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Heavy medals.

Awards! That's all they do is give out awards, I can't believe it. "Greatest Fascist Dictator: Adolph Hitler."

He was razzing Hollywood, but Woody Allen's joke works just as well with journalism, a field in which fascist dictators are about the only crowd left without their very own award niche. Reporters covering reconstructive surgery of the face, head and neck, for instance, can win a plaque and cash from the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. Fashion writers who've penned something snazzy about men's wear can apply for the Aldo Awards. A thoroughbred horse-racing aficionado? Go for the Eclipse award. A bowling fan? Send the American Bowling Congress awards some clips and you could be $3,800 in Bowling Magazine gift certificates in the black. And don't panic if you write stories about radiology, interpersonal violence, arthritis, the Michigan justice system, or cholesterol. There are prizes for them too.

Some awards are so specialized that they seem to have been created with the winner in mind. How many people are even eligible for the Master Editor "Golden Em" Award, which honors a Southern Illinois editor of a high-quality newspaper with 20 or more years of experience? Other awards you could apply for but wouldn't want. I'd happily pocket the thousand dollars that comes with the Engineering/Land Surveying Communications Award, but only if I could pass on the requisite trip to the association's annual meeting. The Best of the West award sounds like something worth winning, but it's unlikely you'd recoup the $10 application fee if you hocked the grand prize--a medallion.

Even celebrities are getting into the game. Former tabloid plaintiff Carol Burnett gives out an ethics-in-journalism prize through the University of Hawaii. Isaiah Thomas, of all people, gives one out through the Rochester Institute of Technology, of all places. Gerald Ford doles out two prizes that are largely ignored, Hugh Hefner gives out one that is highly coveted (first place is $5,000, and the luncheon has potential). Big business has followed suit. Now offering Oscars of their own are General Motors, Westinghouse, JC Penney, Nestle, New Jersey Bell, and Miller Lite, which gives one out for writing about women in sports. A few conventions-worth of professional associations--from chiropractors to aircraft owners--have joined the fun too.

These awards, in combination with the handful that journalists actually know about and want, make the industry among the most over-decorated in America. And more arrive all the time. The 1988 edition of Awards, Honors, and Prizes found 170 journalism awards; the 1992 edition found over 300.

Which leads to an obvious question: So what? "Some glitter more than others, but can you have too many diamonds?" asks Livingston Award director Charles Eisendrath. Indeed, if executives at Nestle want to write reporters checks, let them. Does anyone believe that the company's baby formula scandal, for instance, would have been overlooked simply because of a contest? Above all else, news folk love good stories and generally speaking they'd sooner eat their young than let the memory of an engraving and a check stand between them and a scoop. Nor, one suspects, will prizes cause journalists to neglect unawarded topics to focus where the laurels are. Sure, the Capt. Fred E. Lawton Boating Award's $1,000 and pair of captain's decanters make an enticing package, but will there be more pieces about marine safety because of them?

Which is not to say that awards don't matter. Landing a prestigious award can be a boost for morale, a leg up for a career, even a boon to the bottom line for today's ad-starved magazines and newspapers. The question is how awards have influenced the business and, more specifically, whether they have produced better journalism. The answer to that last question, alas, is both yes and no. Journalism's growing trophy culture is not entirely good news for journalism.

Win, place, and show-off

The proliferation of prizes has clearly added a superfluous layer of credentialism to the business. Increasingly, reporters are only as good as what they've won. Ask a newsroom veteran to fax you a bio these days and you're more likely to get a litany of honors than a resume. National Public Radio's press releases on new hires usually ballyhoo little more than prizes. Many newspapers and radio stations pressure their employees to spend time filling out applications. ABC News values awards enough to employ two people whose full-time job is landing them for shows, correspondents, and producers.

But when they are little more than resume ornaments and revenue enhancers, prizes aren't really doing their job. For readers, the case for awards is that they can correct the limits of the marketplace by bringing about public service journalism that is excellent and necessary but not always lucrative.

That's where prestigious honors are supposed to come in. The great five-part thumbsucker series that has long been a staple of newspaper journalism, the dull piece that's worthy but won't help sales--these species might have vanished from the planet years ago were it not for the Pulitzers. "With some of these stories, editors are not necessarily thinking of readers," says Ken Auletta, who writes a media column for The New Yorker. "When the Chicago Tribune does a huge take-out on the underclass, you can bet they've got one eye cocked toward the Pulitzer." Last year Minneapolis's Star Tribune did a 25-part series on how to care for the aged. The Richmond Times-Dispatch published thousands of column inches in tens of stories on shrink-swell soil and its destructive effects on a planned community. Chances are these articles would have been written no matter what, but it's less likely that they'd have gotten the same in-depth treatment were it not for the Pulitzer committee, which, by the way, is where both of these series was sent.

Few of these long pieces attract new readers or raise ad rates. (Bartlett and Steele's series for the Philadelphia Inquirer on the Bush and Reagan years, which was subsequently turned into a best-selling paperback, is a ranty.) But if managing editors are assigning these articles for the glory rather than the intrinsic frisson of community service, who really cares? "Daily newspapers have been taken over by polls and focus groups rewarding ever shorter and ever dumber stories," says Mike Lacey, executive editor of New Times Inc., which owns four alternative newspapers. "If it takes journalism prizes to get newspapers to fight that trend, then my feeling is, well, whatever it takes."

Which suggests that the right way to judge an award is by the type of journalism it seeks to provoke. The Monthly, for instance, has given out an award with each issue since 1981 in an effort to encourage colleagues to take on the important, though not always sexy, topics that matter. The Sidney Hillman Foundation has set its sights higher-- unrealistically high, perhaps-by urging journalism that achieves nothing less than "the protection of individual civil liberties, improved race relations, a strengthened labor movement, advancement of social welfare and economic security, and greater world understanding." The only award that's equally ambitious is the New York State Common Cause "1 Love an Ethical New York" Media Awards Competition (honest, that's what it's called), which seeks to "improve the ethical climate for New York's public life."

If these awards aim high but lack the cachet to single-handedly nudge the craft in a certain direction, the National Magazine Awards may suffer from the opposite problem. Read the list of General Excellence winners and you get a sense of how the game works. In the smallest circulation category, the prize invariably goes to a serious, hard-hitting, news-oriented outfit, such as The Nation, Common Cause, or The New Republic. But in the higher circulation brackets, exposes give way to "jewelry of the stars" features, consumer advocacy gives way to come-ons for Lanc6me Oil-Free Hydrating Fluide, and tough profiles give way to doe-eyed celebrity suck-ups.Past winners in General Excellence include Mirabella, Elle, People, and, most frequently, Glamour.

The criterion for General Excellence, as you might imagine, is marvelously elastic. The American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME), sponsor of the award, stipulates that entries--three issues of a magazine from the past year-- arrive with an editorial statement of purpose, and the magazine that comes closest to fulfilling that purpose wins. It's standards like these that allowed People, for instance, to beat out fellow finalists National Geographic and Time in 1987, and have permitted Glamour to win twice, while U.S. News & World Report has been consistently shut out. This may sound like sour grapes coming from a magazine that has applied for this award for years and made the finals just once. But at least the Monthly is up against competition it can be proud to lose to, whereas when Newsweek doesn't win, House and Garden does.

Which is not to say that the glossies that triumph so often are utterly fiber-less. One of Glamour's winning issues in 1990 ran an article on RU 486 and the results of a college rape study. But these pieces are swamped by items like "Great Legs!--Your Surest Route to Short Skirt Confidence," "Why Claudia Schiller isn't the Next Bardot," and "Quick and Sexy Beauty Dares," making substance in this magazine seem like a side order of spinach at a jelly doughnut buffet. When People won for General Excellence in 1987, the winning cover stories were an exclusive report on Sinatra's life and loves, the results of the eighth annual readers' poll crowning Whitney Houston top new star, and a 10-year retrospective on Charlie's Angels.

In the higher circulation categories, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the judges --overwhelmingly from the larger, shinier magazines--see these awards not so much as a means to tease out better journalism, but as an opportunity to congratulate what you might call, in honor of the conglomerate owner of consistent winners, Conde Nastiness--fat, flush, perfumed and perfectly bound pages, the kind the Pulitzer committee would likely ignore if it gave out a magazine prize. And by tapping Harper's, for instance, at the low end, ASME allows some of the leaner (and meaner) media's gravitas to waft upward. The top cover line on one of Glamour's winning issues asked, "Do you think about sex too much?" and offered readers two options: "Yes" and "Oh, yes !" In the award citation, however, the judges deadpanned that the magazine "radiates integrity, and never condescends to its audience; rather it deals directly with tough issues."

"It's hard for me to judge in terms of ad sales," says Glamour's editor-in-chief, Ruth Whitney, "but winning certainly makes a difference in the seriousness with which people take the magazine." So ASME has stood the logic of awards upside down: instead of rewarding what doesn't work in the market but is worthy, they reward what works in the market but doesn't get awards. This is no doubt a valuable service to certain magazines; whether it is a service to readers is another matter.

Sick story

Even when an award is more bent on lauding serious reporting than business boosterism, it can generally be counted on to come up with a short list comprised of "safe" journalism. Safe in this context does not mean non-controversial--in fact, it means just the opposite. The more waves an entry has made, the better, and if it caused the president's press secretary to issue red-faced denials, it's got more than a fighting chance. Ideally, the safe story accuses some powerful and oily public figure--Kissinger and Meese come to mind--of being a criminal. The safe story's politics are usually liberal, but not too liberal.

Many safe stories deserve awards, but journalism's weakness for them is occasionally problematic. Take the October Surprise. When Gary Sick's op-ed appeared in The New York Times, it had all the trappings of a winner: a respected author with sterling Democratic credentials and a thesis startling enough to become a campaign issue and spark separate House and Senate investigations. The problem is that everyone who has studied the story--among them, Congressional investigators, who published lengthy reports, and The New Republic, which published a 12,000 word cover story entitled "What October Surprise?"--has concluded that nearly all of the story's sources and evidence wilt under the lights.

There is reason to believe that the Republicans had a source in Carter's National Security Council. But even though yams like Sick's are difficult to discredit completely--it's hard to prove an event didn't happen--the October Surprise looks safely debunked. Before being thoroughly sniffed over, however, the op-ed which launched the story won the Silver prize from the Opinion Page Editors Association.

Then there's The Samson Option, Seymour Hersh's expose on Israel's clandestine nuclear program. The book came with a pair of headline-grabbing revelations: that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir had handed over American intelligence to the Soviets, and that deceased British publishing magnate Robert Maxwell had ties to top Israeli leadership. The first item came from confirmed psychobabbler Afi Ben-Menashe, a man who falsely claims to have been instrumental in both the Israeli raid on Entebbe in 1976 and the bombing of Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor. (Ben-Menashe was, not coincidentally, also a key source for Sick's story.)

The second item came from Joe Flynn, a semiprofessional hoax artist who previously had wheedled pound 25,000 from Rupert Murdoch by selling him a pair of shoes allegedly belonging to Jimmy Hoffa. Several weeks after The Samson Option hit bookstores, Flynn surfaced to say that he had sold Hersh the Maxwell story, and the London Sunday Times subsequently ran an article in which Hersh admitted to being hoodwinked. Meanwhile, in the fallout over the October Surprise, An Ben-Menashe was exposed as a liar.

Any reporter could be duped, but Hersh had been warned about Ben-Menashe as he was writing the book and willfully ignored evidence that contradicted his source, some of which was presented to him by other journalists. In another business, this sort of performance wouldn't be celebrated, but The Samson Option was as safe as journalism gets (government lies, a mogul colluding with an intelligence agency) and it went on to win the Investigative Reporter and Editor's Book Award. Hersh has won--and deserved-over 50 journalism prizes, but this episode and the October Surprise story suggest that awards reflect and magnify one of journalism's signal weaknesses: As a group, reporters tend to be skeptical of governments, but very rarely skeptical of the skeptics.

At least part of the reason that safe stories fare so well in awards is that virtually all prizes are selected by committee--Polk, duPont and RFK winners, for instance, are unanimous choices--and committees, as they search for consensus, inevitably gravitate toward the conventional. Some awards have tried to end-run this tendency by allowing judges to put one favorite into the finals, even if it has no other supporters. This can work. The Livingston, for instance, has given out prizes to quirky pieces, such as H.G. Bisinger's account for The St. Paul Pioneer Press of a plane that plunged six miles but did not crash. More common, however, is the experience of the National Magazine Awards. The most frequently cited writer in the award's history is a certain John Peckannon, who authored solid, though plain, articles on health for Washingtonian magazine.

The committee system also helps explain why writers on the far left and the right usually fare miserably in journalism contests. The most dramatic example of this came last year when the Pulitzer committee declined to give out any award in criticism after screeners came up with three decidedly unconventional finalists: Village Voice drama critic Michael Feingold, Village Voice advertising critic Leslie Savan, and a Los Angeles Times writer named Itabari Njeri. Feingold probably had not endeared himself to the committee when he savaged Miss Saigon by announcing that "The New York Times must be firebombed into nothingness ... while Cameron Mackintosh and his production staff should be slowly beaten to death with blunt instruments; this year's Pulitzer Prize judges in drama could be used for the

Itabari Njeri may not have helped her cause by beginning a piece about black-Korean relations with this quote: "To put it bluntly, the larger problem is the way capitalism works." Though not conventional liberal voices, each of these three writers got to the finals for good reasons. The Pulitzer judges, however, were not impressed and Michael Gartner, the Pulitzer Board Chairman, told the Los Angeles Times that "while all three of the finalists in criticism this year were interesting, none of them were of Pulitzer Prize caliber."

The other end of the political spectrum has it just as hard. George Will is one of the rare Republicans who wins awards, but for the most part, conservative reporters and commentators are at a distinct disadvantage. Tory sympathizer Tom Wolfe, for example, has complained that at prize time he consistently gets passed over, even though he's credited as the chief progenitor of an original brand of journalism. P.J. O'Rourke's essays on politics are among the most trenchant out there, but he's an unabashed law and order Reaganaut with an attitude and has only the H.L. Mencken Award to show for his efforts.

Having the fight kind of politics helps, but being known by the judges helps too. It's been pointed out elsewhere that The New York Times has had a presence on the Pulitzer committee 69 of the 76 years the prize has been given out, and it's well known that the newspaper of record has collected enough Pulitzers to clog an attic. But the big newspapers whose editors are consistently asked to join the committee have the clout and cash to hire the best reporters and to put out the best products. There are stories about log-rolling and back scratching--is it just a coincidence that Glamour's editor-in-chief chaired the National Magazine Awards the same year that the magazine won for both General Excellence and Reporting? But in a business as insular and small as journalism, sometimes the people you know are simply the best out there. Mickey Kaus wrote the most thought-provoking, readable, talked-about book on social policy this year. His tenure at the Monthly seemed to the editors here a lousy reason not to recognize his achievement with this year's Political Book Award.

But it's journalism's insularity that provides a final cautionary note about awards. Reporters are a nomadic lot and tend to move between papers and magazines frequently. "Everyone is basically worried about where they will be in the next five years," said one investigative journalist. Any reporter and editor is thus a potential colleague or boss, which has always been an impetus for aspiring writers not to offend others in the business, even when they are wrong. Since judges and screeners for virtually every award out there are journalists (usually established and powerful ones at that), awards are another reason not to criticize someone within the field. And even if someone isn't a paladin giving out honors now, in a few years, who knows?

Which suggests that the more important awards become, the less internal criticism you're likely to hear from journalists. It's for this reason that there may be slightly more at stake with these prizes than careers. A quiescent media is in no one's interest but the media's; readers are best served by journalists and editors who aren't afraid to take each other to task when the occasion warrants. In the best of all possible worlds, prestigious awards would simply lead to sharper and more in-depth journalism while the less known ones simply enhance incomes.

And if present trends continue, it's only a matter of time before there will be so many of the latter out there that they'll form a trade association for journalism awards. You can bet that when they announce their own contest, I'll submit this piece for a prize.

Research assistance for this article was provided by Ann O'Hanlon and Rebecca Evans.
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Title Annotation:journalism awards
Author:Segal, David
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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