Death to the Pulitzers

Maui Time | April 15, 2013
It's a beautiful day in New York, and I presume in a lot of other places across America. But for thousands of journalists, it is a miserable time. We are on tender hooks awaiting tomorrow's announcement by Columbia University regarding who won this year's Pulitzer prizes.

You might think of the Pulitzer Prize is an honor, a great reward for a job well done, the anatomy of a journalist's career. And of course, that's what our moms and dads think. In reality, the Pulitzer Prize exists to make us all miserable.

The truth is, journalism would be much better off if the Pulitzer and all prizes simply ceased to exist. The worst aspect about it is the fact that it transforms everybody except one – or three, if you include the finalists – practitioner of a given category into a loser. It's really no different than the high school homecoming dance; that guy is handsome, that girl is beautiful, and obviously you are not. Or anyway, you're not as handsome or beautiful. And worst of all, all of your classmates have validated that decision by voting for it.

In any given category, whether it's biography or criticism or editorial cartooning, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of people creating brilliant work every single day. But only one will win the Pulitzer Prize in each category. It's shitty.

And that's assuming that there is a way to judge the handsomest or prettiest homecoming king or queen in any kind of objective way. Often the people on the committee to elect these things choose their friends. And even if they can avoid that, parochial tastes always come into it.

The Pulitzer Prize and other awards in journalism and in other fields, of course, are no different. You know that. Over the years, as an editorial cartoonist, I have spoken to many people who have been on the committee the judges the editorial cartooning category, the small group of editors, cartoonists, and academics who are tasked with picking the three finalists that are then sent up to the main committee, which can then decide which of the finalists will get a prize, to not awarded in that category at all, or, as in the year that I was a finalist, pick someone else entirely, someone who was not one of the finalists.

I've heard some amazing stories. One year, when I filed comics journalism daily by satellite phone from Afghanistan, one of the members of the committee dismissed my entry because it was vertical. Editorial cartoons, apparently, are supposed to be horizontal. Another year, the year that I was a finalist, the reason that the main committee decided to snub me personally – and I did hear that it was personal – was because I didn't drop in the same exact drawing style as most other editorial cartoonists. I have heard stories of drinking buddies being awarded Pulitzer prizes, plagiarists getting Pulitzer prizes after their plagiarism was known, and worst of all, that the methodology of selection almost guarantees middlebrow results. You'd expect to see a "12 angry men"-throwdown from time to time over who should win these things, but that's not at all how it is. In fact, everybody's eager to kick off to the free open bar at the end of the day, and no one wants to spoil the mood by getting into a fight over who should have won their category. So instead, everyone's really collegial. The results tend to be three people that everyone can agree upon, not the best of the best. And you can really see the results. If you look at the list of Pulitzer winners in any given category over the years, you'll certainly see some deserving names, some of the top practitioners in the field, but you also see a lot of people whose work is mediocre, and some that are downright embarrassing. I personally think of the American editorial cartoonists who want during World War II for editorial cartoons that were – yes, really – sympathetic to Hitler and the Nazis. What the hell were these guys thinking?

But even if it were possible to objectively decide who does the best novel or play or poetry of the year – and obviously it isn't – there's something incredibly depressing about an event that stands to disappoint so many people year after year after year. The results matter, of course, because the public and employers care about such things, and it's possible to use an award or prize is a way to promote your career. I've won more than my fair share of awards, and they have certainly helped me. But the truth is that every cartoonist and every other creative person rights or draws their own Pulitzer prize every single day, when they start out with a blank piece of paper and then decide what goes on it. We are all going to be judged by our body of work. There are brilliant cartoonists and other creators who never received prizes; and then there's of course the Nazi guy.

So to any journalists or anyone else fretting over tomorrow's announcements at 3 PM Eastern time tomorrow, try to remember a few things. First, you're probably not going to win. Second, if you do win, you probably don't deserve it.

Third, there is something seriously wrong with the kind of good fortune that makes all of your best friends and colleagues miserable. So to you winners out there tomorrow, send your favorite losers a bottle of champagne. They deserve it more than you. They certainly need it more.

Maui Time

Maui Time Weekly provides insightful analysis and in depth reporting. We believe some issues are so important they require thoughtful consideration. We are not a “paper of record”—a daily journal of government meetings, ribbon-cuttings and corporate announcements. We decide what’s...
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