Academic journal article Journalism History

Mixed Motives Behind a Pulitzer

Academic journal article Journalism History

Mixed Motives Behind a Pulitzer

Article excerpt

The Pecos Independent and Enterprise and Billie Sol Estes

In 1962, the Pecos Independent and Enterprise in Texas published a series of articles accusing an unnamed local man of using intermediaries to mortgage thousands of nonexistent fertilizer tanks. The articles triggered the arrest of Billie Sol Estes, a Pecos businessman with Washington connections, and a national scandal resulted: President John F. Kennedy was asked about Estes at a news conference, and several administration officials resigned or were fired for having accepted gifts from Estes. For uncovering the scandal, Oscar Griffin, Jr., editor of the Independent, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1963. This Pulitzer-winning exposé fell outside the traditional template of investigative reporting. The Independent published the stories less for public service than for self-preservation: the newspaper was being bankrupted by Estes' Pecos Daily News.

According to the Pulitzer Prize citation for "Local Reporting, No Edition Time" in 1963, Oscar Griffin, Jr., editor of Texas' Pecos Independent and Enterprise, "initiated the exposure of the Billie Sol Estes scandal and thereby brought a major fraud on the United States government to national attention with resultant investigation, prosecution and conviction of Estes."1 It sounds like a classic case of investigative reporting: a tireless, idealistic journalist seizes an opportunity, as James H. Dygert put it, "to promote reform, expose injustice, enlighten the public, and discourage knavery."2 Griffin, however, struck a humble note about his accomplishment. "Some news magazines and big-city newspapers have written dramatic accounts of our investigation and tried to make me out as some kind of muckraking, fighting editor," he wrote in the Saturday Evening Post in 1962. "Actually our investigation into Billie Sol's activities was a pretty routine job in line with the paper's motto, 'Informed Citizens Are the Guardian and Spirit of Freedom.'"3

But the truth behind the Independent's Pulitzer is a richer, more ambiguous tale than the Pulitzer citation, the historical norm of investigative reporting, or Griffin's account suggests. Whether he "initiated the exposure" of Estes is contested. More importantly, publishing the articles was far from a "routine job." The Independent was on the losing end of a newspaper war with Estes' Pecos Daily News and exposing his crimes seemed the surest way to stave off bankruptcy. Thus, this Pulitzer-winning scoop was motivated less by public service than by survival.

"For a time in 1962, the Kennedy administration seemed to be seriously threatened politically by the business dealings of a schemer," a historian wrote in 1974. Following a series of articles in the local Independent and Enterprise in February and March 1962, Estes, a businessman from Pecos, was arrested on March 29 for mortgaging nonexistent fertilizer tanks. Those charges were soon eclipsed by charges unrelated to the Independent articles: he supposedly had bribed and manipulated federal officials to gain federal favors, specifically allotments for growing cotton and contracts to store government grain. The scandal implicated so many officials in the U.S. Department of Agriculture that Republicans demanded the resignation of Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman.4 James T. Ralph, a former assistant secretary of agriculture, lost a pending USDA appointment when it came out that he had charged telephone calls to Estes' credit card, and when Ralph's assistant, William Morris, refused to testify about gifts that he had received from Estes, he was fired. Emery Jacobs, the deputy administrator of an Agriculture Department program, resigned because Estes had taken him shopping at a Neiman Marcus department store, and a member of an Agriculture Department advisory committee was suspended for having accepted gifts from Estes.5 In a self-published book by BS Productions, Estes wrote in 2005 that he tithed 10 percent of his income to charity and another 10 percent to politicians. …

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