Pulitzer Prize Luncheon Remarks 2006

Low Library, Columbia University – May 22, 2006


Paul Steiger

Managing Editor, The Wall Street Journal
Chair, The Pulitzer Prize Board


Good afternoon. I'm Paul Steiger, chairman of the Pulitzer Board for the coming year. I'm delighted to have this opportunity to congratulate all the winners, in journalism and in the arts and letters.

In the arts and letters, in addition to awards honoring outstanding accomplishment in the normal categories for work published in 2005, we have two special citations, in history and music. While I am an expert in neither field, I am deeply persuaded by those who are that these two awards honor two bodies of work representing achievements of the highest order. So to Professor Morgan and to the memory of Thelonius Monk: Congratulations!

For the journalism winners, I want to offer a special "well done" for a year of extraordinary work under unusually difficult conditions - economic, political, and physical.

In category after category, the winners and the finalists in this year's judging showed extraordinary achievement, so much so that in two categories the board made two awards.

That is something that in my years on the board we have been generally reluctant to do.

And yet paradoxically, this year's awards have in some instances drawn unusual criticism, with critics from the left and the right complaining that the awards as a group were sending a message that they took issue with, or that individual awards were an affront to this interest or that.

I'd like to suggest that critics of the supposed message relax, because we weren't sending any. To the best of my knowledge, no one on the board was about sending political messages. The deliberations were, as they always have been in my experience, about the journalism.

Before I continue, I'd like to give you some quick background. Every year at this lunch, the chair, who serves for one year only, gets to speak to a captive audience that includes the cream of American journalism.

In return, because the only real business of this lunch is to hand out awards, the chair traditionally inflicts himself or herself on this wonderful audience for only a brief time, in my case about 10 minutes.

As is also the tradition, I speak for myself, not for the board or for my employer, the Wall Street Journal. Finally, the specific deliberations of the board are private, and I won't reveal them.

With those caveats, I'd like to talk briefly about four issues: Political messages, clarity of sourcing, online journalism, and the scary environment.

Are we sending any political messages? Simple answer: No. This notion has never has come up in my 8 years on the board. This year, it is true, four of the awards are for journalism that embarrassed Republican politicians or a Republican administration. But last year, three of the awards were for journalism that damaged Democrats, none for work that damaged Republicans.

One complaint is that some of the work we are honoring today somehow hurt national security, in one case by revealing a secret government program to monitor some U.S. phone traffic without the apparently required court orders and in the other case by disclosing another program to send certain military prisoners to secret facilities in foreign countries.

In each case the reporting was solidly based, soberly presented, deeply detailed and totally exclusive, giving the public a chance to debate a serious issue they otherwise would not have known existed.

That to me is a pretty good definition of great journalism.

Another criticism, from the left, is that the wiretapping stories should have been published earlier, in time to influence the 2004 election. Nonsense. They weren't ready to run then.

Second topic: clarity of sourcing. One conclusion that an outside observer could confidently draw from watching the actions of this board over the last decade or so is that it consistently believes readers must be able to understand where information is coming from.

So, if you witnessed something personally, say so.

If you are recreating events by interviewing the parties to them, say so.

If you are borrowing someone else's facts or ideas, say so.

If you must grant some of your sources anonymity, say so.

The omniscient narrator has a well-founded role in fiction. When it appears in non-fiction or journalism, the work in question is unlikely to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Third topic: online journalism. Online coverage, very appropriately, figured more prominently in the journalism awards this year than ever before. This was by design, because more and more journalism is being delivered online.

The board last fall opened up all of the journalism categories to online material. Previously, only the Public Service category was allowed to include it.

Expect this process to continue, and to lead to tricky questions, perhaps the most fundamental of which is, What is a newspaper? Right now, an entry must include at least one print element. That excludes the vast majority of the blogs and such online publications as Slate. But should such sources be excluded forever? I don't know.

Fourth topic: the environment for journalism, which is as challenging as I have ever seen it. As this year's sale of the Knight Ridder chain demonstrates, the economic model for mid-sized and large-but-not-national papers is in trouble. Small papers and the very largest are doing better, but not much. So most journalists must live with constant concern about their jobs.

That is only the beginning.

Anger against reporters, mobilized on occasion by the Web's ability to transmit hate speech as well as useful information, is at the least sliming what has been for most of my life a hugely psychically rewarding occupation.

More journalists are dying on the job. According to the CPJ, some 69 journalists were killed in pursuit of their work last year, and 13 more so far this year. Most were killed by accident in Iraq, but some, like Atwar Bahjat, the reporter for al Arabiyah dragged away and murdered by insurgents when she was trying to do a standup, are being killed as a terror tactic. Such was the fate of my own colleague, Danny Pearl, in 2002; luckily, Jill Carrol of the Christian Science Monitor escaped a similar fate after having been kidnapped earlier this year; several others have not.

In our own country, reporters are being jailed, or threatened with jail, in an effort to force disclosure of their confidential sources. Some of the reporters who will receive awards here today may soon be hit with subpoenas demanding the names of their sources on these stories. The Attorney General has said he won't hesitate to go after reporters' phone records in efforts to pursue leakers of national security information. Last year a reporter spent 85 days in jail as part of an effort to compel her to reveal her sources.

What seems to be happening is that a longstanding informal compact between journalists and public officials is eroding. Under that compact, officials have been able to mark top secret just about any paper that moves through the bureaucracy, but when such documents have fallen into the hands of reporters, who then publish stories about them, the government has generally avoided fierce attempts to track down their sources and intimidate others so inclined. As a result, the public could learn what officials were doing while most secrets stayed secret.

Now, prosecutors and courts are looking more favorably on moves threatening to put an end to this unofficial regime, invoking obscure sections of old laws like the 1917 espionage act to pressure reporters and news organizations and unnerve potential whistle-blowers.

A federal shield law for reporters might help, but I'm not sure how much. I'm not sure a law can be passed in the current environment, and I'm not sure how useful such a law will prove even if it does pass. Any shield law that I have seen allows for a "national security" exception. Thus, even with such a law in place, Judith Miller could have been and probably would have been jailed last year.

Amid all these challenges, though, I find special encouragement in this year's Pulitzer awardees. You are still providing great service to the public.

One need go no further than the two awards made for Public Service, both for coverage of Katrina and its aftermath, one to the New Orleans Times Picayune, the other to the Biloxi Sun-Herald.

The Times Picayune made brilliant use of the Web to connect its community when floodwaters made it impossible to print the paper - and even after printing and delivery could resume, because so much of its audience was scattered around the country.

The Sun-Herald, though it also made use of the Web, found some of its greatest impact in simply being able to distribute itself on plain, familiar newsprint. People in a community that had a quarter of all its buildings destroyed and most of the remaining damaged found comfort in being able to get the paper, hold it and read it. In most cases, they couldn't go online, because they had no electricity. Despite all that devastation, the Sun-Herald's base circulation is now within 200 copies of what it was before the hurricane.

The comfort I draw from this is that the work you do has value that transcends what any algorithm or combination of algorithms can do, and that business models will emerge to sustain that kind of work.

Congratulations again to all of you. I am honored to be in your presence.