Bad Taste, Dirty Secrets: The Truth About The Pulitzer Prize

“Who had a good year?” my friend and cartoonist colleague asked me. Again. “Who’ll win?” We have the same conversation every April.

A couple of weeks ago, it was time once again for an annual ritual familiar to thousands of journalists: attempting to predict the winners of the Pulitzer Prizes.

“They’ll give it to some loser. Like they always do,” I replied. “Or they won’t, and someone good will get it. Who knows? When are you going to accept that the Pulitzers are a completely, totally random occurrence?”

This is the biggest unspoken truth about the most respected award in American mediadom: there is no rhyme or reason to who wins a Pulitzer.

Theoretically, Columbia University awards the Pulitzer to the best work done the previous year in each given category: best play, best biography, best news photography of 2014, etc.

In reality, anyone can win. Anyone can be snubbed. It’s like a tornado tearing through a neighborhood, leaving one house standing intact while the others all get their roofs ripped off. Why that one? Who knows?

Many groundbreaking, big-name cartoonists get snubbed their entire careers, yet the list of winners includes many forgotten even to geeks of the genre — who remembers Edmund Valtman and Casey Orr? One recent April, I had to Google the name of the winning cartoonist. In a profession with fewer than 30 full-timers, I’d never heard of him (nor had many of my colleagues).

To call the Pulitzers quirky would be putting it mildly. There are repeat finalists who never win the actual prize. An artist may make a big splash in a given year, creating a single piece or series of cartoons widely discussed in the media, yet get passed over, even as a finalist. When the winner is announced, whether we love the cartoonist’s work or think he or she is awful, the selection always feels like it comes out of left field — not least to the winner himself or herself. It’s like — really? Him? Me?

Disclosure: I have been a finalist once. Feel free to call it sour grapes — you wouldn’t be the first. But not every cartoonist has gotten to be a finalist, so I have little reason to complain (not that it stops me).

Truth is, I’m fascinated by systems, particularly those in which subjective human beings are assigned to decide objective truths; whether it’s guilt or innocence at trial or who drew the best cartoons over a 12-month period, I am fascinated by process (procès is the French word for trial.)

Alongside my colleagues I have studied and discussed the outcome of the Pulitzer Prize for my category (editorial cartooning) for more than 20 years. It’s an obsession, and perhaps not a good for my psyche, but there it is. Over the years, many members of the cartooning award committee, which picks the three finalists, have confided the details of their deliberations. I know how they winnow down stack of entries down to a small group of contenders, what criteria they consider, how they discuss their final choices.

So what accounts for the Prize’s wild unpredictability?

For a long time, I was convinced that the explanation for Pulitzer weirdness lay primarily with process.

You’d think every committee member would look at every entry, right? No. To make the job easier, committees some years divvy up the entries among the jurors. Let’s say there are 80 entries and four jurors. Each juror reads his 20-share of entries, then divides them into “yesses” and “nos.” The yes entries go the next round while the nos are purged. The other jurors will never see a portfolio rejected in the first round. Since the identity and the tastes of the juror who first (and second, and third) winds up with your portfolio, luck plays a big role.

Some years, the committee comes up with an ad hoc point system to winnow down the stack of entries: rank quality of drawing between 1 and 10, say, and quality of the writing between 1 and 5, and add the two together. Points are a sort of math, so they feel rational, but of course they’re inherently arbitrary.

I have disabused myself of the notion that Pulitzer committee members want to send some sort of message, as in “it’s time that a woman won,” or a young person, or a Republican (though that last one is highly unlikely, because only 7% of American journalists identify with the GOP). Everyone I’ve talked to who has sat in the room has told me that making a statement isn’t a major consideration, and I believe them. In fact, they usually don’t spend much time talking to each other.

I’ve heard some crazy stories.

The big one comes up every year: what with everyone in a hurry to make it to the open bar, judges rush through the process. If you’re a long-winded, wordy cartoonist, your stuff might not get read.

One year, I was told, all the entries by the “young” (i.e., under age 45) cartoonists were set aside because one of the judges couldn’t understand them, with the agreement that, later in the winnowing-down process, the youngsters would be revisited. Everyone forgot.

Every year, at least one of the jurors has never seen a political cartoon before, and has to have the form explained to him or her by other jurors. No one suggests that the judge recuse himself.

Where I am now — and this could change — is that the choice of jurors determines the winners. Specifically, and especially in the cartooning category, jurors have no taste.

Please understand! I am not saying this colloquially, as in, they have bad taste. That is not what I mean.

What I mean is that the Pulitzer jurors have no taste.

They don’t know anything about cartoons.

To have bad taste as a judge, one must possess knowledge about a subject. For example, were I to judge the Heisman Trophy, I would need to know a lot about football, especially about up-and-coming college players. If I had bad taste, I would, as a well-informed panelist, give the trophy to a player who didn’t deserve it. However, I don’t know anything about football. I don’t watch it or even read about it. I don’t even know the names of all the teams. I should not judge the Heisman Trophy because I am an idiot when it comes to football.

I have no taste in football. Indeed, to have bad taste in football would reflect a massive increase over my current knowledge.

Every year, an examination of the list of Pulitzer Prize jurors in the editorial cartooning category reveals a startling absence of basic knowledge, much less expertise, about editorial cartoons.

The United States has two dozen or so professional political cartoonists and perhaps an additional two dozen comics museum curators, academics and editorial cartooning historians. For reasons unknown, the Pulitzer folks carefully avoid inviting any of these people, who live and breathe comics, to judge the cartoon category.

This year, one of the jurors was a freelance tech writer who has written a handful of short bits about cartooning-related controversies but no, as far as I can find online, analysis or reviews. The committee for 2014 also included an adjunct curator of comics — perhaps the chief curator was busy — for an institution that doesn’t have, you know, an actual comics museum.

There was also a pair of executive editors. Unlike opinion editors and editorial page editors, executive editors don’t deal with actual cartoons on the job. They don’t choose cartoons, or work with a staff cartoonist. Indeed, these two executive editors work at papers that don’t have a cartoonist, and run few if any syndicated cartoons.

The committee’s chairman is the editor-in-chief — a position that doesn’t work with cartoons — for a paper, in San Antonio, that fired its cartoonist years ago, and never replaced him.

A two-time Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist did judge the Pulitzer this year — but not in the cartoon category.


What you have, then, are five people, chosen basically at random off the streets, asked to look at more than a thousand cartoons and decide which ones they like best.

“I like this one.”



To be fair, other categories have fewer spectacularly unqualified jurors. Breaking news photography was judged by five photographers. Poetry, by two literature professors and a poetry columnist. History, by three historians.

Each committee of judges sends its three finalists up to the big Pulitzer Board who can select one winner, decide not to award the prize in that category at all, or select some random fourth winner outside of the three finalists.

If that’s not random enough for you, the eclectic group of editors, academics and journalists who comprise the Pulitzer Board decide winners of prizes in everything from best editorial writer to best biography to best play to best poet to best cartoonist.

These are not stupid people. But they’re also not experts in the subjects they’re asked to judge.

Steve Coll’s writing on the Middle East, South Asia and the war on terror is some of the best. But I’m not sure I trust him to pick the best editorial cartoon AND the best poem out of the, oh, two of each he reads of them each year. Because he’s an editorial page editor, I’d have faith in Paul Gigot to judge political cartoons, except for the fact that he’s at The Wall Street Journal, which doesn’t publish any. I love Gail Collins’ columns for The New York Times, but I’ve read her for decades — and never once has she mentioned political cartoons, which leads me to doubt she follows them attentively.

Assign random judges to carry out random judging processes and you get random outcomes. That’s my theory.

For now. It could change.

Because it’s all so incredibly weird.

To paraphrase Elvis Costello, I used to be disgusted. But hey — now I get it. They’re not ruling against me! It’s all random. Who knows? Maybe I’ll win! Or not. Whatever, it’s. All. Random.

Now I’m highly amused.

Why Does the Pulitzer Prize Committee Hate “Alternative” Editorial Cartooning?

Every year there is angst-filled anticipation over the announcement of the winners of the Pulitzer Prizes for journalism, and every year the results are greeted with a collective shrug. Someday, one hopes, people will learn not to anticipate something that proves so disappointing so frequently. You know, like the State of the Union address. It’s never good. It never makes news. Yet everybody thinks they need to pay attention. And everyone is surprised by the letdown.

This year’s selection for the editorial cartooning category, Steve Sack of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, alongside his two co-finalists, Jeff Darcy of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Clay Bennett of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, continue a decades long trend. Nothing new here.

Steve Sack has been around a long time, is a nice, unassuming guy who is personally popular among the older generation of “mainstream” editorial cartoonists, so his win has been largely greeted as long overdue, sort of a lifetime achievement award as these things often are, a recognition of the fact that unlike many other political cartoonists who slavishly copied the artistic style of deceased Chicago Tribune cartoonist Jeff MacNelly, Steve developed his own drawing style. Like many other cartoonists at the so-called B papers, those in midsize cities, the finalist win has to come as a relief to Jeff. Clay Bennett, who has won every major and minor award in editorial cartooning, and whom I count as a friend, is in a tricky position. Personally, I think that once you win the biggest prize in journalism, it’s time to retire your contest applications, let other cartoonists have their chance, and focus on your work. After all, once you are a so-called Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist, no one really cares whether you are a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist. But there’s also a tactical consideration, one that Bennett coming in as a finalist highlights: for a previous winner to come in as a finalist makes him look like his career is on a downward trajectory. But there’s no way to avoid that risk when you apply for a second Pulitzer. Another reason that it’s better not to apply.

What’s depressing is that, once again, the committee has decided to snub my entire genre of editorial cartooning, the so-called alternative school of political cartooning. It’s not like we are new kids on the block. Jules Feiffer started it at the Village Voice in 1955. Matt Groening and Lynda Barry really launched the modern era of altie editorial cartooning in the 1980s, and things  took off  throughout the ’90s, with half a dozen cartoonists at the center of the scene: myself, Tom Tomorrow, Ruben Bolling, Ward Sutton, derf, Lloyd Dangle, and I’m probably forgetting a bunch of others. After 9/11, it could be argued – and I would – that the only relevant, truly hard-hitting,  challenging, vibrant editorial cartooning being done in the Western world has been this genre, based in the comics rather than older traditions dating to the early 18th century. Out of this scene have come younger artists like my friends Matt Bors and Brian McFadden.

Eschewing labels, metaphors, donkeys and elephants, Uncle Sam, etc. in favor of multi-panel, word-dependent, ironic, sarcastic and cynical takes on America and its politics, the alternative genre and its practitioners – Tom Tomorrow, myself, Ruben Bolling, Matt Bors, Brian McFadden and so on – have reinvigorated and breathed life into a hoary artform that has generified itself into virtual oblivion. Unlike many of the older mainstream cartoonists, our work is opinionated. (Most big-city daily cartoonists illustrate the news, showing what happened and/or making jokes about it, without making much of a political point.)

Yet the gatekeepers at the major daily newspapers, and the prize committees that are made up of editors from those same print publications, have repeatedly and carefully refused to acknowledge that we even exist. In the entire history of the Pulitzer Prize, for example, there have only been three finalists from the alternative category: Jules Feiffer, who won in 1986, myself, a finalist in 1996, and Matt Bors, a finalist for 2011. Many editorial cartooning prizes have never had either a winner or a finalist from the alternative category: the Fischetti award, the National Headliner award, and before last year, the Herblock award. Makes it pretty hard to get editors to take a chance on you when you can’t get validation.

Part of the problem is that many of the editors who judge these things don’t know a lot about editorial cartooning. Some judges at the Pulitzer Prizes work at newspapers that don’t even run them, and if they do, they certainly never see the alternative stuff. Still, given a lot of the results year after year, it’s pretty clear that some very mediocre finalists and winners are prevailing over some really excellent alternative cartoonists. Given the fact that the alternative field is much more popular online – where there is a true meritocracy because people can look at anything that they want there – it seems obvious that there is a conscious decision on the part of prize committees to exclude a lot of the best work in the field.

Why? Because it’s edgy? Because it’s left of center? You can’t get a straight answer. When you ask jurors who were there, who sat on the prize committees, they always say that alties were seriously considered, that many of us came very close but just didn’t make the final cut. Sorry, but when that happens 20 years in a row across half a dozen major prizes – 120ish times – it’s hard to believe.

Why do we even bother? That’s the question that my alternative editorial cartoonist colleagues and I ask ourselves every year. Even last year, when Matt was a finalist, we knew that this was a quantum singularity, that it didn’t mark anything other than a bizarre aberration. And in fact, here we go again.

Obviously what keeps us going is our love of the field, and the fact that drawing cartoons that make fun of the President of the United States sure beats holding down a real job. Still, there’s no denying that it’s  hard on the psyche to be repeatedly told, to be repeatedly sent the message, that the kind of work that you do isn’t serious, that it doesn’t deserve to be seriously considered.

It isn’t that I didn’t win. Although obviously I would’ve liked to have won. It’s that what I do – the way that I do it – my entire artform – has been shunned. Again. If one of my alternative cartooning peers wins, at least we know that the prize committee isn’t against what we do on an existential level. As things stand, we have to assume that the people who decide these things – our mainstream editorial cartooning peers, the academics who study the field of editorial cartooning who serve on these juries, and the editors and publishers who join them every year – think that what we do is somehow offensive and inherently unworthy.

That’s not a lot of fun.

More importantly to our culture, the committee that picked the three finalists for this year’s and previous years’ Pulitzer Prize in editorial cartooning once again missed an opportunity. Awards make a statement. Remember last year, when they decided not to award a prize for the fiction category, how independent booksellers and fiction writers were insulted by the idea that there wasn’t’t a single novel in the United States worthy of such an award? By repeatedly shunning new developments in the field of editorial cartooning, the prize committee is discouraging stylistic growth, stunting the development of the field, quashing new careers and stopping the careers of alternative editorial cartoonists from moving forward, and most of all sending the message to younger cartoonists considering the field that they had better copy the old styles rather than develop new ones of their own. Moreover, these committees are contributing to the death of editorial cartooning, by making it harder for new cartoonists to initially get hired. This is because the vast majority of winners and finalists already work on staff at papers. No alternative cartoonist has ever worked on staff at a paper or magazine. It is not inconceivable that an alternative cartoonist who won, for example, the Pulitzer Prize, might be able to convince an editor or publisher to take him or her on. But that is never going to happen unless an alternative editorial cartoonist wins such a prize.

Let me be very clear about this: there is nothing new about what happened this year.

These are the kinds of choices that I have seen over the last two decades as a nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist. These choices were no worse or better than any other year that I can remember. Just same old, same old. And that’s the problem. And that’s the point.

Safe and staid = old and boring.

You could draw a comparison to the Oscars, which haven’t done a great job of rewarding the most experimental and groundbreaking movies, but it would really be a false comparison since the quality of the work that wins is usually respectably solid. It’s not like Battlefield Earth is going to win an Oscar. Similarly, you could make a comparison to the Grammys, which are really a joke, but those seem to be based more on sales and popularity and again, the artists who tend to win the Pulitzer Prizes and who are named as finalists often have little to no fan base in the real world other than the couple of editors who hired them.

Congratulations to all the winners.  It’s always nice to be appreciated.

Not that me or my friends would know.

So what to do? This may be a question of what not to do. They say that you can’t win unless you enter, but the way things look after all these years, it seems pretty clear that you can’t win even if you do enter unless you draw in the same styles that have been around for decades. It may be that the best Pulitzer Prize that you can win is the $75 entry fee that you pocket, not to mention the time that you save, by doing something else rather than putting together a prize entry.

Of course, then they’ll blame us for not playing their sick game.

Friendly Fire

The Pentagon is considering awarding a “Distinguished Warfare Medal” to operators of remote-controlled drone planes used to kill people thousands of miles away from their desks.

Ted Rall is Finalist in Lambda Legal Cartoon Award; Online Voting Open to Public
Posted by Mikhaela Reid

Cartoonist Mikhaela Reid here. I’m supposed to be one of Ted’s guest bloggers, but I’ve been ill with strep my entire guest blog tenure so far and won’t be posting until I get better.

However, I wanted to quickly let everyone know that Ted’s cartoon “Explaining the Supreme Court” is one of five finalists in Lambda Legal’s Life Without Fair Courts cartoon contest. Lambda Legal is a national organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and those with HIV through impact litigation, education and public policy work.

Check out all the finalists and cast your vote.

Here’s the contest info:

Lambda Legal has teamed up with Prism Comics (an organization for the LGBT graphic artist community), and media sponsor, The Advocate, to launch a nationwide contest to find the best representation of what life would look like without fair courts. First prize in the contest is exposure in The Advocate and on Second and third prize include donated shopping sprees from Diamond Comics Distributors. Contest judges include Joan Hilty, Editor at DC Comics; Phil Jimenez, Freelance Illustrator and Comic Book Artist; Mikhaela Reid, creator of the original series, Life Without Fair Courts; and George Stoll, Art Director for The Advocate.

(Disclaimer: I was on the panel of judges who picked the finalists since I drew the original “Life Without Fair Courts” series that came before the contest, so I can’t take sides, but figured Ted’s fans should know about the contest since he’s trekking through the Stans and unable to post about this himself.)