Pulitzer Prize Luncheon Remarks 2003

Low Library, Columbia University – May 29, 2003

William Safire

Columnist, The New York Times
Co-Chair, The Pulitzer Prize Board

Let me deal briefly today with Topic A in the world of journalism: the subject of trust. Trust among reporters and editors. Trust among newspapers and their readers. And, more parochially, the trust of the public in the integrity and the judgment of the people who presume to decide who should get the Pulitzer prizes.

Nobody speaks for the Pulitzer Prize Board. Our administrator is empowered by the board to answer questions about our methods and history and release the names of awardees, but when it comes to policy, nobody issues pronouncements. Just as reporters are still taught to put the story in the lead, we put the policy in our yearly decisions.

That means we operate in secrecy, like the Supreme Court, but without leaks. Indeed, I've suggested that during deliberations, our most junior board member be assigned the job of answering the door, the way the Supremes do but that was rejected as pretentious.

But let's face the paradox; here we are, a pack of journalists eager to root out the truth and academics pledged to academic freedom, engaged in a conspiracy to operate in the dark. In hashing out the pros and cons of each entry for an award, board members can be frank, open, unguarded in our internal debates because we trust each other not to blab.

Without breaching that trust, let me reveal a few things I have learned in clawing my way up the greasy pole to co-chairmanship.

It has nothing to do with merit. You get chosen for the next board by the last board; if all goes well, you serve three 3-year terms, serve the last year as chairman and then you're out, never to be heard from again. Re-election is not an option; with presiding power comes instant lame-duckiness.

The good thing about this Pulitzer system is that it guarantees new blood every year, constant regeneration. The potential problem of a self-perpetuating board: we tend to pick people much like ourselves. But that is not as bad as it seems because we're already a fairly diverse group. The only outright quota we impose on ourselves is the ratio of journalists to non-journalists, usually academics. And we're stuck with the President of Columbia no matter who he or she is because that's what Joe Pulitzer wanted, but we've again lucked out on that.

In other categories – geographic distribution, size of paper or college, sex (I never say "gender," a term of grammar) race, education, ethnicity, ideological bent, personality – we're a fairly diversified bunch and make an effort to keep it that way. The overriding criteria we use are individual integrity, talent, experience, and wide-ranging judgment about the means and purposes of communication. That last means an ability to write or edit.

So I submit that you and I can trust the continuing quality and intellectual reach of the board. But what about the vice that brings down so many politicians and business leaders – conflicts of interest?

The official requirement is clear: on any consideration of an entry, anybody associated with that paper or friend of the entrant leaves the room. You sit out in a cold hallway nibbling your nails dying to know what's going on, but happy not to be conflicted. Year before last, when the juries sent up so many New York Times entries, I set up shop in the hall and started a novel – writing one, that is. There was not even a conflict about the number of awards one paper was winning: each category is decided apart from all others because almost all the prizes go to individuals, not to enterprises. As newspaper chains grow, board members have to recuse themselves more often, but we knock ourselves out to avoid even the appearance of conflict.

Legend has it that, in some bygone era, there was some logrolling that went on – you vote for my guy and I'll vote for yours. Years ago, I asked Meg Greenfield about that, and she said it had never happened during her tenure, and it had better never happen during mine. It has not. When it comes to any conflicts of interest, or mutual back-scratching, I can report that this board is a bunch of real stiffs and it is grimly determined to stay that way.

Now, on the theme of the pursuit of trust, let me walk up to the edge – just short of a breach of confidentiality about board deliberations.

As I said, we let our decisions pronounce our policy. Today's awards, as always, illuminate our criteria, which can change as American tastes and standards change. In music, drama, poetry, fiction, originality is the wellspring of our culture, and the winners gathered in this room surely qualify as American originals.

But in the coverage of news, and in the categories of non-fiction books and history, I hear one question asked with ever-greater frequency: How was this sourced? (The first time I heard it, eight years ago, my reaction was: should we condone the use of the noun "source" as a verb? I objected, but common usage won out.)

A question being asked more and more by readers is a simple but profound "Who says?" How does the writer know? Scholars who study the finalists and ultimate awards in recent years will pick up the unspoken message that the reader benefits from the knowing "who says." Though it can slow down a narrative, and though footnotes irritate some readers, naming sources or attributing quotes builds trust. Now, suspicion is easily misplaced: Two reporters or historians, speaking to the same source, can get substantially the same information in the same words, and it can seem that one writer is borrowing from the other. Ain't necessarily so.

Trust counts; sourcing helps. In my column this morning, I attribute a quote to a vague "administration stalwart across the river." That's pundit code for the Pentagon or the CIA. I should have pressed harder to be able to identify the source and not rely on reader trust. I'd count that insider cuteness against an entry up for a prize; fortunately, nobody presently on the Board can be entered for a Pulitzer. That proves my previous point of how sensitive we are to conflicts of interest in our silent pursuit of trust.

Periodic exposures of individual reportorial fraud need not cause journalists to distrust each other or cause readers to read our newspapers with narrowed eyes. The whole truth is that American journalism, with all its self-examined shortcomings, is the most reliable fount of solid information and informed opinion in the world – as well as in the long history of the Pulitzer prizes we so proudly award today.

(click here for Rena Pederson's remarks)