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The misery of a Pulitzer tie.

Call me paranoid. Tell me that if the shoe fits, I ought to put it on with my best dress. At the end the following will still ring true: Editorial pages are under fire. In the newspaper war over shrinking budgets we are cannon fodder. In the rush to the Internet, we are seen as dinosaurs in need of a strong push into extinction.

Let's go back to April when the 2008 Pulitzer Prizes were announced. Champagne flowed, pats on the backs of winners beat a steady drum. None of it was for editorial writers because there wasn't a winner in the editorial writing category.

Sig Gissler, administrator of the prizes, told the Columbia Spectator: "I don't discuss the board's decisions, and I can say that the entries had merit."

The Pulitzer Board is notoriously tight-lipped about its inner workings, leaving questioners to ponder tea leaves and delve into paranoia/reality. We can opt not to read too much into the Pulitzer diss. Since 1917, we've been passed over by jurists eight times.

After leaving us hanging, some suggest cutting the rope. Mark Potts, a media consultant who writes the blog Recovering Journalists, suggests a subliminal message in the Pulitzer judges' failure to pick a winner for editorial writing.

"Perhaps the conclusion that can be drawn is that the unsigned newspaper editorial simply has become an anachronism." Usual-suspect arguments are trotted out: readers confuse it with the supposedly unbiased news side. In an era of 24-hour cable news, talk radio, blogs, and television news shows, there is no shortage of opinion for readers to choose from.

Just because everyone and their Aunt Minnie has an opinion doesn't mean the public is well served by them all. Like any other product, some opinions are better than others. Some are well-informed and spring from a well of study and knowledge on a topic. Others are a few brain flares short of lucidity. Keeping a democracy from tumbling into anarchy is a populace made knowledgeable by news, and yes, also opinions.

William Randolph Hearst and his arrogant cable that read: "You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war," aside, the need for an institutional voice that speaks truth to power remains.

Think of 2005 when Tom Philp won the prize for a series of editorials urging California to remove a dam and reclaim the flooded Hetch Hetchy Valley. A campaign that was seen as quixotic suddenly became a plan.

Think of the 2008 Pulitzer finalists, a trio that Pulitzer jurors found worthy of the prize, at least according to one, David Zeeck of the News Tribune in Tacoma, Washington. The finalists were: Maureen Downey of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for editorials criticizing the harsh sentences Georgia metes out to teenagers for consensual sex; Rodger Jones of The Dallas Morning News for his relentless editorials that led to mandating roll-call votes on all statewide legislation in Texas, and The Wisconsin State Journal staff for a campaign against abuses in the governor's veto power.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Let me talk about the one I know best: Downey's crusade against Georgia. Long before the editorials, I and many people nationwide were monitoring the case of Genarlow Wilson, a black high school senior jailed for consensual oral sex with a girl. The girl said, and the prosecutor agreed, that she had initiated the act. Underage sexual intercourse carries a misdemeanor, yet Wilson was charged with a felony that carried a ten-year prison sentence. From prominent civil rights leaders to mothers like myself, we railed at the uneven hand of justice. Wilson is a free man today. There are many people on his thank-you list. It's a safe bet that Downey's nineteen editorials, which helped stoke the conscience of a nation, is on the list.

If jurors had forced themselves they could've emerged with a winner. It's a tough job, but so is battling a judicial system or a powerful state legislator. I don't think they would have given up picking a winner in the investigative or public service category. Editorial writers deserve the same commitment.

Lynne K. Varner is an editorial writer and columnist at The Seattle Times. Email: lvarner@ seattletimes.com
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Title Annotation:LAST WORD; Pulitzer Prizes
Author:Varner, Lynne K.
Publication:The Masthead
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2008
Words:693
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