They put your stuff in the paper ...


April 16, 2000|By C. Fraser Smith

PULITZER time always quickens the blood in American newsrooms. Any reporter who says he doesn't want to win one is on a different moral plane than most.

And, with some important exceptions, the fever to win what is sometimes called the PP or the Big P -- meaning Pulitzer Prize -- is a healthy thing.

If a paper has contenders in the annual contest, it probably has a healthy quotient of teamwork, a clear mission, talented people at every level of the operation and some good opportunities to serve its community.

The prizes confer distinction on the best work done in any given year -- an important thing for the public as well as for the press.

When The Sun's Lisa Pollak won the prize for feature writing several years ago, I had not read her winning effort, a profile of John Hirschbeck, the umpire who was on the receiving end of Roberto Alomar's 1996 home plate outburst of spitting.

Mr. Alomar subsequently suggested that the umpire's temperament had changed when severe illness struck his family. Mr. Hirschbeck was incensed.

The Sun was intrigued. Ms. Pollak spent weeks with the Hirschbecks and wrote a wonderfully sensitive article about a family dealing with a degenerative nerve disease that took the life of one son and was threatening another.

I have to admit I missed the story when it was first published. I was tired of the whole subject. So, when the work won the PP, I went back to it.

I thought then -- and hope now -- that prizes are a way of highlighting important work that distinguishes our profession and puts it in front of all those harried readers who might have missed it.

The press has too many moments of embarrassment, too little support, so when it does something insightful, something soulful, people should know. They should know the Hirschbeck story, to be sure, and they should recognize the smarts and humanity that brought it to them.

This year's Pulitzer entries from The Sun were worthy, too. Some of the work highlighted ill-treatment of young criminals; depredations against gullible home buyers; and the agonies of lead poisoned children in Baltimore. The prize committee chose others.

Sometimes grousing greets these moments: mutterings about "politics," about some big deal newspaper's "turn," something else that influenced the judges' decisions. More profitably, practitioners try to learn what might have elevated their work into the realm of winner.

I know of no resentment in any newspaper about any of this year's winners, though there may have been some somewhere. Most people are capable of putting their own interests aside to admire the work of their colleagues elsewhere.

I do know that many Sun reporters and editors were deeply impressed by the work of Katherine Boo of the Washington Post, who "mapped the misery and neglect of hundreds of mentally retarded District of Columbia residents." Some of the best journalism many of us had seen for years -- reported down to its last gripping detail and written with an unpredictably fresh, narrative style. She and the Post won in the public service category.

Now, anyone who didn't see the story when it first ran in the Post will have a second opportunity -- an infinite number of opportunities, actually, since it can be found on the Post's Internet site.

I do think prizes can be over-emphasized. I also think the committee can be drawn too quickly to the "gotcha" -- the outrageous, hand-in-cookie-jar expose, missing the trend story that spots a development before it contains a smoking gun. Sometimes an important finding, one with great importance lacks immediate dramatic impact and doesn't become a competitor. Am I talking about something I did? Maybe. But, I also know my work was flawed -- and the best of the business can't have mistakes.

As for the general issue of emphasis, someone has to decide what merits the highest praise, and the Pulitzer boards are composed of the best editors in the business. So we bow to their judgment -- usually pretty sound.

Ultimately, I think, an old colleague of mine had the right perspective. In the midst of one year's perfervid waiting for the results -- or after we'd lost again -- he looked at me and said: "You know the prize you get?" I looked back, not knowing what he meant.

"The prize you get is they put your stuff in the paper."

Some group of editors, workaday professionals with high standards -- anxious to do their jobs well -- thought your story was good enough (with a few adjustments, surely) to be printed in the Jersey Journal, the Providence Journal or The Baltimore Sun for hundreds of thousands to read.

It's a prize worth having, worth savoring, and one you can earn every day.

C. Fraser Smith writes editorials for The Sun from Howard County.

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