Thu 27 Mar 2008
While Newsday reporters celebrated their winning a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1970 for an exposé of corruption involving public officials and Republican Party figures on Long Island, one of the crooks who had been exposed showed up.
Republican leader Freddie Fellman, who would subsequently go to prison, “lived up to his reputation as a big talker, taking the floor and catching the attention of the assembled journalists. ‘Wait a second,’ he said to the surprised revelers. ‘You couldn’t have done this without me!’”
The story is from a new book, Pulitzer’s Gold by Roy Harris Jr., senior editor at CFO magazine. I mentioned it here five weeks ago because the book, which has been selling well, devotes a chapter to The Point Reyes Light’s 1979 gold medal.
Now that I’ve had time to read the book at a leisurely pace, I find myself frequently recounting stories from it, such as the Freddie Fellman tale. Anytime a book does that for me, I figure it’s pretty well written.
Another story I love from Pulitzer’s Gold recounts how Raleigh, North Carolina’s News & Observer won the Public Service medal in 1996 for revealing environmental problems from the state’s burgeoning hog industry. It illustrates the circuitous routes that newspaper investigations often take.
While looking into malfeasance at the North Carolina State Fair back in 1995, two News and Observer reporters discovered the state veterinarian was taking gifts from pork producers. They then looked into the hog industry and discovered that although it had become huge in North Carolina, this “had happened mostly out of the public eye,” the book relates. “And so had the pollution that came with it.”
News and Observer staff eventually wrote that a “megalopolis” of 7 million swine had sprung up in North Carolina, with each pig producing two to four times as much waste as the average human. What’s more, the newspaper reported, this megalopolis of pig pens “has no sewage-treatment plants. All the wastes… are simply flushed into open pits and sprayed onto fields.” Not surprisingly, groundwater was becoming contaminated.
Still another good story from the book — this one containing a public-relations lesson — concerns The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s winning a Public Service medal in 1990. The prize was for revealing “how the American blood industry operates with little government regulation or supervision,” in the words of the Pulitzer Board.
In 1989, a business reporter at The Inquirer gave blood during a drive at his office. Afterward, he became curious about what happened to the blood next. Planning to write a routine business story, the reporter contacted the local Red Cross director and started asking routine questions: How much blood is in the blood bank? What is the dollar value of the blood?
But the director cut him off, saying, “We don’t have to tell you that.” The reporter told author Harris, “I was taken aback, and my journalistic antennae went up.” Suddenly suspicious because of the director’s stonewalling, reporter Gilbert Gaul eventually determined that 61 percent of the Red Cross’ business was blood, not disaster relief, and that “red cells are really a commodity, and they’re sold that way.”
Gaul revealed a secretive, nationwide market in blood, which was being repeatedly sold and resold. His series brought about more federal inspections of blood brokering nationwide, as well as more attention to keeping AIDS out of the blood supply. And it all began with the Red Cross director in Philadelphia refusing to answer some routine questions prompted by a blood drive.
Pulitzer’s Gold is also wonderfully rich in quotations from a variety of writers. Some examples that I’ve found myself repeating:
• “What I try to do in my paper is to give the public part of what it wants to have and part of what it ought to have, whether it wants it or not.” — Herbert Bayard Swope, executive editor, New York World
• “The Jazz Age had had a wild youth and a heady middle age… the most expensive orgy in history…. It was borrowed time anyhow — the whole upper tenth of a nation living with the insouciance of grand dukes and the casualness of chorus girls.” — F. Scott Fitzerald on the 1920s
• “Every reporter is a hope, every editor a disappointment.” — Joseph Pulitzer (Pulitzer’s son and grandson are seen above with a bust of the legendary publisher)
In looking at 88 years of competition for the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, which Joseph Pulitzer considered the top award, author Harris recounts some fascinating events in American history. And what makes the telling itself fascinating is that it’s history as seen through the eyes of reporters who covered the events, whether Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, or the desegregation of Little Rock, Arkansas, schools.
The book is also packed with interesting tidbits about the awarding of the prizes:
• Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, for example, once wrote dismissively about the prizes although he himself had lobbied Pulitzer jurors on behalf of The Post. (In recent years, Bradlee has spoken more highly of the prizes.)
• In 1918, the Public Service prize went to The Milwaukee Journal for a campaign against “Germanism in America.” The campaign included opposition to German-language classes.
• Columbia University in New York City houses the awards program, and in 1972, university trustees tried to block the gold medal’s being awarded to The New York Times for publishing the Pentagon Papers. The trustees objected that the papers were stolen, but Columbia president William McGill convinced them not to intervene.
• Much of the New Orleans Times-Picayune coverage of Hurricane Katrina, which won a Public Service award in 2006, was published only online because the newspaper building was flooded.
• The Point Reyes Light won its gold medal in 1979 for an exposé of violence and other wrongdoing by the Synanon cult, but even though my former wife Cathy and I then owned the paper, I hadn’t known what went on during the judging until I read Pulitzer’s Gold. According to Los Times media reporter David Shaw, who is quoted by author Harris (above), members of the Pulitzer board and jury told him “they honored The Light ‘more because it was a small paper whose editors had shown great courage, at considerable financial risk, than because the paper’s stories were necessarily better than the three other finalists in the Public Service category.’
“All thought The Light stories excellent. But Shaw quoted Michael O’Neill, then editor of The New York Daily News and a member of the jury, as saying that ‘if you took the names of the newspapers off the… entries, I would definitely have voted for The Chicago Tribune series on the problems of the aged.’ Shaw also quoted an unnamed board member as saying of The Light’s Dave and Cathy Mitchell: ‘The job that couple did was damn good, but the guts they showed, with Synanon just a few miles down the road… that’s what the Pulitzers are all about, that’s what won the award.’”
Shaw of The LA Times accuses board members of sentimentality for reasoning this way. In contrast, Bob Woodward, The Washington Post writer of Watergate fame, “proposes that ‘degree of difficulty’ should be factored into standards used for the Public Service Prize,” author Harris notes. “To some degree,” he adds, “the Pulitzer board already does that when it considers the long odds faced by a small newspaper.”
Pulitzer’s Gold, University of Missouri Press, 382 pages plus 90-page appendix, $39.95.