand the awarding of any prize in the area of journalistic excellence this year. I guess it's like 'grade inflation' - what's an "A" when everyone gets at least a "B" for just showing up. The prize for investigative reporting was given to a couple of reporters from a Toledo, Ohio newspaper, The Blade. They did a series on Vietnam War atrocities. Yes, that's right Vietnam War - more than 30 years ago. Granted their reporting resulted in renewed interest by the military regarding the initial inquiry and investigating any incident so far removed in time, offers unique challenges, but journalistic excellence? If the questions had been asked at the time... maybe. If anyone from The Blade or the Washington Post or the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or [fill in the blank] had been asking the difficult questions three years ago... maybe.


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