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The case of the missing Pulitzer: is editorial writing in trouble?

THE CITATION IS CLEAR ENOUGH. The Pulitzer Prize is awarded "for distinguished editorial writing, the test of excellence being clearness of style, moral purpose, sound reasoning, and power to influence public opinion in what the writer conceives to be the right direction, due account being taken of the whole volume of the editorial writers work during the year."

So what happened in 1993 when editorial writing failed to share in this most prestigious award in American journalism?

A five-member nominating jury did recommend three finalists to the all-powerful, 18-member Pulitzer Prize board, which makes the ultimate decision. But the board, as it has seven times since 1917 when the editorial-writing category was established by Joseph Pulitzer, wasn't buying. Among all 14 journalism categories -- only several date to 1917 -- editorial writing has taken the most "no-award" hits.

Claude Sitton, a long-time board member who chaired the panel this year, says simply, "We felt that none of the three was worthy." Sitton is a retired editor and vice president of The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., who has written some editorials and a column himself.

The reasons behind that judgment -- the deliberations of the board are highly confidential -- are sketchy. But the steps that led to it are a bit easier to trace.

The winnowing process

They started with the 72 exhibits of up to 10 editorials each that confronted the jury the first week in March, when it started the winnowing process.

As jurors reached the final round of about 10 entries, says jury chair John Haile, editor of The Orlando Sentinel, there was a strong sense among the panelists that none of the exhibits had an explosive quality. "Nothing jumped to the top of the stack," he says. Haile is a former editorial page editor of the Sentinel. Finally, the jurors settled on the three nominees as the best of the bunch and forwarded them in alphabetical order with descriptive material to the board. Haile praised the panel for exhaustive discussions, adding, "I thought the process was thorough and fair."

The three finalists were the Dallas Morning News editorial staff, whose series looking into the plight of the city's west side brought action; Larry Dale Keeling of the Lexington Herald-Leader, for editorials that helped prompt a new law reforming ethical standards in the state legislature; and Robert M. Landauer, editorial page editor of The Oregonian in Portland, for a series that helped defeat a proposed constitutional amendment attacking homosexuals.

Among them, they had won several other prizes. The Oregonian and the Morning News were Numbers One and Two in the National Headliner Award competition for distinguished editorial writing.

Besides Haile, who also judged the 1992 awards, the jurors who signed off on the nominees were David B. Cooper, associate editor of the Akron Beacon Journal; Warren Lerude, a Pulitzer winner for editorial writing in 1977 and now a journalism professor; Drake Mabry, associate editor of the editorial pages for the Ames Daily Tribune in Iowa; and Lori Rodriguez, a columnist and minority affairs writer for the Houston Chronicle. They were among 65 jurors selected to judge entries in all categories.

The board rules

Several weeks later during board deliberations on the recommendations, Haile says he received a call from Joan Konner, dean of Columbia University's graduate school of journalism, who also serves as a board member. Konner inquired as to how strongly the jurors felt about their nominations and solicited their views on some of the other entries they had considered. Haile says he conveyed the sense of the jurors' views and gave Konner their reactions to five or six entries next in line. He says he wasn't surprised by the call. He later received another call from Konner thanking him for the counsel and informing him that the board had reached a decision, which she did not specify.

While he was not told directly, Haile says he sensed the board had decided against making an award. Indeed, he added, the jury had earlier sensed that possibility, something he did not feel during the 1992 considerations. In any event, he says, the jurors were comfortable with their final selections, and it was their position that the rest was up to the board.

As for the Pulitzer board, one member, recalling two of the three finalists without naming them, said one seemed overwritten, and another, while representing good public service editorial writing, wasn't exceptional.

Regardless of the views of the nominating jurors, the board has wide latitude when it comes to making a final choice. Its actions have sometimes raised the hackles of some jurors. Besides making no award, it can overrule nominations in one category and shift them to another; pluck an entry from the also-rans for an award (as happened in the foreign reporting category this year); or ask juries directly for additional nominations if it doesn't feel their recommendations measure up. In effect, says Bud Kliment, assistant to the Pulitzer Prize administrator, the board "can do anything it wants to."

Speculation mounts

And that has stirred plenty of speculation in editorial writing circles, hard to pin down but repeated more than once, about the whys and hows of the decision. Questions abound.

Was the Herald-Leader doomed because it won the editorial writing prize in 1992?

Were all three doomed because so-called establishment biggies such as The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer weren't recognized at the end?

Was The Oregonian curbed because it appeared to tolerate, condone, and support behavior that is contrary to many people's fundamental beliefs, and a Pulitzer might be interpreted as a broad journalistic endorsement?

Were the Morning News editorials over-produced with a lot of art, thus going against the traditional grain? Were editorials considered at the end of two intense days of deliberations, when board members were tired and cranky and in a rush to make a break for home?

Whatever the reasons, interviews with more than a dozen sources closely connected to the 1993 awards raise more questions than answers about the selection process because board discussions are so closely held. Three things, however, are clear:

1. As in all awards competitions, jurors deal only with what shows up by judging time, meaning, as lottery ads like to tout, you can't win if you don't play. And when it comes to editorial writing, not many seem to like the odds.

Editors at the nation's 1,586 dailies and 7,358 weeklies, which ground out thousands of editorials during 1992, either didn't think their work was good enough or just weren't interested. The number of exhibits judged this year, a paltry 72, was the smallest over the past five years. The average over that time has been 82. (Entries in the 14 journalism awards categories -- which include various reporting areas, signed commentary, criticism, and editorial cartoons -- totaled 1,577. Some exhibits, most usually in reporting, were entered in two different categories, permissible under the rules.)

2. Despite the occasional grumbling and consternation over certain selections or a decision to make no award, the prizes are unmatched for the near-breathless recognition they bring winners and most finalists, who share a new and lofty professional status. Some nominees in a no-award category, however, may feel a tinge of shame because none was deemed worthy, meaning they can't take some pride in at least losing to a distinguished colleague in a close three-way race.

3. Reverence for the prizes inhibits on-the-record statements, or even those on background unless identity is carefully disguised, by journalists who would routinely badger reluctant sources for openness. Many fear a negative comment concerning the Pulitzers may work against them or their news organizations. One former Pulitzer winner feared possible "retribution."

But not all. Some associated with the awards are openly perplexed and angered that editorials still turned up dry. Bernard L. Stein, editor and co-publisher of the weekly Riverdale Press in Bronx, N.Y., a 1992 editorial writing award juror and chair of the commentary jury this year, says he is furious. He adds, "I simply do not believe there weren't examples of distinguished editorial writing" this go-around. He says the commentary panel reviewed many high-quality entries "from big papers and little papers" that he would have been proud to see get the award, "and that has to be true for editorial writing."

Devoid of passion

Nonetheless, there's plenty of hand-wringing over what the board's action may mean in assessing the state of editorial writing generally. John Haile says a lot of the editorials the jury reviewed this year were so finely tuned, precisely worded, and meticulously edited that 'they were void of passion."

Editorials, he says, need a "greater sense of spontaneity, conviction, and moral purpose." Some entries packaged inconsistency. The jury may have been moved by two or three editorials, but the others dropped off in tone and overall quality, he says. Some were roughly edited. "One we looked at late in the judging had a grammatical error in the first sentence of the first editorial. We couldn't see ourselves putting this up in the final three," he says.

Rob Elder, editor of the San Jose Mercury News, quoted Pulitzer board member Jim Risser in a column as saying, "You assume editorial writing is in some kind of trouble." Risser is a two-time Pulitzer winner for national reporting in 1976 and 1979 who has turned journalism professor.

Elder's commentary sketched some of the hackneyed views about editorialists. Then he chimed in: "Notwithstanding the failure of editorial campaigns to win a Pulitzer this year, some hard-driving journalists insist that editorial pages can be revived only by more vigorous crusades. Stop intellectualizing, they argue. Give us more passion. Well, newspapers were more passionate when they spoke for ambitious, egomaniacal publishers like Joseph Pulitzer or William Randolph Hearst. They also were frequently wrong."

He then turned to another Pulitzer board member, John Dotson, president and publisher of the Akron Beacon Journal, who commented: "I think today we have editorialists who are just as good as ever. The problem is that there are few areas so black and white that you can really take off and make judgments about controversies in ways that previous, less informed editorialists may have done."

Thanks for the perspective, Mr. Dotson. Meanwhile, prepare your board colleagues. You can bet that many editorialists, probably more than ever, have put this year behind them and are revving up for an all-out run at the 1994 Pulitzer Prize. They don't intend to be disappointed again.

NCEW member Laird Anderson teaches at The American University in Washington, D.C. He is working with Wm. David Sloan on a new edition of the anthology Pulitzer Prize Editorials: America's Best Editorial Writing, 1917-1992.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Anderson, Laird B.
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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