Tag Archives: Pulitzer Prizes

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Psst. The Pulitzers are BS.



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.

Judges brazenly allow their political biases and personal connections (or grudges) guide their supposed-to-be objective decision-making. Their taste runs boringly middlebrow. No shock there.

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.

You’d think.

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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The Pulitzer Prize Makes Journalists Miserable

It’s a beautiful day in New York, and I presume in a lot of other places across America. But for thousands of journalists, it is a miserable time. We are on tenterhooks awaiting tomorrow’s announcement by Columbia University regarding who won this year’s Pulitzer prizes.

You might think of the Pulitzer Prize is an honor, a great reward for a job well done, the epitome of a journalist’s career. And of course, that’s what our moms and dads think. In reality, the Pulitzer Prize exists to make us all miserable.

The truth is, journalism would be much better off if the Pulitzer and all prizes simply ceased to exist. The worst aspect about it is the fact that it transforms everybody except one – or three, if you include the finalists – practitioner of a given category into a loser. It’s really no different than the high school homecoming dance; that guy is handsome, that girl is beautiful, and obviously you are not. Or anyway, you’re not as handsome or beautiful. And worst of all, all of your classmates have validated that decision by voting for it.

In any given category, whether it’s biography or criticism or editorial cartooning, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of people creating brilliant work every single day. But only one will win the Pulitzer Prize in each category. It’s shitty.

And that’s assuming that there is a way to judge the handsomest or prettiest homecoming king or queen in any kind of objective way. Often the people on the committee to elect these things choose their friends. And even if they can avoid that, parochial tastes always come into it.

The Pulitzer Prize and other awards in journalism and in other fields, of course, are no different. You know that. Over the years, as an editorial cartoonist, I have spoken to many people who have been on the committee that judges the editorial cartooning category. The small group of editors, cartoonists, and academics who are tasked with picking the three finalists that are then sent up to the main committee, which can then decide which of the finalists will get a prize, to not award in that category at all, or, as in the year that I was a finalist, pick someone else entirely, someone who was not one of the finalists.

I’ve heard some amazing stories. One year, when I filed comics journalism daily by satellite phone from Afghanistan, one of the members of the committee dismissed my entry because it was vertical. Editorial cartoons, apparently, are supposed to be horizontal. Another year, the year that I was a finalist, the reason that the main committee decided to snub me personally – and I did hear that it was personal – was because I didn’t draw in the same exact drawing style as most other editorial cartoonists. I have heard stories of drinking buddies being awarded Pulitzer prizes, plagiarists getting Pulitzer prizes after their plagiarism was known, and worst of all, that the methodology of selection almost guarantees middlebrow results. You’d expect to see a “12 angry men”-throwdown from time to time over who should win these things, but that’s not at all how it is. In fact, everybody’s eager to kick off to the free open bar at the end of the day, and no one wants to spoil the mood by getting into a fight over who should have won their category. So instead, everyone’s really collegial. The results tend to be three people that everyone can agree upon, not the best of the best. And you can really see the results. If you look at the list of Pulitzer winners in any given category over the years, you’ll certainly see some deserving names, some of the top practitioners in the field, but you also see a lot of people whose work is mediocre, and some that are downright embarrassing. I personally think of the American editorial cartoonists who won during World War II for editorial cartoons that were – yes, really – sympathetic to Hitler and the Nazis. What the hell were these guys thinking?

But even if it were possible to objectively decide who does the best novel or play or poetry of the year – and obviously it isn’t – there’s something incredibly depressing about an event that stands to disappoint so many people year after year after year. The results matter, of course, because the public and employers care about such things, and it’s possible to use an award or prize is a way to promote your career. I’ve won more than my fair share of awards, and they have certainly helped me. But the truth is that every cartoonist and every other creative person writes or draws their own Pulitzer prize every single day, when they start out with a blank piece of paper and then decide what goes on it. We are all going to be judged by our body of work. There are brilliant cartoonists and other creators who never received prizes; and then there’s of course the Nazi guy.

So to any journalists or anyone else fretting over tomorrow’s announcements at 3 PM Eastern time tomorrow, try to remember a few things. First, you’re probably not going to win. Second, if you do win, you probably don’t deserve it.

Third, there is something seriously wrong with the kind of good fortune that makes all of your best friends and colleagues miserable. So to you winners out there tomorrow, send your favorite losers a bottle of champagne. They deserve it more than you. They certainly need it more.