The Pulitzers and The Wall Street Journal

Where to find the big one

Reading The Wall Street Journal’s “What They Know” series on Internet (un)privacy last year, I thought, this has “Pulitzer” written all over it.

I don’t mean that in a cynical way. Unlike some people (paging Jack Shafer), I do care who wins the Pulitzers and other prizes because they often reward big, risky, in-depth, investigative reporting, including some of my all-time favorites. And if someone’s ego gets inflated in the process, so what? Yes, I get that there’s something unseemly about journalists, who present themselves as selfless do-gooders, bestowing awards on each other so they can then, as Alexander Cockburn noted a long time ago (h/t: Shafer), “boast to the public about them.”

But aside from prizes, there really aren’t any other metrics for journalism quality, so a juried, peer-reviewed process that attracts everyone’s best work is certainly better than nothing.

And I thought the series, by Julia Angwin and others, had all the hallmarks of a Pulitzer winner: it was ambitious, risky (some of the companies named had objected vociferously, I am told), well-written, and full of surprises.

Plus, it touched off government investigations and reform. Check, check, and check.

It didn’t win, and wasn’t even a finalist. I’m surprised. Staffers at my old paper were crushed when they learned, one of them tells me. I understand. (I noticed corrections appended to a couple of the stories and don’t know if that was a factor, but none seems major.) As a consolation prize, here’s an “Audie.” (And here I should mention that CJR, which is published by the Columbia J-School, has nothing to do with the Pulitzers, which are administered by the school and awarded by Columbia University. I do get to go to the lunch, however.)

I give Robert Thomson, the Journal’s top editor, credit for his stout preemptive memo bucking up the staff and praising the paper’s enterprise, public-service reporting. He cited the privacy series (praised by us, too) first and foremost, as well as the paper’s BP-spill reporting (praised by us more than once), its Medicare fraud series (praised here), its probe of possible bank manipulation of the Libor interest rate standard (praise), Japan coverage (haunting story here), and more.

He titled his memo: “The Greatest Prize,” and he’s right about that. The work really is its own reward, no matter what the cynics say.

And he promises:

…2011 will bring even more ambitious coverage. We have already begun several major series of enterprise work—not to mention the continuation of the Medicare magnum opus—and will be rolling out more projects in coming weeks and months.


Still, I wrote last year that the fact that the WSJ, which had won thirty three Pulitzers overall, has been shut out from newsroom Pulitzers since News Corp. took over in 2007, was bad for the country. And it’s not good that the shutout continues another year (a WSJ editorial writer did win one, throwing a wrench into any number of conspiracy theories).

But if I had to read the tea leaves on this one, I look to the National Prize, won by ProPublica’s Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein, for their work exploring and unraveling the colossal scandal that was the financial crisis. One story in that series told how Wall Street banks, faced with difficulty in selling toxic debt, created fake demand, selling their unwanted CDOs to other CDOs. This is not a wonky detail. The actions grossly enlarged future losses borne by investors and the public. Another story reported how one hedge fund, Magnetar, on its own helped to perpetuate the housing bubble by having toxic CDOs created and betting against them.

The full series is here: The more you learn, the worse it gets.

I wonder if the Pulitzer jurors and board feel as I do, that we’re still in about the third inning of this profound and historic event and its aftermath. The virtuosity of Eisinger and Bernstein’s work aside—and it was virtuous indeed, as we said as the series unfolded—perhaps the best thing about it was that they decided to keep after the story after others had foolishly moved on. I always thought that was nuts, especially if you have the words “Wall Street” in your name.

I’m sure Bloomberg News, which has long sought a Pulitzer, is disappointed it, too, didn’t win. But the Bloomberg entries that made it among the finalists, as good as they were, also didn’t deal with the crisis, the business story, the story, really, of our time.

The FCIC report and supporting documents are yet to be fully mined. That goes double for the Levin-Coburn report and supporting documents (links here).

Do we really think we’ve gotten to the bottom of this event or taken control of the narrative?

The Audit’s takeaway: Go after the big important thing, and the Pulitzers will take care of themselves.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman. Tags: , , , ,