The Pulitzer Prize is an annual award that is given mostly to Americans, in each of 21 categories. These include: (a) 14 separate Journalism categories: Breaking News Reporting, Investigative Reporting, Explanatory Reporting, Beat Reporting, National Reporting, International Reporting, Feature Writing, Commentary, Criticism, Editorial Writing, Editorial Cartooning, Breaking News Photography, Feature Photography, and Public Service; (b) five "Letters" categories: Biography/Autobiography, Fiction, General Non-Fiction, Poetry, and History—the latter being the only category in which the winner need not be an American citizen; and (c) two "Humanities" categories: Drama and Music.
Winners are chosen by an independent Board whose members are selected by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. In 20 of the 21 annual Pulitzer Prize categories, the winner receives a trophy and $10,000 in cash. The only exception is the Public Service category of the Journalism competition, where the prize is a gold medal that is presented not to an individual but to a newspaper.
The first Pulitzer Prizes were awarded in 1917, in accord with the last will and testament of the eminent newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, who bequeathed to Columbia University a sum of $2 million, one-fourth of which was to be “applied to prizes or scholarships for the encouragement of public service, public morals, American literature, and the advancement of education.”
In recent decades, the Pulitzer Prize has come under fire for what many critics have described as left-wing ideological bias. As writer George Shadroui puts it, “[T]he Pulitzer is a political prize bestowed almost exclusively on writers, journalists and thinkers who cater to suitably liberal or left-wing points of view.” Expanding on this theme, Shadroui suggests that the leftist orientation of the Pulitzer Prize is a reflection of the general temperament that pervades the field of journalism:
“For starters, Joseph Pulitzer was a crusader who coined a much-cited definition of journalistic excellence: to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. By this standard, documenting the defects in society is a priority, often with the goal of stimulating government activism to redress specific issues. When not pushing for more government to solve seemingly intractable social problems, the press is routinely focused on corporate malfeasance. Finding victims and documenting failure is the paradigm through which journalists practice their craft—except, alas, when it might cut against the liberal grain. There will be no Pulitzers for exposing the destructive effects of liberal programs like welfare, for example, or the political subversion of the public health system by the AIDS lobby.”
Author and nationally syndicated columnist Diana West, by contrast, offers a somewhat different perspective, noting that in the early 1930s the writer Kenneth Roberts observed that the Pulitzer Prize for novels (later fiction) was consistently being awarded to books whose political and ideological positions “would have seriously affected Mr. Pulitzer's blood pressure if he were still alive.” For example, Roberts had quoted the World Almanac's assertion that Joseph Pulitzer's wish was to honor “the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” “The original playwriting criteria were similar,” says Diana West, citing a 1918 New York Times report stating that the Pulitzer Prize for drama at that time aimed to honor the play that “shall best represent the educational value and power of the stage in raising the standard of good morals, good taste and good manners.”
Whatever Mr. Pulitzer's original intentions may have been, George Shadroui's observation that “liberals and leftists” have enjoyed a “stranglehold” on the Pulitzer Prize since at least the 1960s, is indisputable. In 2004, Shadroui conducted a detailed analysis examining the political and ideological leanings of those who, during the preceding 40 years, had won Pulitzer Prizes in the categories of General Nonfiction, Commentary, Biography/Autobiography, and History. “A review of winners over 40 years shows that conservatives are basically excluded,” he wrote. A minor exception was the Commentary category, was first created in 1970. Between 1970 and 2003, six conservatives had won that Prize: George Will (1970), William Safire (1978), Charles Krauthammer (1987), Vermont Royster (1984), Paul Gigot (2000), and Dorothy Rabinowitz (2001). All the other winners were leftists and liberals, including such notables as Mike Royko, David Broder, Mary McGrory, Ellen Goodman, Russell Baker, Art Buchwald, Claude Sitton, Murray Kempton, Jimmy Breslin, Clarence Page, Jimmie Hoagland, Anna Quindlen, Colbert King, Thomas Friedman, Maureen Dowd, and William Raspberry.
In the other three major categories that Shadroui examined, not a single discernible conservative had won a Pulitzer Prize since the early '60s:
Among the leftists and liberals who had been honored for their work in History were Dean Acheson, James MacGregor Burns, Leon Litwack, Taylor Branch, Joseph Ellis, Robert Caro, Stanley Karnow, Gordon Wood, Louis Menand, and Doris Kearns Goodwin.
In the General Non-Fiction category, liberal-left winners during the previous four decades included Barbara Tuchman, David McCullough, Tina Rosenberg, Garry Wills, Richard Hofstader, Theodore White, Norman Mailer, Frances Fitzgerald, Annie Dillard, James Lelyveld, J. Anthony Lukas, Neil Sheehan, Jonathan Weiner, John Dower, John McPhee, Samantha Power, and David Remnick.
In Biography/Autobiography, liberal-left winners included W.A. Swanberg, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Robert Caro, Joseph Lash, George Kennan, Edmund Morris, Russell Baker, Katherine Graham, David McCullough, and others.
“Some of these awardees,” wrote Shadroui, “wrote great books and their work deserved recognition, irrespective of ideological pedigree. It cannot be ignored, however, that conservative authors are totally overlooked (or snubbed) going back to the 1960s. No awards for Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind), George Gilder (Wealth and Poverty), Charles Murray (Losing Ground), Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom (America in Black and White), whose books helped set the terms of national discussion and policy.”
An anecdote from 1981 illustrates just how biased—and corrupt—the Pulitzer Prize selection process can be. That year, the purportedly true story of an eight-year-old heroin addict named “Jimmy” won a Pulitzer for Janet Cooke, a young African American reporter for the Washington Post.But the Post returned the Prize after Cooke subsequently admitted that the child—and the story—were wholly fictional. The deeper scandal, however, was that the Prize itself had been rigged. As 1981 Pulitzer jury member Edward Shanahan writes, his panel actually had named someone else to win this Prize, but behind the scenes someone very powerful, presumably from the Washington Post, was able to influence decision-makers, reclassify Cooke's series from a category in which she would have lost, and persuade the Pulitzer Board to give her the Prize. (To this day, the secretive Pulitzer Board—more than half of whose members are academics and other non-journalists—retains the power to override what its own hand-picked, predominantly liberal selection juries decide.)
In a 2003 controversy with powerful resonance for the charges that Pulitzer Prizes have long been dominated by ideology, New York Timespublisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.refused to return a Pulitzer awarded in 1932 to his newspaper's Soviet correspondent Walter Duranty, whose reportage, the intervening years have shown, deliberately echoed Soviet propaganda about the supposedly good conditions in the Ukraine, where Marxist dictator Joseph Stalinin fact was systematically murdering 17 million Kulak farmers by starvation. In 2004, all Pulitzer nominees in the Commentary category were liberals, whose work often cast the U.S. and/or capitalism in a negative light. For example: The Investigative Reporting award went to a series about American atrocities in Vietnam. The National Reporting award went to a series attacking Wal-Mart for its alleged maltreatment of workers. The International Reporting award went to the Washington Post for a series on the (often negative) reactions of Iraqis to the American invasion. The Non-Fiction book award went to a leftist author's publication about race struggles. The Beat Reporting award went to a story on college admissions preferences for the wealthy. (Meanwhile, no Pulitzer has ever been awarded for any of the extraordinary investigations into race-preference admissions that favor nonwhites over whites.) The Drama award went to a play whose lone character was a transvestite. And the Public Service writing award went to two PBS leftists.
Two years later, in 2006, anti-American, anti-conservative, and anti-traditional-values themes were again evident in Pulitzer Prize-winning works:
The Washington Post's Dana Priest won a Pulitzer for exposing secret U.S. prisons in Europe, while the New York Times's James Risen and Eric Lichtblau won an award for exposing the National Security Agency's secret surveillance program. As bestselling author and former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett observed, it is odd that “the leaker [of such highly sensitive information] can be prosecuted, but the person who wrote it down, told every citizen about it, and told every enemy of every citizen of this country gets a Pulitzer Prize.”
Todd Heisler of the Rocky Mountain News won the Pulitzer for Feature Photography, for “his haunting, behind-the-scenes look at funerals for Colorado Marines who return from Iraq in caskets”—i.e., an anti-war, anti-Bush theme.
Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution won the Pulitzer for Editorial Cartooning, for his “simple but piercing” cartoons that: (a) showed President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney saying, “We've turned the corner” in Iraq—from “Incompetence” to “Fantasy”; (b) showed President Bush telling Daffy Duck that the latter was doing a “heckuva job” with planning measures to thwart the spread of bird flu; (c) showed Vice President Cheney telling “Virginia” that Santa Claus did in fact exist, and that Virginia was an “unpatriotic, @#$!$* liar for questioning it!”; (d) showed a bus representing America being tail-down in the water, with all the whites in the top section, breathing air, while the submerged “back of the bus” was filled with drowning blacks; and (e) depicted the Catholic Church and advocates of “intelligent design” as imbeciles. “Not one mocked a Democrat,” noted Brent Bozell.
The Washington Post won a Pulitzer for exposing the offenses of lobbyist Jack Abramoff. “Nothing wrong with that,” observed the founder of the Media Research Center, Brent Bozell, “except for this: Notice that Post reporters like Susan Schmidt, whose work on the Abramoff beat won an award this year, never won a Pulitzer for dogged investigations and scoops they unearthed in the Clinton years. In fact, if you look back through the eight years of the Clintons, you'd be incredibly hard-pressed to find more than one Pulitzer awarded for exposing the ever-bubbling Clinton scandals: a 1999 New York Times investigation of the 'corporate sale of American technology to China, with U.S. government approval.'”
In 2007, Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, for her “courageous, clear-headed columns that evince a strong sense of morality and persuasive knowledge of the community.” Tucker was well known for her contempt for President Bush, as evidenced by this excerpt from one of her columns: “There are plenty of unindicted liars walking the halls of the Bush White House.... The Bush team knew they could never have sold American voters on an invasion of Iraq just because Saddam had illicit weapons. So they decided to distort, dissemble and lie.”
Also in 2007:
Andrea Elliott of the New York Times won the Pulitzer for Feature Reporting, “for her intimate, richly textured portrait of an immigrant imam”—the Brooklyn-based, pro-Hamas, Reda Shata—who was “striving to find his way and serve his faithful in America.”
Charlie Savage of the Boston Globe won the Pulitzer for National Reporting, “for his revelations that President Bush often used 'signing statements' to assert his controversial right to bypass provisions of new laws.”
The Wall Street Journal won the Pulitzer for International Reporting, “for its sharply edged reports on the adverse impact of China's booming capitalism on conditions, ranging from inequality to pollution.”
In 2009, political columnist Douglas MacKinnon observed that the most recent “list of [Pulitzer] winners and nominees reads like a who’s who list of liberal 'journalists' and writers.” “On the 'journalism' side,” he continued, “the left-of-center New York Times claims the majority of awards, with the left-of-center Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald and St. Petersburg Times [also] grabbing a piece of hardware ...” That year's Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, for instance, went to Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post, while the Pulitzer for Biography went to Jon Meacham, a contributor to the far-left MSNBC.
Associated Press reporters Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman, Eileen Sullivan, and Chris Hawley won a Pulitzer Prize for their series of stories “spotlighting … the New York Police Department’s clandestine spying program that monitored daily life in Muslim communities, resulting in congressional calls for a federal investigation, and a debate over the proper role of domestic intelligence gathering.” As journalist Arnold Ahlert pointed out at the time: “It was precisely such 'spying' that thwarted several [at least 14] terrorist plots all designed to once again to kill untold numbers of innocent New Yorkers.”
The Huffington Post's “senior military correspondent,” David Wood, won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the struggles of military veterans and their families. “It's a worthy subject but also something pretty much every other media outlet has tried to cover over the last 10 years,” wrote Brent Bozell. “There's nothing here worthy of a National Reporting prize. What the Pulitzer Prize judges are doing is exactly what the Obama White House did right from the start—mainstreaming the Huffington Post.”
The winnerin the Feature Writing categorywas Eli Sanders of The Stranger, a Seattle alternative weekly publication edited by the radical sex columnist Dan Savage. Sanders' winning piece was a story about a horrific double-rape of two local lesbians, one of whom was also stabbed to death.
The General Non-Fiction prize went to Harvard University profesor Stephen Greenblatt, for his book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern—the story of a book hunter named Poggio Bracciolini who had preserved “On The Nature of Things,” an anti-religion poem by the atheist Roman poet Lucretius.
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