MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

The Oscars of Journalism

As far as I know, Pulitzer Prize-winners and presenters aren’t awarded gift baskets for showing up at the annual banquet saluting the best in the business of journalism … not yet, anyway. A handful of bloggers pay attention, but the ceremony isn’t televised … except, maybe, on C-SPAN … and no one in Las Vegas sets odds on the outcome. Even if it were shown on CBS, the ratings for the telecast would make those for the Tony Awards look like a packed house at the Rose Bowl, by comparison.
With few exceptions, newspaper writers and editors aren’t much more charismatic than the average CPA.
This isn’t to say, however, that the Pulitzer process is any less intriguing and potentially controversial than that of any other award-presenting body. That’s clear from all the heavy breathing occurring in and around Times Square over Manohla Dargis’ nomination by the New York Times in the criticism category. The biggest difference between such behind-the-back sniping in the newspaper dodge, and the gossiping that occurs prior to the Oscars, Emmys and Globes, is that the prospect of a Pulitzer is the only thing that keeps many journalists from mass suicide. Being named a finalist is a great honor – and it looks good on an obituary, if anyone remembers to mention it – but, too often, the reward for a journalist’s hard work, long hours and low pay begins and ends with consolation handshake and a one-line mention in Editor & Publisher.
The brass, of course, get mileage out of the awards in the form of hearty slaps on the back from their peers at the Chamber of Commerce and temporary bragging rights at conventions. Too many publishers, though, use the honor as evidence that budget cuts, staff purges and frozen salaries don’t necessarily result in reduced coverage, which is bollocks. (At the Los Angeles Times, the checks awarded to its many Pulitzer-winners two years ago had hardly cleared the bank before Tribune Co. started cutting costs.)
One multiple Pulitzer-winner told me recently that it’s become easier to win top honors in the investigative category simply because fewer papers are expending the money, time and staffing necessary to do it correctly. The odds-on favorites for any top prize are the papers that take investigative journalism seriously. These include the NYT, LAT, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, but no longer the Philly Inquirer (part of a fire sale by its new owner) and ChiTribune (for which I once toiled, and whose prestige has been eclipsed by properties in its own chain).
As the Oscar and Emmy runners-up say, though, it’s a great honor simply to be nominated for a Pulitzer. It really is.
The process requires newspapers, magazines or individuals – and, yes, reporters, columnists and photographers can nominate themselves – to submit a proscribed number of examples of work (10, at most, in the criticism category) to the Pulitzer Prize Board of Columbia University, along with $50. Nominating committees of distinguished, if hand-picked journalists narrows the entries to three, and submits them to the board, which makes the final decisions.
It is at this exact point where the Pulitzer Board begins to take on all the trappings of the Kremlin and Pentagon. The judges are allowed to do almost anything they want with the suggested finalists, including ignoring them completely and denying anyone a prize in a specific category. They also can move finalists from one category to another, or throw in a dark horse. Politics, back-scratching and personal peccadilloes have come into place often enough to have encouraged nominators to leak the names of their choice of finalists, if only so deserving candidates aren’t shafted too badly.
Typically, though, so much good work is being done out there that it’s tough to argue about the eventual winners, and controversies quickly fade. That is, until some spoilsport charges a winner with plagiarism or sheer invention of facts.
The judges in the criticism category often are cited as being among the most capricious in the whole bunch. Having been assigned the duty of collecting specimens of critical work for possible submission to the board, myself (many big papers now afford full-time awards submitters), I’ve seen “shit happen,” and understand the intrigue surrounding l’affaire Dargis. Editors, like judges, play games. The work of pals and pet projects occasionally get preference over other worthy submissions, and nominations can be withheld from employees who haven’t kissed enough editorial ass or towed the company line. I’ve known writers who have nominated themselves, fearing their bosses have lied to them about being submitted (they have), and, like Hollywood’s for-your-consideration ads, some are nominated pro forma as a condition of their contracts.
If either Tony Scott or Ben Brantley has a beef, as reported, he ought to consider sidestepping his bosses, and nominating himself … or have someone else do it for them. If one somehow managed to win, he probably could handle the ensuing hissy-fit of their editors by playing the LA Times card, and threatening to move west (that’s happened, too).
The category also is more likely to reward classical music, dance, literature and architecture critics over all others. TV criticism has garned four awards, and theater only one (rock and hip-hop writers needn’t even apply). As if to prove the rule, though, they’ll occasionally throw in a ringer, such as the LAT’s fine automotive critic Dan Neil.
Only three film critics have been so honored: Roger Ebert in 1975, Stephen Hunter in 2003 and, last year, Joe Morgenstern. Twenty-eight years passed between Ebert’s and Hunter’s, but only two between Hunter’s and Morgenstern’s. Normally, this would mean that Dargis – or any other deserving film critic – would have to wait a couple of years for her turn. Given the Times’ immense clout, however, anything is possible.

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.

Digital Nation

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon