First Person

A note from the editor

May 31, 2016

The New York World for its articles exposing the operations of the Ku Klux Klan, 1922. William Leonard Laurence of The New York Times for his eyewitness account of the atom-bombing of Nagasaki and subsequent articles on its significance, 1946. Seymour Hersh of Dispatch News Service for his exclusive disclosure of the Vietnam War tragedy at the hamlet of My Lai, 1970. The New York Times for its publication of the Pentagon Papers, 1972. The Washington Post for its investigation of the Watergate case, 1973. The Guardian US and The Washington Post for their revelations of widespread secret surveillance by the National Security Agency, 2014.

If ever there was a case to be made for the power of a Pulitzer Prize, it is contained in the preceding paragraph, which itself contains a mere fraction of the extraordinary work that has earned journalism’s highest honor. It leaves out columnists like Clarence Page, cartoonists like Garry Trudeau, and narrative writers like Isabel Wilkerson.


CJR chose the subject of the Pulitzer Prize for our first special print edition because it offers a rich means to observe the craft of journalism—its powers and its shortcomings.


CJR chose the subject of the Pulitzer Prize for our first special print edition because it offers a rich means to observe the craft of journalism—its powers and its shortcomings. The conceit of the issue is this: We asked nine Pulitzer Prize winners to write, not about their own work, but about some other Pulitzer winner’s work. They could choose from any category, from any period over the Pulitzer’s 100 years. Investigative power brand Dana Priest finds that the journalism that surfaced the Pentagon Papers didn’t deliver the historic changes some predicted. Photographer Clarence Williams writes about the act of photographing while black through an exploration of the images of John H. White. David Finkel reflects on the career of Anthony Shadid, a fallen comrade who died while reporting on the war in Syria. Steve Coll, dean of Columbia’s Journalism School, uses the lens of the Pulitzer Prize to look at the current state of our industry in his opening essay.

This sacred Prize is not all gold or even glitter, as this issue also reveals. Winning can be a journalist’s last great triumph, and rash pursuit of its glory can turn toxic. Janet Cooke’s name is synonymous with the latter. Her bizarre fabrication of an 8-year-old heroin addict is captured in this issue by someone who knew her well, magazine writer Mike Sager. He traces the arc between that famous episode in 1981 and the durable impact it had on American media.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Here’s what else is interesting about Cooke: She would have been the first African-American woman to win the Prize, had she and The Washington Post not been compelled to return it. What’s more depressing is that 15 years later, African Americans still make up only 8 percent of all Prize winners (most win for commentary and feature photography). In 100 years, eight Hispanics have won. Women of any race make up 15 percent of winners (most commonly for investigative reporting and feature writing). These are only a few of the revelations CJR surfaced in a broad look at patterns among Prize winners and within Prize categories.

If you’re at all curious about the Pulitzers, you’ll want to read this issue. The pieces by our collection of exceptional Pulitzer Prize-winning authors will show you the glory of what’s possible in our profession. The makeup of the winners will show you how far we have to go.

Elizabeth Spayd is the editor in chief and publisher of CJR.