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:
“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 2001, novelist Michael Chabon won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, for his 2000 book, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
In a 2003 controversy with powerful resonance for the charges that Pulitzer Prizes have long been dominated by ideology, New York Times publisher 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 Stalin in 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:
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:
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.
Politics and the Pulitzers
By Bruce Bawer