Magazine article Editor & Publisher

In Defense of the Pulitzer Prizes

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

In Defense of the Pulitzer Prizes

Article excerpt

THE PULITZER PRIZES are controversial "and probably always will be," but the process in selecting winners is pure and pressure-resistant, according to an insider.

James Risser, a member of the Pulitzer board and two-time winner of the award, offered a rare glimpse into the arcane world of its selection system at the recent California Newspaper Publishers convention, as part of the group's one-day trip to Stanford University from San Francisco.

Risser, a Stanford professor of communications, allowed there are faults in the Pulitzer process but contended that it is "much better than I would have ever imagined" and "is largely free of lobbying pressure or horse-trading and is marked by a great deal of integrity."

Discussions by the 18-member board are conducted at a "high intellectual level, and there really is a concerted effort to choose the best," he added.

Risser said there is a "surprising lack" of outside pressure, which, he speculated, might be owing to the fact that either editors, publishers and candidates are highly principled or that "they're smart enough to realize that lobbying or putting pressure on a board member is likely to be counterproductive."

Still, the speaker noted, around the first of the year, he "mysteriously" began receiving in the mail unsolicited reprints of stories or series from various newspapers - "handsome reprints with lots of color and ink that doesn't come off in my fingers."

Although the mailings have no effect on his decisions, Risser stated, they are not entirely wasted. He picked some as teaching aids in his courses.

Risser, former Washington bureau chief for the Des Moines Register, observed that complaints about the Pulitzer procedure usually arise from the few times the recommendations by the Pulitzer jury are rejected by the board, or the so-called "wrong" person becomes honored.

Sitting beside Risser was a jury member, historian David Kennedy, who bore witness to Risser's statement. In 1994, the history jury, of which Kennedy was a member, submitted three recommendations that were all turned down by the board. Kennedy, who also teaches at Stanford, said he was outraged by the decision, particularly in view of the fact that the board was primarily composed of editors and publishers with no credentials in history.

That happens sometimes, Risser conceded, pointing out that the board also has rejected jury submissions in newspaper categories. In 1993, he recalled, the board awarded no prize in editorial writing "because it simply found that ... the three finalists not to be of sufficient merit to warrant a prize. …

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