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Mainstream Press Tries to Prove It Still Matters ...
The Pulitzer Farce

ALEXANDER COCKBURN | April 20 2006

Forget the awards for hurricane coverage. They were predictable and certainly in the case of the Times Picayune and probably the Biloxi paper, deserved. The press thrives on disasters and rare is the year when a photographer cannot extract a prize from the dead or dying in an African famine, a Turkish earthquake or an Asian tidal wave.

So far as the Pulitzer Prize committee is concerned this year, the U.S. could be at peace across the world. Maybe in 2007 a photographer will get a prize for a shot of those 11 dead civilians, including five children, shot at point blank range in a house in Haditha by US soldiers.

The central project of the Pulitzer Prizes for work done in 2005 has been to remind the world that, appearances to the contrary, the nation is well served by its premier east coast newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post.

I should rephrase that. The central project of the Pulitzer Prize committee is always to perform that function, only this year the need was more pressing than usual. 2005 was a bad year for the New York Times, dominated by steady disclosure of its important role in manufacturing and then disseminating lies designed to plunge the nation into war in Iraq.

One would have thought that the New York Times would have simply withdrawn its name from contention in the 2006 Pulitzers, but shame was short-lived and the assigned function of the Pulitzer Prize Committee was to winch the paper’s name out of the mud.

The Committee’s composition made this task easier. On the eighteen-member board sits Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia J-school and contributor to the New York Times magazine, and Paul Tash, boss of the St Petersburg Times, which is owned by the New York Times.

So the Times duly reaped two Pulitzers, the first to a couple of journalists, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, who sat on an explosive story through the election of 2004, through most of 2005 before finally disclosing the NSA’s wiretaps in time to give a boost to Risen’s book on US intelligence.

The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof got a prize for commentary. Kristof’s best known enterprise has been the purchase in 2004 of two young prostitutes in Cambodia, so I guess the award is for moral initiative, offsetting all the innumerable Times opinion pieces encouraging neoliberal economic polices which have forced hundreds of thousands of women in south Asia, most notably India, to sell their bodies and those of their children.

Two prizes were not enough for full rehab so the Committee threw in another for two Times reporters for their China coverage.

Having thus salvaged the Times, Pulitzer Board member Donald Graham, chairman of the Washington Post, duly extracted his price, which took the form of four Pulitzers for his paper.

There was one for Dana Priest for her stories on renditions, one for fashion coverage, a rather mysterious one for pieces about Yemen, and one for Susan Schmidt, James V. Grimaldi and R. Jeffrey Smith for their work on the Abramoff scandal, which in substantive terms meant their efficiency in copying out the incriminating emails amassed by the McCain committee. (According to one committee staffer, the trio missed some of the juiciest communiqués.)

The rest of the prizes were the usual mish-mash, though there was no “plucky underdog” award this year, unless you count the Sun Herald of Gulfport, Miss. I don’t grudge the San Diego Union and Copley News service the national reporting prize (shared with Risen and Lichtbau) for their work on exposing Duke Cunningham, the corrupt congressman now doing time. Those were good stories. The Portland Oregonian won an editorial writing award, even though the most conspicuous event in the life of the Oregonian’s editorial page in recent times has been its relentless downsizing.

There it is, one more round in the unedifying spectacle of a small coterie of mutually back-scratching news executives and accomplices conspiring to promote their publications. The Attorney General of New York should indict them for insider dealing, designed to boost their stocks.

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