The WSJ’s Pulitzer Shutout is Bad for the Country

As Alexander Cockburn theorized in a 1984 Wall Street Journal column, the Pulitzers are a kind of show business, a “self-validating ritual whereby journalists give each other prizes and then boast to the public about them.”
Jack Shafer in Slate.
The Pulitzers have played a proactive, standard-setting role since press pioneer Joseph Pulitzer first devised them in the early 1900s.

—Roy J. Harris Jr., author of Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism.

Of course, the Pulitzers aren’t everything. You can argue they aren’t anything, if you like, but it says here that The Wall Street Journal’s 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.

And I should say up front, as I did last year, that the Columbia Journalism Review doesn’t have anything to do with the Pulitzer Prizes, which are given out by Columbia University and administered by the Journalism School, which publishes CJR. I did try to visit up there once, but a guy in a muscle shirt tossed me back out through the swinging doors and down a flight of stairs.

And whatever one’s misgivings about journalists giving prizes to other journalists, who then, as Cockburn says, boast to the public about them, remember that there aren’t any reliable metrics for journalism quality. Sure, circulation is a metric, but it’s only reliable if USA Today is really the country’s second-best paper, and it’s not.

Prizes are a juried, peer-reviewed, qualitative judgment; they’re not perfect, but they’re what we have.

True, just because a paper wins a Pulitzer, or in the case of the Times and Washington Post, three and four, respectively, doesn’t mean they are consistently the better papers. Likewise, just because the Journal won none doesn’t mean, necessarily, that it’s consistently not as good as the others.

And winning doesn’t even mean the stories that won were the “best” in their categories. What’s that mean, anyway? Personally, I liked the Los Angeles Times’s work on Toyota for the national prize, but that’s just me. It’s subjective, to be sure. Again, it’s a qualitative judgment. What can you do?

But winning means, at a minimum, that the stories that won were almost certainly very good—in the sense that they were ambitious, required extensive reporting and careful writing, carried some significance beyond the normal gathering of news and/or had some kind of impact on the real world—they spurred some kind of change, like, for instance, fixing Walter Reed.

All of yesterday’s winners had some of these qualities, and some had all of them.

And many readers would intuit, fairly, that these kinds of stories don’t just pop up out of a toaster—that the prize reflects at least somewhat favorably on a news organization’s culture. The papers certainly like to think so.

So, back to my old paper.

As Aaron Elstein of Crain’s New York, another ex-WSJer, puts it:

How strange it is to see this. Starting in 1995, the Journal won Pulitzers every year with two exceptions - 1998 and 2006, according to the Pulitzer Prize Web site. And even in 1998, the paper was a finalist.

During its amazing run, the paper won in most every category, including national, international, beat and explanatory reporting. It won in criticism and commentary. The backdating story won the prestigious public service award. In 1995, 2001, 2004, 2005 and 2007 it took home two Pulitzers. Say what you want about the Journal when it was owned by the Bancroft family - it sounds like an upcoming book by Sarah Ellison will say it all - but this paper used to be a prize-winning machine.

I’m sure there was a sense of deflation today among the rank-and-file over at the Journal newsroom, now in News Corp. headquarters in midtown. It can’t be much fun getting beat by the Puget Sound Business Journal, which at least was a finalist for its series on the fall of Washington Mutual and coverage of Seattle-area foreclosures. Perhaps among senior news executives, the bad news was chalked up to another catty maneuver by media elites to ace out the change-agents at News Corp. Or as Ellison’s upcoming book on the Dow Jones takeover will report, according to this Times preview:

Again and again, the new owners of The Journal see the newspaper’s critics as left-leaning pantywaists and “Columbia Journalism School” types.

Ah, well.

Back in 2007, when I opposed News Corp.’s takeover of the Journal’s parent, Dow Jones & Co., and faulted former management and ownership for laying the groundwork for it, the problem wasn’t that Rupert Murdoch would start running semi-nude women on page three or inject rightwing politics into its news pages, although the latter fear has been realized to some degree.

The problem was that consistently great work on Page One and elsewhere wouldn’t survive the combination. You didn’t need to be a fortune-teller to see this coming.

Only media sophisticates, like Jon Fine, then of BusinessWeek, and Michael Wolff could argue that it didn’t matter or that it was a good thing.

Wolff is still at it, today with a short history of journalism and its problems:

…Watergate came along and suddenly the news business was filled with Ivy Leaguers and an elevated sense of its own mission.

Thereupon began a quarter-century of self-importance and earnestness, which has not ended even in the face of the profession becoming among the most unpopular in the nation and with many (if not most) of its outlets facing obsolesce and bankruptcy.

For Wolff, there may be nothing worse than the sin of “self-importance and earnestness.” These qualities will not get you a table at Michael’s.

But it’s not necessarily a sign of self-importance to probe corruption in a big city vice squad, as the Philadelphia Daily News did in its “Tainted Justice” series, which won an investigative Pulitzer yesterday. And victims of a faulty meat-inspection system might be willing to put up with some earnestness if that’s what it takes to get their story told, as the Times did to win its explanatory prize.

I can think of worse things than earnestness. How about nihilism?

The Journal’s peculiar journalism formula: covering commodity news but being heretical enough to put it inside the paper, while reserving Page One for the truly special, original reporting, was always fragile. Its Page One operation—an institution-within-an-institution—was always a bit of a hothouse flower. It wouldn’t take much to kill it, and the financial pressures and other problems of the paper’s last years of independence had taken a toll.

To say the least, Murdoch never held himself out to be an avatar of depth reporting or public-service journalism, and indeed has made dismissive comments about such things. Many people shrugged or agreed when Murdoch complained about the length of Journal stories. Many probably chuckled when the then newly installed top editor, Robert Thomson, joked that many Journal stories appeared to have “the gestation period of a llama.”

It was a great line then. Not so great today.

Whatever the merit of these complaints, and there was some, they did not bode well for long-form, depth reporting, once the Journal’s strong suit.

Point is, all this is not good. It’s not good the Journal isn’t doing Pulitzer-level work in the eyes of Pulitzer jurists. It’s not good that the global financial news leader is drifting away the journalism establishment. Journalism needs an establishment, and the Journal needs to be in it. Especially now, with the financial crisis nowhere near fully explored or explained, the Journal remains an indispensable resource for readers and the public generally.

At the risk of being overly earnest, I hope the Journal’s new brass takes the Pulitzer results not as a snub but as a challenge. Let’s not have another April like this.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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.