The Pulitzer Prizes will emerge this week, a richly nourishing tradition of journalism

April 12, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

This Tuesday, at 3 p.m. at Columbia University, the annual Pulitzer Prizes will be announced. For a couple of dozen people all around America, there will occur a moment of singular ecstasy.

There are 14 prizes in individual categories of journalism, including a gold medal for public service by a newspaper. There are also prizes for fiction, history, poetry, biography or autobiography, general non-fiction, drama and music.

There are more than a dozen other national prizes in journalism, and hundreds of local ones, but none is remotely as coveted or as honored as the Pulitzers. Among hundreds for arts and letters, none is more esteemed except the Nobel Prize.

Joseph Pulitzer started it with a $500,000 bequest, to which much has since been added. The awards began in 1917, with five designated prizes, of which only two were given.

Pulitzer was an immensely successful mass-circulation newspaper publisher. He scandalized his more conventional peers with sensationalistic newspapering in head-to-head competition with William Randolph Hearst. Yet he established an institution that has consistently sought to set and sustain the highest standards of integrity, diligence and courage in journalism - and often succeeded.

The awards are chosen by an 18-member, self-perpetuating board that screens the recommendations of category juries. The board is predominantly composed of journalists, intentionally, so the prizes - including those in arts and letters - are awarded from a popular, not an academic, vantage point.

Chapter and verse

Anyone interested in the phenomenon would do well to start with The Pulitzer Prize Story" and "The Pulitzer Prize Story II: 1959-1980," (Columbia University Press, 375 pages, $53) edited and commented upon by John Hohenberg, administrator of the program from 1954 to 1976. Both are remarkable anthologies.

Reading through much of them in the last week or two, I was struck by the amazing clarity of the bulk of the articles. Many seemed immediate, alive.

Of course, I had read many of the later articles - in some cases before they had been set in type, many on the day of publication. There was work by many comrades and a dozen or so very close friends. Reading them reminded me most not of the joy of celebrations, but of long, relentless work, courage, fierce fairness, senses of mission.

Which did I find the most moving? No contest: a piece by Merriman Smith of United Press International, datelined Washington, Nov. 23, 1963.

Smith had been in the press pool in John F. Kennedy's motorcade in Dallas. He was at the president's car before his body was removed. On the run, he dictated details to UPI from every phone he could lay his hands on. He was one of two reporters aboard Air Force One returning to Washington, turning out the first raw and frantic draft of the most poignant drama in modern American history.

I was in Washington that day, a young reporter for the Chicago Tribune. I went to Andrews Air Force Base to meet the plane. As did hundreds of others, for the next several days, I slept only when I slumped forward on a desk.

I wrote thousands of words, and struggled with conflicts between personal feeling and professional detachment. I had known John Kennedy, and had some questions about the effectivenesss of his presidency. My doubts died in Dallas.

Merriman's Pulitzer piece was a first-person narrative, from the noise of three gunshots forward, ending with the landing in Washington. It was long, for a news article, and rich in detail. But it was absolutely clean - not a word of sentimentality or a hint of self-importance.

Millions of words - possibly hundreds of millions - have since been published about that assassination. I doubt that a single other page, book or reflection speaks with greater dignity than did - and does today -that straightforward dispatch.

Ah! The poetry

In the introduction to his earlier book, published in 1959, Hohenberg quotes Joseph Pulitzer:

"What is a journalist? Not any business manager or publisher, or even proprietor. A journalist is the lookout on the bridge of the ship of state. He notes the passing sail, the little things of interest that dot the horizon in fine weather. He reports the

drifting castaway whom the ship can save. He peers through fog and storm to give warning of dangers ahead. He is not thinking of his wages or of the profits of his owners. He is there to watch over the safety and the welfare of the people who trust him."

Perfervidly purple, of course. Victorian ornamentation, a century well dead, you may argue. Icky, you could say.

But I give you a secret: Tuesday, when the announcements are made, the women and men whose names appear and hundreds who work with them will - in their private metaphors - take heart in precisely that belief of Joseph Pulitzer.

I have been blessed to have been in newsrooms 15 times, if I count right, when Pulitzer announcements have come across the wires to friends there who have earned them.

Twenty years ago, editorials I had written about police abuses of suspects and witnesses were cited as an element of an effort that earned the Philadelphia Inquirer the public service gold medal. The reporters' work was more important than mine. I watched my name cross the computer screen in my office, leaving the first wave of reaction in the newsroom to them. Then, a few minutes later, I went in. A hundred or more colleagues applauded me, a moment unlike any other in my life.

That day and each of those other 14 times, I have seen hard men and very cool women fighting not to let tears show. More than once, they've been mine.

Pub Date: 4/12/98

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