Awards For Yourself

by Alexander Cockburn, February 11, 2015

(1984) Were there ever members of any profession so keen on giving each other prizes as journalists? From the rising of the sun in the morning until its going down at night they keep at it, ladling out the trophies to each other: "Front Page" awards; "Distinguished Service To Journalism" awards; "National Magazine" awards, "Best Veal Picatta Recipe To Be Written Under Deadline" awards. The list is practically endless, as anyone who has looked at the available prizes set forth in Publisher’s Weekly well-knows. Then to cap it all, we have the Pulitzer prizes, the most recent batch of which was announced on Monday.

This year followed the usual pattern. Major newspapers got most of the prices -- two for the Wall Street Journal, two for the New York Times, two for the Boston Globe, two for the Los Angeles Times. There are the plucky underdog awards, and this year they went to Peter Rinearson of the Seattle Times for writing about the new Boeing 757 and to Albert Scardino of the Georgia Gazette in Savannah for his editorial writing. I don't know what Mr. Scardino had been editorializing about, and none of the newspapers within my reach on Tuesday told me. For all I know he’s been calling for the death penalty for used car dealers convicted of misrepresentation. But that's not the point of his prize, which is to tell all the other little guys that if size is almost everything, it isn't always the only thing.

Then there are the prizes achieved by sheer weight of numbers in tedium. In an honest world these would be headlined "Thirteen Articles in Search of a Pulitzer." They usually concern such worthy topics as municipal graft in the awarding of sewerage contracts. This year the Los Angeles Times got one ("meritorious public service" is what this particular prize is called) for an "in-depth examination" of the Latino community in Southern California that took the form of a 27-part series conducted by two editors and 11 writers. At the other end of the country the Boston Globe got the "local reporting" Pulitzer for a series investigating racial tension around Boston. Seven reporters were named here as authors and I have no doubt at all that they did well in quarrying out the big news that Boston is a town with racial problems and a white power structure.

In fact, if you are searching for a Pulitzer it clearly pays to write about or take pictures of people who are not white. Aside from the Latinos in Los Angeles and the blacks in Boston, starving Ethiopians helped photographer Anthony Suau of the Denver Post win his prize, assistance similarly furnished to prize-winning photographer Stan Grossfeld of the Boston Globe by suffering Palestinians in Lebanon. This shows what a wet hearted lot of liberals there are on the Pulitzer juries and board. In future they should short-circuit the whole business and give a Pulitzer directly to the starving millions of Africa for consistent, if hungry, service to first world journalism. I hope the Palestinians in Lebanon feel a little better today. Largely misrepresented and racially integrated though they may have been in the US news media over the past 40 years, at least their sufferings have contributed to the Pulitzer process.

Then there are the dynastic Pulitzers, both institutional and personal. The Washington Post was cut out this year which makes one think that it will definitely get its dynastic due 12 months from now. So unremitting is the flow of newspaper prizes, however, that the Washington Post was able to console itself in the midst of its Tuesday coverage of the Pulitzers with the news that its own man Ward Sinclair had been named Newspaper Editor Of The Year by the National Association of Farm Writers. Los Angeles Times cartoonist Conrad won his third Pulitzer, edging out Don Wright of the Miami News also in search of his third.

This will not surprise readers of Monday's Wall Street Journal who were able to find on the editorial page an article by James Squires, Editor of the Chicago Tribune and Chairman of this year’s Pulitzer editorial cartoon jury. Mr. Squires said that there are only about a half dozen worthwhile political cartoonist in the country, among whom he included Conrad, Herblock and his own papers Jeff MacNelly, another Pulitzer cartoonist whose record of ignorance and reactionary prejudices is, in my view, unmatched since Sir Bernard Partridge’s s work in the late 19th century Punch. At least Conrad thinks better than MacNelly and draws better than Herblock. So why did not the Pulitzer board simply refuse to give a cartoonist prize this year?

Year after year this undignified prize giving ritual goes on without any apparent qualms on the part of my profession. Why? If bankers gave themselves prizes ("The Most Reckless Third World Loan Of The Year") with the same abandon as journalists, you may be sure that the public ridicule would soon force them to conduct their proceedings in secret.

One answer could be that journalists are, by nature and social function, wracked with feelings of insecurity and inferiority; to alleviate those pangs, British journalists turn to drink and American ones to prizes. This may have been true in the days of Daniel Defoe when newsmen and editorialists were put in the stocks or in jail. Not anymore.

The truth is that the Pulitzer business — and, given the promotional uses to which the prizes are put, it definitely is a business — is a self validating ritual whereby journalists give each other prizes and then boast to the public about them. Each year's ritual proclaims that journalism once again has maintained sufficiently high standards to merit such acclaim.

The logical consequence of the boosterism is to have an evening like the Oscars, with all the contestants preening and squirming under the cameras; old stagers like James Reston or C.L. Sulzberger calling for "the envelope please" and Charlton Heston giving a retrospective reading from the Journal's assault on arms control. Maybe then people would understand that it's all show business.

What else can the Pulitzers be but show business if journalists — supposedly a critical lot — can only get together and tell each other how good they are, but not how bad. Yet, to my mind, much of 1983 was a record of journalistic failures; failing to set forth accurately the issues of arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union; failure to discuss objectively and accurately the situation in the Middle East; failure to report the political changes in the black community that stimulated the Jesse Jackson candidacy. The list could go on for quite a while.

There is something hugely self complacent, odiously Pecksniffian, about the journalistic profession at the moment. Take one small example, amid all the endless preaching about free speech and the First Amendment — has any newspaper found editorial space to lament the case of Hustler publisher Larry Flynt who was thrown into a federal penitentiary on charges arising out of his refusal to name a source? This is a fate that normally has the editorialists hot with sympathy, but then Flynt is scarcely a shining light of the Fourth Estate.

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