Roughly two weeks after her 30th birthday, Marguerite Higgins landed on Red Beach during the 1950 US Marine assault on Inchon, South Korea. Her story for the New York Herald Tribune described how, as she crouched in the trenches with the Marines, North Korean soldiers fired and “even hurled hand grenades down at us.”
In the files of the Pulitzer Prizes, the 1951 jury report for international reporting cites Higgins for “fine front line reporting showing enterprise and courage.” Then it says: “She is entitled to special consideration by reason of being a woman, since she had to work under unusual dangers and difficulties.”
This sentence jumped out at me during a year-long exploration of the history of the Pulitzer Prizes. My charge was to curate an anthology of Prize-winning work, backstories, essays, and live material to help celebrate this year’s Pulitzer Prize centennial. The results are rolling out now at Pulitzer.org.
Over the last century, Pulitzer juries and the Prize board have stuck to a proven path while making careful but meaningful adjustments to accommodate change. It took years, for example, to retire language that required a Pulitzer-winning novel to capture “the wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” This language infected the way drama and other book juries did their work as well. Over time, the board’s goal became simply to find the best book or play of any given year. In journalism, the board has adjusted Prize categories to keep pace with technology and trends, and it now strives to remain diverse and balanced in all the positive meanings of those words.
It wasn’t always so, as the Marguerite Higgins citation suggests. Higgins was one of six foreign correspondents who won Pulitzer Prizes in international reporting in 1951, but she was the only one whose brief award citation suggested that her gender warranted “special consideration.” The other five winners were men, as were the two jurors.
In fact, the jury’s mention of the “unusual dangers and difficulties” Higgins faced sprung directly from her experience in Korea. Homer Bigart, her senior correspondent from the Herald Tribune, threatened to fire her if she didn’t leave the country. As he later told an interviewer: “She was a very brave person, foolishly brave. As a result, I felt as though I had to go out and get shot at occasionally myself. So I resented that.” A Marine general expelled Higgins from the front lines. She stood her ground against Bigart and successfully appealed the general’s ouster to General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the UN forces that defended South Korea.
“This poignant picture shows the strength of the woman, the comforting of the child and her dignity in the face of deep, personal grief.”
The gender reference in Pulitzer files was certainly not without precedent. Thirty-one years before Higgins won, the drama Prize went to Zona Gale, who had worked for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World before turning to fiction and drama. One of the three drama jurors that year, all of whom were men, wrote that Gale’s play, Miss Lulu Bett, lacked “the element of greatness,” but he added: “As the award has not gone to a woman before perhaps it would be a graceful concession to give her this years [sic] prize.”
These words grate on the modern ear, but they show that the people who awarded the Pulitzer Prizes over a century were products of their times. For more than 60 years, the Pulitzer Prize Board was all male and all white, in keeping with the power structure of journalism and most other professions.
The prizes were 34 years old when the poet Gwendolyn Brooks became the first African American to win. It took nearly two decades more for the first African-American journalist to capture a prize.
Moneta Sleet Jr. won in feature photography for a picture he took in 1968, a remarkable year for news and thus for photojournalists. Sleet worked for Ebony, and magazines were ineligible for the Prizes. But he was a pool photographer at the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. Newspapers worldwide published his picture of Coretta Scott King and the Kings’ daughter, Bernice.
A six-member jury nominated photojournalists in both spot news and feature photography that year. The top choices in the feature category included Ulrike Welsch’s photos of Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral and Henry Herr Gill’s portraits of starving Biafrans.
In spot, the jury favored Ron Bennett’s pictures of Kennedy’s assassination, taken “under chaotic conditions and under great emotional pressure.” Second was Eddie Adams’s photo of an execution in Saigon, which “influenced the country’s evaluation of our position and commitment in Vietnam.” Sleet’s photo placed fourth.
A page taken from the 1970 Pulitzer jury notes “unanimously and enthusiastically” recommended that the Prize for international reporting that year go to Seymour M. Hersh for his momentous coverage of the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War.
As often happens to this day, the result showed the Pulitzer Prize board staying within the magnetic field of the jury’s judgments while exercising its prerogative to make the final choices. It awarded the Adams photo the prize in spot news and moved the King picture to feature photography, where it won. The jury’s comment on Sleet’s image rang true: “This poignant picture shows the strength of the woman, the comforting of the child and her dignity in the face of deep, personal grief.”
The report did not mention that Sleet was African-American. Times were a-changin’, not just in regard to race, but also in the press’s willingness to aggressively pursue stories that contradicted the official line.
One of the most indelible stories from that time started with a tip to the freelancer Seymour M. Hersh. He made two-dozen calls before an Army public affairs officer directed him to a short article buried in a six-week-old New York Times. The article gave him a name—Lieutenant William Calley—and an outline of what had happened in March 1968 in My Lai, a hamlet in the Republic of Vietnam.
“Just as the 19th century was the century of the novelist, so this postwar phase may be the era of the journalist.”
Hersh flew to Salt Lake City to interview Calley’s lawyer. He traveled to Fort Benning, Georgia, and prowled the base until he found Calley himself. Several magazines rejected Hersh’s story before he found a buyer: Dispatch News Service, an agency founded mainly to cover the Vietnam War. Just three weeks after he received the tip, the first of his series of My Lai stories appeared in newspapers around the country. It began:
“Lt. William L. Calley Jr., 26 years old, is a mild-mannered, boyish-looking Vietnam combat veteran with the nickname ‘Rusty.’ The Army is completing an investigation of charges that he deliberately murdered at least 109 Vietnamese civilians in a search-and-destroy mission on March 16, 1968, in a Viet Cong stronghold known as ‘Pinkville.’ ”
Endorsing Hersh’s fearless tone, the 1970 Pulitzer international reporting jury report, written by Carl Rowan of the Chicago Sun-Times, recommended his stories for the Prize “unanimously and enthusiastically.”
“In the face of disbelief and disinterest on the part of many newspapers, and operating with limited resources, Hersh showed initiative, enterprise, and perseverance to break the My Lai story—a story that shook the nation and had vast international repercussion,” Rowan wrote.
The Pulitzer board concurred, and Hersh won the Prize.
When the Pulitzer Prizes celebrated their 50th anniversary in 1966, New York Times journalist James B. Reston spoke at a huge gala for Prize winners. “I believe in my profession,” he said. “For all its troubles, it never had a better chance of public service or a greater opportunity for creative minds than it does today. . . . Just as the 19th century was the century of the novelist, so this postwar phase may be the era of the journalist.”
The internet has destroyed the economic model that inspired Reston’s faith. But after a year of reading Pulitzer Prize files and many years of involvement in the Prize process, I see reason for optimism.
Traditional newsrooms are under greater pressure than ever, but many top journalists are bringing world-class journalism to digital platforms. As these pioneers devise new tools to expedite and deepen reporting, the Pulitzer Prize Board is moving faster than ever to gear the Prize process to an age of experimentation.
Web-only news sites, such as ProPublica and InsideClimate News, have competed and won Prizes. The New York Times’s “Snow Fall,” the 2013 feature writing winner on a fatal avalanche in the Cascades, stood out for its gorgeous and innovative online presentation. A much smaller operation, The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, won the 2015 public service Prize for an entry that backed up good text-based storytelling with video interviews and an impressive use of data.
When or whether a stable and sustainable economic model for journalism will emerge is anybody’s guess. Columbus thought he was going to the Indies, but his journey ended elsewhere. Those who believe journalism is vital as democracy’s gatekeeper are similarly at sea.
For a century, the Pulitzer Prizes have provided a lodestar for journalistic excellence. They’ve also proved adaptable—a greater challenge than ever in these times, but one the board is striving to meet.
When Mike Pride arrived at the Concord Monitor in 1978 from Florida, the family-owned New Hampshire paper had an editorial staff of 18. In Pride’s first year, the publisher told him he could increase the paper’s budget by a third. Pride hired several former colleagues who came to be known in the Monitor newsroom as the Florida Mafia. That was the beginning of a three-decade strategy to develop a Monitor staff that could consistently produce meaningful, high-quality journalism. While cultivating veteran reporters and editors, Pride also hired young reporters out of internships at regional and national papers and established a pipeline that enabled gifted Monitor reporters to move on to challenging jobs in bigger markets. “I would lose them all at the end of the New Hampshire primary,” he recalls. He invested in the photo staff, growing it to four full-time photographers and a rotating intern. “You have to live with the resources you have,” says Pride, who became the Monitor’s editor in 1983. “And you’ve got to be really careful with hires.” His work paid off. In 2006, photographer Preston Gannaway began documenting the final days of Carolynn St. Pierre, a mother of three who was dying of cancer. Gannaway captured searing images of St. Pierre’s young son rubbing his mother’s swollen feet while she lay in bed and the moment St. Pierre died. In 2008, the year Pride retired, the Monitor’s editorial staff hit a peak of 45. That same year, Gannaway won the paper’s first and only Pulitzer Prize, for feature photography.