Pulitzers Draw a Line in the Sand

The Pulitzer Prizes were awarded this afternoon, and the winners reflect something of a face-off between the Pulitzer Board and the White House.

The 2006 Pulitzer Prizes were awarded this afternoon, with a few old standbys cleaning up in several categories. Kicking things off is the Public Service award, which was shared by the Biloxi, Mississippi Sun Herald and the New Orleans Times-Picayune for their coverage of the destruction that Hurricane Katrina wrought on the Gulf Coast last fall.

The Picayune also won in the Breaking News category for their tireless coverage of the Hurricane Katrina story. CJR Daily embedded with the staff of the Picayune in Baton Rouge and New Orleans in early September, producing a series of reports about how the paper’s reporters refused to abandon their city during — and after — the storm. We also interviewed Sun Herald editor Stan Tiner about the paper’s coverage of the disaster, and Sun Herald reporter Mike Keller on what it was like inside the paper’s newsroom during and immediately after the storm.

The New York Times took home several Pulitzers. In the International category, the Times’ Joseph Kahn and Jim Yardley won for their coverage of China in 2005. The paper took home another prize in National Reporting for their December 2005 story by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau about the NSA’s secret domestic wiretapping program. The piece summarized part of Risen’s book State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, and caused a stir of its own in the Times newsroom, when public editor Barney Calame was frustrated in his attempts to get executive editor Bill Keller and the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., to respond to questions as to why they waited a year to run the story. In early January, CJR Daily noted the controversy, writing that Calame’s piece was “a startling and toughly worded demonstration of the public editor of the nation’s most important newspaper calling his bosses to task and finding them wanting.”

Sharing the National Reporting prize are the staffs of the San Diego Union-Tribune and Copley News Service for breaking the story of graft and bribery that sent former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham to prison.

The Washington Post won in the Investigative Reporting category for its series of stories revealing the rampant congressional corruption surrounding Washington uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The articles, by Susan Schmidt, James V. Grimaldi, and R. Jeffrey Smith were further credited by the Pulitzer board for producing lobbying reform efforts.

Washington Post reporter Dana Priest won in the Beat Reporting category for her account of the CIA’s secretive prison system overseas. Priest revealed that the clandestine system, which was set up in the months following the Sept. 11 attacks to help detain future terrorism suspects, included prisons in Afghanistan, Thailand, Guantanamo Bay, and several countries in Eastern Europe.

At the time, under pressure from U.S. officials, the Post decided not to publish the names of the Eastern European countries involved in the program — a decision we criticized at the time. Nevertheless, Priest’s story succeeded at penetrating the shroud of secrecy surrounding the prisons — and helped shed some light on the murky practices being used therein.

Both the James Risen, Eric Lichtblau story in the Times on secret, warrantless surveillance of phone calls and email by the National Security Agency, and the Dana Priest story in the Post on the CIA network of so-called black prisons in foreign countries where captives are held without trial or recourse, have been denounced by President Bush himself as all but traitorous disclosures. Thus, we seem to have a sort of face-off at the OK Corral between the Pulitzer Board and the Bush White House itself — one that, among other things, throws into stark clarity the sharply different values that guide each institution.

In the Explanatory Reporting category, David Finkel’s series on a U.S. funded program to encourage democracy in Yemen in the Washington Post was the winner; the pieces appaered on December 19, and 20.

After nearly a year of in-depth reporting, Finkel provided a nuanced portrait of a Washington-based non-profit and their efforts to promote democracy in one of the world’s least developed nations. As Finkel explained, the program was one of hundreds funded by the Bush administration, aiming to export American-style democracy in some of the roughest patches of the world.

While democracy promotion sounds great in theory, Finkel’s series provided a riveting reminder of the difficulties such programs can crash into in real life.

The winner in Commentary category was Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times. Kristof, as CJR Daily noted back in December, spent good chunks of 2005 “reporting tirelessly from Darfur, refusing with admirable stubbornness to let an indifferent world forget about the massive human tragedy unfolding there.” And let’s not forget his challenge to Bill O’Reilly back in December to drop the “war on Christmas” stuff and go to Darfur to do some reporting.

But for all of the great work he does internationally, Kristof often has something of a tin ear when it comes to domestic matters. In October, CJR Daily took him to task for comparing special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald (who is investigating the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity to journalists) to “Inspector Javert, the Victor Hugo character whose vision of justice is both mindless and merciless,” complaining that Fitzgerald is “said to be mulling indictments that aren’t based on his prime mandate, investigation of possible breaches of the 1982 law prohibiting officials from revealing the names of spies.”

CJR Daily Managing Editor Steve Lovelady also criticized Kristof back in June of 2004 for a column in which Kristof complained about the conspiracy theories he saw liberals engaging in over the motivations of President Bush. Lovelady wrote that “the observation that liberals really don’t like Bush — and sometimes even question his motives — isn’t exactly newsworthy. But Kristof, who usually spends more time interviewing people in distant lands than those in his own country, is stunned by the fervor he encounters at home…Hey Nick — Welcome to 2004. Glad you could drop in and join us.”

For Feature Writing Jim Sheeler of the Rocky Mountain News took home top honors for writing extensively about the impact of the war in Iraq on Colorado, particularly the stories of the casualties. The paper also won the award for Feature Photography, for Todd Heisler’s photographs of the funerals of Colorado Marines, returning from Iraq in caskets.

The staff of the Dallas Morning News won in the Breaking News Photography category for its shots of the mayhem and suffering in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Journal-Constituion won the award for Editorial Cartooning. The committee cited his “powerful cartoons on an array of issues, drawn with a simple but piercing style.” This is his second Pulitzer; he won the first in 1995. In 2004, CJR Daily interviewed Luckovich about topics including the climate for editorial cartooning, and the political leanings of cartoonists.

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.