Professional masturbation and stained-glass conformity: The Pulitzer Prizes in 1971 and 2012

Pulitzer medalIf John McCormally is to be believed, then his serving as a Pulitzer Prize judge in 1971 wasn’t eye-opening so much as hunch-confirming. When he won his own Pulitzer in 1965, he wrote, he had suspicions that maybe the award wasn’t all that special (Perhaps he wouldn’t want to accept any award that would have him as a recipient, as Groucho might have said). And that maybe even Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, the institution that guarded them (and still guards them today, when the 2012 Pulitzer Prizes were announced), didn’t think that much of them:

And if the Mother House on Morningside Heights has a ho-hum attitude about what is supposed to be journalism’s most prestigious award, is it surprising that the working press is little impressed, the general public couldn’t care less, and many young would-be journalists don’t even know what we’re talking about?

McCormally was writing in [MORE], the journalism review that had launched in the summer of 1971. His piece for the May, 1972 issue of [MORE] is a tell-all about the experience of being a Pulitzer judge, and the cursory once-over that the Pulitzer committee expected him to give each piece before bestowing the honor on “a good journeyman job by a veteran reporter” rather than on something exciting, groundbreaking, up-to-date and well-written. The Pulitzers, he wrote, did manage to dole out prizes to Sy Hersh or David Halberstam when they did truly outstanding work, but for the most part they looked for solid middle-of-the-road journalism that was uncontroversial, and that ran in the same few mainstream newspapers.

Mostly, McCormally seemed to be bothered by the exclusion of women (though there was one black man serving as a judge); by the expectation that judges would spend very little time with the work (his committee was give 12 hours over two days to judge 134 nominations of up to ten articles each); and by the bland and predictable choices that the process turned up.

While the World Room at Columbia University may not have changed in 40 years (the stained glass from Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World office still looms over the dais), the prizes seem to have changed for the better. I count at least three women among the winners in the journalism categories today (let alone among the judges), and the awards to the Huffington Post and Politico show that journalism isn’t limited to one medium, as others have noted. But to be honest, most of the prizes still aren’t for particularly memorable journalism, which isn’t a change from what John McCormally noted 40 years ago:

Deans Ed Bassett at Kansas and Malcolm Maclean at Iowa helped me poll students in their journalism schools to test my suspicion that the labors of my fellow jurors and I last year went largely unnoticed by the young people we editors should be most concerned about. The survey, early in 1972, included 86 journalism undergraduates at Kansas, 42 at Iowa. Instructors passed out the three-part questionnaire in class, allowing no opportunity for research. the first question listed the 10 categories for which journalism prizes were awarded in May, 1971, and asked the students to name as many of the winners as possible. Not a single respondent at either school could name a single winner, except that at Iowa, for “spot news photography” one student wrote—correctly—”the Kent State girl photo.”

How different, I ask you, is that from today’s awards? The fact of the matter is, that HuffPulitzer aside, the Pulitzer Prizes just aren’t very important to anyone who isn’t looking to put on his or her mantle and resume. The Associated Press told me that the Associated Press won a Pulitzer. Yawn. I’m with McCormally in wishing that the Pulitzers could actually become “a real instrument for improving the quality of writing and reporting in American”—here he writes “newspapers,” but I’ll go with “news organizations.” It would be infinitely better than what the Pulitzers, and almost all awards bestowed by a profession upon themselves are: “professional masturbation… meant only for the self-gratification of a tiny clique of givers and receivers, and… neither the public nor the profession at large is supposed to be bothered.”

I, for one, am not bothered.

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