May 21, 2010
The Wall Street Journal must be doing something right, even if it doesn’t have the respect of the Pulitzer Prize Board.
The latest numbers from the Audit Bureau of Circulations show the Journal with a healthy gain of 3.37 percent over the six-month period that ended March 31. With an average circulation of 2,092,523 during the workweek, it remains the most-read newspaper in America.
Yet success on the newsstands hasn’t translated into recognition among the newspaper’s peers. Even though the Journal continues to innovate — recently launching a local edition to challenge an old rival, the New York Times — the newspaper hasn’t won a Pulitzer Prize since 2007.
In other words, the Journal hasn’t been awarded journalism’s most coveted prize since conservative publisher Rupert Murdoch acquired the newspaper.
As the New York Observer recently noted, former Journal editor Paul Steiger has won more awards running ProPublica, the liberal-leaning nonprofit, than the Journal has since Murdoch bought Dow Jones & Co., its publisher, from the Bancroft family.
What does the 18-member Pulitzer board have against the Journal?
Readers must flock to the newspaper for some reason. After all, the other papers in the Top Five saw a decline in Monday-through-Friday circulation. USA Today lost 3.87 percent, the New York Times was down 2.44 percent, the Los Angeles Times dropped 6.21 percent, and the Washington Post was off by 0.75 percent.
By comparison, the New York Times won three Pulitzers, including one for a piece in its magazine done in collaboration with ProPublica. The Post did even better, claiming four prizes. Seven other newspapers won Pulitzers, but none posted an increase in circulation over the same six months.
It’s worth noting that of the working journalists on the Pulitzer board that selected the winners, at least four have ties to Top Five papers.
One works for the Journal, one works for the Times and one used to report for the Journal and later the Post. A fourth, new co-chair Amanda Bennett, executive editor for enterprise reporting at Bloomberg News, was a Journal reporter for 20 years. She shared a Pulitzer with colleagues in 1997 for national reporting on AIDS.
The Pulitzer board obviously looks at the quality of journalism, not a newspaper’s bottom line or readership. But the curious observer has to wonder: Is there an inherent bias against Murdoch, and are his reporters paying the price?
Or maybe it’s simply the Pulitzer board’s narrow view of storytelling. In April 2008, shortly after taking over the Journal, Murdoch oversaw a wholesale redesign that included shorter stories with a stronger focus on politics and national and international news. That approach doesn’t exactly fit the Pulitzer blueprint.
Take the winning piece for investigative journalism, Sheri Fink’s 13,000-word report for ProPublica on a New Orleans hospital in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz noted the yearlong investigation cost $400,000. All that time and money led Fink to conclude doctors were guilty of euthanasia, if not outright homicide.
Of course, that stands in stark contrast to a grand jury’s 2008 decision not to indict Dr. Anna Pou for homicide.
Fink, set to receive her Pulitzer at a May 24 luncheon at Columbia University honoring winners, based her account on the memories of several witnesses to the 2005 hurricane. It’s a gripping story that paints a horrific picture of chaos at the hospital, even if accusations and assertions raised against Pou and others remain unproven.
Fink’s work is reminiscent of the “conclusive journalism” practiced by Donald Barlett and James Steele at the Philadelphia Inquirer in the 1990s. Barlett and Steele were Pulitzer finalists in 1992 for “America: What Went Wrong?” The controversial series contended that business interests destroyed the American dream.
The Inquirer published a follow-up series from Barlett and Steele in 1996, provoking this observation from Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins:
[T]he paper has its skirts hiked up to its navel trying to attract the Pulitzer committee.
Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson also weighed in, writing: “It’s junk journalism, and the intriguing question is why a reputable newspaper publishes it.”
All of which begs the question about the Pulitzer board’s judgment. Is this the type of journalism that should be recognized with the craft’s highest honor at Monday’s lunch?
It’s a question Bennett, herself the Inquirer’s editor from 2003 through 2006, usefully could pursue as the board’s new leader.
Robert B. Bluey directs The Heritage Foundation's Center for Media and Public Policy
First appeared in Big Journalism