A Look at CJR’s Past Coverage of Monday’s Pulitzer Prize Winners

Sometimes we totally call it. Sometimes, not so much.

If calling the Pulitzer Prize winners were like picking a Sweet 16 bracket for March Madness, CJR didn’t exactly win the office pool this year. Let’s just say we picked Kansas over Northern Iowa. Not that we bet on these sorts of things. (My money’s on the new kids at the Wall Street Journal’s soon-to-debut New York metro section for the prize in Breaking News next year. I hear they scouted some good talent.). But throughout 2009, we did highlight many of the eventual winners and finalists announced at Monday’s 94th annual Pulitzers in journalism, providing some insight, along with some shortsight as well.

In October, our business news critics at The Audit singled out Explanatory Reporting winner, Michael Moss’s investigation of tainted hamburger meat in the food supply as a “good,” “painstaking” and “stomach turning” public safety story. Moss’s account for the New York Times of a young woman, who was paralyzed after eating e. coli-tainted burger meat that had gone unregulated by lax food safety standards, was a veritable 21st century update to Upton Sinclair’s landmark work of journalistic muckraking and cattle-slaughterhouse horror story, “The Jungle.” Our Dean Starkman called it “an old-fashioned, time-consuming newspaper investigation, of, it must be said, a distinctly American pedigree. This kind of reporting is a main reason why we need big news organizations to survive and thrive.” Foreshadowing the Wall Street Journal’s third straight Pulitzer shutout under Rupert Murdoch’s management, Starkman also said Moss’s piece was “a reminder of why we here at The Audit are concerned about the creeping Anglo-Australian influence on U.S. business journalism. The Brits may do many things well; business investigations are not among them. That’s too bad, because the Times offers a compelling read with excellent mini-gets and scooplets throughout.”

Yesterday, Starkman, a former WSJ staffer, wrote that “the Journal being shut out for the third straight year isn’t good for anyone—not the Pulitzers, not the Journal, not readers, and certainly not for problem of news gathering and investigative reporting in the age of financial crisis,” noting that though some may argue that the Pulitzer Prizes are irrelevant and self-congratulatory, the kinds of stories that win them “don’t just pop up out of a toaster”; they take work. And disparaging the work they require - like the joke back in 2008 from the Journal’s then-newly installed top editor, Robert Thomson, who said that the Journal’s once-trademark, now long-gone long-form stories appeared to have “the gestation period of a llama,” isn’t really funny anymore.

The Investigative Reporting category had two winners this year, though you wouldn’t know it if from the huge discussion surrounding the unprecedented win for ProPublica, the first time an online-only journalism outlet has won since they were made eligible to enter for the first time last year. The piece - about euthanasia practiced at New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina and the lack of clear ethical guidelines in disaster medicine - reported by ProPublica’s Sheri Fink and published in collaboration with the New York Times Magazine is also unprecedented for its collaborative nature, a phenomenon that we are likely to see much more of in the future as nonprofit investigative journalism continues to proliferate on the web, according to Pulitzer Prize administrator, Sig Gissler, at Monday’s announcements.

At CJR, we first noted the landmark story for the enormous amount it cost to produce: $400,000.
and later mentioned it in a magazine piece written by Jeff Horwitz for our March/April 2010 issue profiling ProPublica’s founders, Herb and Marion Sandler, and the ethical questions posed to the nonprofit outlet after the Sandlers, themselves, became the subjects a New York Times story, negatively portraying the role their mortgage company, Golden West, and its lending practices, played in inflating the housing bubble. This put the Sandlers in the uncomfortable and unprecedented situation of footing the bill for the $400k story later published by the same company that they had felt wronged by, the sort of quandary that Horwitz noted will crop up more and more in this new age of collaborative efforts between nonprofit journalism and legacy news organizations.

Back in March, The Observatory’s Cristine Russell noted Local Reporting winner Raquel Rutledge’s “traditional tried-and-true tricks of the investigative reporter” for a work for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that exposed a “shocking scam involving fraud, criminal activity, and endangerment to children in Wisconsin’s child-care subsidy program” was an “old-fashioned, solo effort” that bucked the trend of a “seemingly greater number of more digitally oriented and collaborative projects.”

In September, we chatted with Matt Richtel – the lead reporter on the New York Times’ National Reporting category winning series on driving while texting. The Audit also talked up both National Reporting finalists earlier in 2009; a McClatchy series that took a close look at how Goldman Sachs (an Audit funder) helped fuel the mortgage crisis, and Ken Bensinger’s and Ralph Vartabedian’s investigative work for the Los Angeles Times on Toyota’s disturbing trend of rare, but fatal, sudden acceleration-related incidents and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s role in letting the big automaker slide. The LAT duo’s work is also the subject of the latest Darts and Laurels column in the magazine’s upcoming May/June issue. Stay tuned.

We also lauded International Reporting winner Anthony Shadid’s work for the Washington Post, albeit in a backhanded way. In criticizing David Ignatius’s “helicopter journalism” from the safety of a Blackhawk flyover of Baghdad back in October, CJR contributing editor Michael Massing also praised then-Waco reporter Shadid’s less rosy on-the-ground reporting. Massing wrote, “The view from the ground is left to the Post’s Arabic-speaker Middle East expert, Anthony Shadid, whose report the same day captured the shattering and traumatizing effect the bombings had on local residents … The full extent of the devastation is graphically and gruesomely conveyed in the remarkable photo gallery accompanying Shadid’s article. It provides a stark contrast to Ignatius’s above-it-all account.” Shadid, who was later poached by the New York Times, entered his own work in the Pulitzers and was one of the rare self-entries to win in the history of the prizes, Gissler said yesterday.

Also back in October, our Greg Marx did a Q&A interview with International Reporting finalist, Borzou Daraghi about his coverage of political unrest surrounding the elections in Iran for the Los Angeles Times. Marx’s questioning elicited more than one fascinating insight into the story behind the Prize-winning coverage, including Daraghi’s view of the much-ballyhooed role of social media in covering the unrest. Instead, he emphasized the importance of keeping international bureaus open and journalists on the ground in areas of conflict. Daraghi told CJR:

I never knew about Andrew Sullivan or Nico Pitney or any of these people until I left Iran, because all those Web sites were filtered out. But without a presence on the ground, you’re very, very, very limited. The LA Times has sources in Iran—we have friends of the LA Times, long-time friends. This is the advantage of having a real news operation, we have people who have been going into Iran with the LA Times brand for decades. That makes a big difference. We have built up sources, contacts, relationships with officials even.

Back in June, after International Reporting finalist David Rohde safely escaped the Taliban captors who had kidnapped him seven month earlier, CJR’s former assistant editor Katia Bachko did another illuminating Q&A with New York Times executive editor Bill Keller on the news blackout imposed during Rohde’s long disappearance. Rohde’s insightful and riveting memoir of his harrowing experience as a Taliban prisoner, published later in 2009, was closely followed everywhere, including here at CJR, where we included a wrap-up analyzing what the Times didn’t tell us about the circumstances of his ordeal.

Commentary finalist David Leonhardt has been a longtime CJR darling, linked and discussed numerous times, both for his coverage of the bailout and the healthcare debate, done through an exacting financial lens. Ryan Chittum called him a “must read” for a recent March column that persuasively cast the bankers who created the crisis as looters, called another Leonhardt piece on Social Security back in October a “smart column,” and wrote simply, “I like Leonhardt’s column this morning,” way back in 2008. Back in September, Starkman called Leonhardt’s discussion of medical malpractice within the context of the healthcare debate, “deft” , and that he “asked the right question” in another column about the federal bailout that same month.

We missed the chance to highlight eventual winners in some categories entirely, some big – like the inspiring Cinderella story of 28-year-old Daniel Gilbert’s Public Service award for an investigation chronicling the mismanagement of natural-gas royalties owed to thousands of land owners in southwest Virginia, written for the tiny Bristol, Va., Herald Courier - and some of which don’t usually fall under CJR’s gimlet-eyed purview as media critics (not to say there’s any topic too big or too small for us to tackle).

Those misses included dance critic Sarah Kaufman’s winning work in the Criticism category, the Dallas Morning News’ award-winning team in the Editorial Writing category, self-syndicated Editorial Cartooning category winner Mark Fiore for his work for SFGate.com, the winning Feature Photography work of the Denver Post’s Craig F. Walker, and Mary Chind’s award-winning Breaking News Photography for the Des Moines Register – as well as Breaking News Photography finalist, the Associated Press photo staff for their coverage of the war in Afghanistan. But our former staffer, Megan Garber, did note the lack of a good descriptive term for Capt. Chesley Sullenberger’s now-famous Hudson River landing of US Airways flight 1549 - and chastised cable news’s breathless coverage of the landing as a “crash”. It turns out the best way to describe the plane’s harrowing fall from the sky wasn’t with words, but with images, which was what clinched the other finalist berth in the Breaking News Photography category for the New York Daily News photo staff. Well done, all.

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.