The way the Pulitzer Prizes work seems simple enough – an Ivy league university hands out annual awards that ostensibly recognize important journalism. In practice, however, my former colleague Phil Terzian, a Pulitzer finalist who has served on the nominating committee, described the inner workings of the Pulitzers this way:
The Pulitzer Prizes are a singularly corrupt institution, administered by Columbia University and the management of the New York Times largely for the benefit of the New York Times and a limited number of favored publications and personalities. Any citizen who thinks that the annual distribution of awards has something to do with quality probably believes that the Oscar for Best Picture goes to the most distinguished film of the year. If you’re a connoisseur of unrestrained self-praise, may I recommend the citations when the Times awards itself the Pulitzer Gold Medal for Public Service.
While the Pulitzer Prizes have always been little more than self-dealing masquerading as journalistic beauty pageant, it was a lot easier to believe in this manufactured prestige back when journalism was at least slightly more competent and concerned with the appearance of objectivity. In fact, a spin through the last five years of Pulitzer recipients reveals some interesting choices that add up to a clear pattern.
In 2018, a Pulitzer for national reporting was given to The New York Times and Washington Post for reporting on the Donald Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia. A 2019 Pulitzer for “Explanatory Reporting” was given to The New York Times for reporting on Trump’s taxes.
The 2020 Pulitzer for commentary was given to Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times for the 1619 Project. In 2021, a public service Pulitzer was given to The New York Times for its coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic “that exposed racial and economic inequities, government failures in the U.S. and beyond.” In 2022, the Washington Post won a public service Pulitzer for its coverage of January 6.
Every one of these major stories was badly handled by the media writ large, served activist political narratives, frequently involved credulously regurgitating actual misinformation, or some combination thereof. While there is always reason to be suspicious of Pulitzers, historically most of the objections to the awards handed out never rose beyond the level of newsroom gossip.
The Pulitzers always reflected journalism’s skewed priorities. However, this many high-profile failures in such a short time underscores the rapid and catastrophic descent of American journalism into radical political activism and makes winning a Pulitzer look definitively like a mark of ignominy.
Russia, Russia, Russia
Of the five Pulitzers mentioned above, only one has forced the institution that doles out the awards to do any reckoning. In the case of the media’s coverage of Russia collusion, the obsessive media coverage wasn’t just empirically wrong, it was akin to mass media hysteria. The saga meant years of overtly conspiratorial coverage on a story where the FBI was caught manufacturing evidence and relying on informants with dubious resumes.
It’s been such a black eye for the media, even Columbia belatedly acknowledged the failure in a major way. Earlier this year, Columbia Journalism Review, the college’s influential publication devoted to media criticism, published a damning, four-part 24,000-word report by Jeff Gerth, a veteran New York Times investigative reporter. Gerth brutally dissects the industry-wide media malpractice involved in the biggest story of Trump’s presidency.
Before you think anyone deserves plaudits for acknowledging the basic truth of a story that should have been obvious a month into Trump’s presidency, know that such admissions have their limits. CJR’s story came out after the Pulitzer committee commissioned a review of their Russiagate Pulitzer prizes last year with absurdly predictable results:
In 2022, the Pulitzer board announced that it had commissioned two ‘independent’ reviews of the 2018 awards to the Post and Times; they both found that ‘no passages or headlines, contentions or assertions in any of the winning submissions were discredited by facts that emerged subsequent to the conferral of the prizes,’ so the awards ‘stand.’ The board did not disclose the identity of the reviewers or post their actual findings. In December, Trump made his threat to sue the Pulitzer board a reality; he filed a defamation lawsuit against the board’s members in Okeechobee county, Florida.
Suffice to say, more independent reviews of these awards have come to the opposite conclusion. In addition to Gerth’s evisceration, as far back as 2019 my RealClearInvestigations colleague Tom Kuntz (another New York Times veteran) authored a thorough, well, investigation of the specific New York Times and Washington Post Trump-Russia reporting that won the Pulitzer.
Kuntz’s conclusion? “Last year’s award to the New York Times and Washington Post for Trump-Russia coverage is already looking like a crumpled first draft of history lofting in a high arc to the dustbin.”
The fact that “explanatory reporting” has become a specific Pulitzer category is a revealing commentary in itself. Reporting, by its very nature, is explanatory. Explicitly ascribing this quality to reporting over and above what it is supposed to be is to basically reward telling people what to think.
The reporting on Trump’s taxes is such a great example of driving a political narrative that naturally the Pulitzers rewarded The New York Times for its efforts. However detailed the Times’ reporting might have been, it can really only be interpreted in the broader media context into which it appeared.
At that point, corporate media largely assumed Trump’s unwillingness to release his tax returns was his attempt to hide information that was at best very embarrassing and at worst criminal. The deep diving into Trump’s taxes was basically using the institutional clout of The Paper Of Record™ to justify a lot of antagonistic political speculation about Trump.
When complete Trump tax returns were illegally leaked the following year (previous Times reporting had been based on partial leaks) you could see the desperation emanating from their all-caps headline: “LONG-CONCEALED RECORDS SHOW TRUMP’S CHRONIC LOSSES AND YEARS OF TAX AVOIDANCE.” The Times had finally harpooned the white whale and the best that they could do was report that a real estate investor takes some pretty big write-offs and otherwise exploits America’s absurdly complex tax code to avoid paying taxes.
In other words, Trump behaves the same way every other billionaire does. And when Democrats on the Ways and Means committee last December released six years’ worth of Trump’s returns, by then even CNN was running op-eds conceding Trump’s taxes were a “nothingburger.”
While there was a strong case for the media to press Trump — and any other politician, for that matter — for transparency on his taxes, what happened here went well beyond reasonable and set a fairly destructive precedent. For the last two years, the nonprofit journalism outfit Pro-Publica has been doing extensive reporting on the illegally leaked tax returns of various wealthy Americans, and the Democratic regime seems to have no interest in rooting out and stopping this criminal behavior.
While it’s often hard to blame journalists for publishing juicy leaks, regardless of whether they got them legally, publishing rich people’s tax returns hardly has the same public interest justification as reporting on, say, the Pentagon Papers. Pro-Publica is engaged in deeply troubling behavior and should be roundly condemned by the media because this is the kind of crap that (rightly) makes people despise journalists and view them as unethical. You don’t exactly have to be a billionaire to be worried about the media disrespecting your privacy.
Of course, Pro-Publica won’t be condemned by its peers because most of the profession supports pretending that radical political activism is professional behavior — no less than the New York Times and the Pulitzer prizes legitimized this behavior.
‘Propaganda Is Not History’
At this point, it’s difficult to even know where to begin with the 1619 Project and Pulitzer-Prize winner for commentary Nikole Hannah-Jones. It’s arguably the most celebrated work of “journalism” in the last decade. Although it’s often described as “controversial,” controversy suggests there’s two sides to the argument that it’s a shoddy work of journalism. There’s not.
To recap: When the Times launched the 1619 Project with great fanfare, a who’s who of America’s most eminent and respected historians loudly objected to the premise that America’s “true founding” was rooted in slavery and this is to blame for America’s obesity epidemic, our lack of socialized medicine, bad traffic, and a host of societal ills with obviously complicated causalities. (The Times eventually stealth-edited out the bit about America’s “true founding.”)
One of the history professors the Times asked to fact-check the 1619 Project later wrote an essay under the headline, “I Helped Fact-Check the 1619 Project. The Times Ignored Me.” One of the 1619 Project essays authored by Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond is premised on an economic history so flawed the whole essay should be retracted.
Another 1619 Project author, Princeton historian Kevin Kruse, was later revealed to be an egregious plagiarist by Phil Magness, one of the most astute critics of the 1619 Project. Kruse avoided any serious repercussions to his academic career almost certainly due to political favoritism.
The 1619 Project’s ringleader — because “editor” is inappropriate given the circus we’re dealing with — Hannah-Jones has been a disgrace. She’s been explicit that her goal is to get a reparations bill passed, which makes her an activist, not a journalist. When a group of respected black intellectuals criticized the 1619 Project, she responded by tweeting a photo of her making rude gesture at them.
During the Black Lives Matter riots in 2020, Hannah-Jones promoted a conspiracy that fireworks were part of “a coordinated attack on Black and Brown communities by government forces.” During the nationwide BLM riots, she went on national television and said, “Destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence.”
She also went on Twitter and spouted another insane conspiracy about how America dropped atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II “when they knew surrender was coming because they’d spent all this money developing it and to prove it was worth it. Propaganda is not history, my friend.”
Well, she’s at least right about the fact propaganda is not history. I hope the Pulitzers are proud of this one.
Global Pandemic: Women and Minorities Hardest Hit
There’s a very old joke about the headline The New York Times would run in the event of the apocalypse: “World Ends: Woman and Minorities Hardest Hit.” Now the connoisseurs of unrestrained self-praise out there might want to compare that to the write-up the Times gave itself after it won the “Public Service” Pulitzer for its coverage of Covid-19.
It noted the paper “has received 132 Pulitzers since they were first awarded in 1917, has won in the public service category, regarded as the most prestigious of the prizes, six times” and made multiple references to their supposedly worthy coverage of the “racial and social inequities of the pandemic.”
It is true that some aspects of the Times’ coverage were laudable. The Times, which has resources few other outlets can match, had essential early coverage of the outbreak in China and did good work chronicling the heroic efforts as the first wave of the virus hit hospitals in New York. But it also ran fairly credulous coverage of the attempts to flout Covid lockdowns in order to attend BLM protests and ran insulting Chinese Communist Party-friendly coverage suggesting that anyone who made reference to the fact the virus originated in China was racist and xenophobic, in spite of the fact huge numbers of diseases take their name from their place of origin.
The media coverage of Covid broadly was an unmitigated disaster. There were routine condemnations of medical experts who dared to depart from the conventional Covid wisdom and were eventually were proven correct, mass social media bans, the unquestioning adoration of the corrupt Anthony Fauci, the insistence masks and lockdowns were uniformly effective, and self-righteous certainty that the lab leak was a conspiracy theory.
No sane person looks back on this and thinks, “We should give anyone in the media an award for providing the public with quality information about COVID and helping us create a rational, evidence-based political response.”
High Crimes and Misdemeanors
There’s really no getting around the fact what happened on Jan. 6, 2021, was an absolute travesty and no one should make excuses for it. But that also doesn’t mean media hyperbole about the disgraceful episode was helpful, either.
One of the prominent headlines to be found in the Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage was simply, “BLOODSHED.” While there was far too much violence on Jan. 6, it’s worth noting the only person who died that day was one of the rioters. That didn’t stop the Post from reporting that “Brian D. Sicknick, U.S.Capitol police officer, dies from injuries after engaging rioters.”
It was later ruled that Sicknick died of natural causes the day after the riot. The Post would alter its original story on the officer’s death without running a correction. An editorial that ran a few days later on Sicknick would later run a “clarification.”
The dramatic — and false — tale that Sicknick died of injuries after being assaulted with a fire extinguisher was reported in detail by The New York Times. Nonetheless, you’d think the Post would investigate these things as well. Suffice to say, neither the blown story nor the editorial on Sicknick was included in the curated package of stories the Post sent to the Pulitzer committee for consideration.
Included in the Post’s Pulitzer package, however, was a story from Jan. 3 that was only tangentially related to the assault on the Capitol a few days later: “‘I just want to find 11,780 votes’: In extraordinary hour-long call, Trump pressures Georgia secretary of state to recalculate the vote in his favor.” While plenty of criticisms could be leveled at Trump for his statements about the 2020 election, the reporting on that phone call led to a media feeding frenzy that caused the unfair dismissal of very real and legitimate problems Georgia had with its elections.
More importantly, it bears mentioning the same Post reporter, Amy Gardner, who wrote the Pulitzer-cited story above, would file a follow-up story on Jan. 9 about yet another Trump conversation with the Georgia secretary of state. This time Trump told allegedly Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find the fraud,” which was generally understood to mean that Trump was telling Raffensperger to abuse his power and make up reasons to disenfranchise people.
Not only did the Post have to run a correction on that story three months later — you can read the pretty astounding details here — when the dust settled, Gardner and The Washington Post conceded that they had “anonymously printed fabricated quotes they knew were from a second-hand source in the office of a political enemy, couldn’t confirm the quotes with additional sourcing, still attributed them to the sitting president of the United States, used those quotes as a basis to speculate the president committed a crime, and the Democratic party would later repeatedly cite the bogus article when attempting to impeach Trump for ‘high crimes and misdemeanors.’”
So the Washington Post reported complete misinformation that was cited as criminal evidence in the impeachment trial of Trump that resulted from Jan. 6, and still won a Pulitzer for its coverage of the event. Unsurprisingly, this story was also not included in the bundle of stories the Post sent to the Pulitzer committee.
It would seem that you wouldn’t have to make stuff up to paint an unflattering portrait of Trump after Jan. 6, but, in the end, the partisan tenor of the Post’s coverage was a feature, not a bug, as far as the Pulitzer committee was concerned. The final entry in their Pulitzer package is “Opinion: Trump caused the assault on the Capitol. He must be removed.”
Like Covid, the specifics of the Post’s Jan. 6 coverage can’t be viewed in a vacuum. There are tens of millions of Americans who deplore what happened on Jan. 6 but are equally disgusted by corporate media’s “fiery but mostly peaceful” excuse-making for left-wing rioters just a few months earlier.
When BLM protesters rioted at the White House and injured a hundred cops and Secret Service agents in the summer of 2020, there were no “BLOODSHED” headlines or talk of insurrection. When BLM protesters and actual domestic terrorists that claim to be “antifascist” were laying siege to a federal courthouse in Portland for weeks on end, federal law enforcement started arresting people on the streets in unmarked vans. Immediately, the deep concern about potential civil rights violations of these arrests was a national news story.
Right now, Jan. 6 rioters languish in pre-trial detention for years and the ones who make it to trial find federal judges routinely handing down bigger sentences to rioters than prosecutors requested. The corporate media, which often explicitly defended rioting as a vehicle for political change in the months leading up to Jan. 6, is at best silent and at worst actively trying to erode equal treatment under the law.
Of course, the media will insist you’re making excuses for Jan. 6 if you have a problem with the media’s overtly political double standards for rioting. One particularly oily Washington Post columnist went so far as to claim “There was no ‘attack on the White House’” when people started comparing the BLM assault a few months prior to what happened on Jan. 6.
It seems that on every big news story, you now have a choice to make: Who are you going to believe, your lying eyes or the Pulitzer committee?