The winners of this year’s Pulitzer Prizes in journalism will be announced in a couple of months. I will not be one of them; I forgot to enter this year.
You read that correctly. Anyone can enter. All you need is fifty bucks, some clips and a dream. And good credit (no checks accepted). Remember that the next time you hear someone touted as a “Pulitzer Prize nominee.”
I’ve won awards. I’ve judged them. I’ve heard behind-the-scenes stories of how the winners are chosen.
I’ve concluded that the gap between public perception — that these prizes are meaningful, that they reward the year’s best work — and sordid reality — the selection process makes no sense and is corrupt to boot — is huge.
If people knew the truth, they’d be shocked. So here’s the truth.
What does come as a surprise to most people is the system. The judging processes for other contests are flawed too, but I’m focusing on the Pulitzer because, as the most prestigious award in the field, it is the one that most Americans have heard of and to which journalists are most likely to apply. (My rule is, don’t apply to awards that are less famous than I am.)
Winning a Pulitzer is good for careers. It can score you a raise, land a book deal, protect you from a round of layoffs and, at bare minimum, earn you ohs of respect when you’re introduced at a party.
Who wins the Pulitzer matters to American society. It directly impacts the evolution of journalism. For example, my fellow editorial cartoonists mimic the drawing styles, structural approaches and even the politics of previous winners in hope of someday winning a Prize themselves. Each announcement of a winner sends a message. Most years, corporate journalism establishment wants safe and middle-of-the-road — and what wins the Big P is what editors and producers consider safe. Some years, innovation is rewarded. The Pulitzer signals that one kind of daring may be OK, while others are too outré to be taken seriously, much less employable.
Given the Pulitzer’s impact, you’d think that Columbia University’s journalism school would award it thoughtfully, creating a set of criteria and judging mechanisms designed to reward the highest-quality news photographers, playwrights, editorial writers and so on in the United States.
Most people believe that the Pulitzer for cartooning, for example, goes to the best cartoonist of the year. The truth is complicated, almost byzantine. Actually, it goes to the best portfolio of 20 cartoons drawn by a cartoonist the previous year. Which the cartoonist selects himself.
A typical political cartoonist draws about 200 cartoons a year. Which means that the committee that judges political cartoons never sees 90% of any artist’s work. (Or, for that matter, that of cartoonists who don’t enter.) After particularly egregious winners are announced, a common refrain of jurors called to explain themselves is: “Hey, he had a great portfolio.” This, by the way, is rarely true.
Anyway, it is for the best that the judges only look at a tiny slice of U.S. political cartooning, since most Pulitzer jurors are completely ignorant of the field.
Each prize category — biography, fiction, cartooning, whatever — is judged by a committee. Until recently, the cartooning committee was comprised completely of editors and editorial page editors, some of whom didn’t run cartoons in their newspapers. Others worked in other fields, like photo editors. Some admitted to their fellow panelists they’d never seen an editorial cartoon. None had the obsessive, comprehensive knowledge of American political cartooning you’d want or expect. Most jurors were ignorant of entire genres of cartooning. (One year, not long ago, a juror insisted that entries by alternative weekly cartoonists —Tom Tomorrow, Ward Sutton, Ruben Bolling, me — be set aside, and not considered, because she didn’t think our genre, which she’d never seen before, were political cartoons at all.) Because they hadn’t read many cartoons, they had no way to tell if an entry was original or hackneyed.
The committee selects three finalists. These are sent to the main Pulitzer Prize committee, which chooses the winner among the three finalists. Well, they can — they can opt not to award a category prize at all (this happened in fiction a few years ago) or to ignore the category committee’s recommendations and pull the winner out of thin air (that happened the year I was a finalist and yes, I took it personally).
In recent years, the cartooning committee has included one or two actual people who actually knew something about cartooning — an academic and/or previous Pulitzer winner. But most committee jurors are still drawn out of the never-seen-that-before pool.
Columbia tells committee members to choose finalists everyone can agree with. Unless someone throws a hissy fit — which they almost never do — the result is a trio of compromise finalists. These choices are negotiated between one or two people who know what they’re talking about, and two or three who don’t.
Lowest common denominator wins.
The winner is selected by the very establishment, very old, very staid Pulitzer Board. Though it is possible that the classical philosopher, the rural South Dakota newspaper publisher, and the New Yorker writer who sit on the board are voracious consumers of the 60 or so political cartoons produced daily by the nation’s graphic satirists, it is far more likely that the opposite is true, and that they will be casting ballots in an important election between candidates they know nothing about.
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