The Pulitzer Prizes organization has been accused of being an exclusive club in which members give awards to each other, and the institution did nothing to dispel that notion last week by honoring the wife of a prominent board member.
Author Eliza Griswold won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America. Her husband is Steve Coll, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, which hosts the prizes, and a Pulitzer board member since 2012.
Pulitzer Prizes administrator Dana Canedy rejected the suggestion that connections matter when it comes to nabbing the 102-year-old award, considered the journalism establishment’s highest honor.
“That is utter nonsense,” Ms. Canedy said in an email. “For every Pulitzer winner with a connection to the board there are literally thousands without a board affiliation and yet somehow we never get inquiries about those.”
She also said that Mr. Coll, a two-time Pulitzer winner, was not involved this year in voting for the books. Board members vote for the winners among finalists selected by panels of jurors.
“He recused himself not only from this category but all of the books categories this year,” Ms. Canedy said.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that Amity and Prosperity would have won no matter who sat on the 18-member board, but it’s also true that the decision to honor a board member’s spouse suffered from bad timing,
A week before the prizes were announced, journalist Kiran Somvanshi created a stir for her research in The Federalist that found “a dozen publications that have predominantly won their Pulitzers during a period when a current or former editor or publisher was serving on the Pulitzer board.”
For example, the Tampa Bay Times won four of its 12 Pulitzers from 2006-14, when chairman and CEO Paul Tash served on the board. The newspaper received nothing in 2015, after he left, but won again in 2016 when former editor Neil Brown was named to the board.
There was more overlap in 2019. Among this year’s 14 journalism winners were the Associated Press, New York Times, ProPublica, and Washington Post, and all four had either an editor or columnist on the board.
Despite safeguards to ensure the integrity of the process, “questions about objectivity of the awards, which have haunted the prizes since their inception, linger to this day,” said Ms. Somvanshi in her April 4 report.
“The Pulitzers have attracted a variety of criticisms, ranging from arbitrary selection of awards to board errors,” she said. “There’s obviously room for improvement.”
Tom Kuntz, editor of RealClearInvestigations, took aim at the “apparent conflicts” in his April 11 critique of last year’s decision to award a joint prize to the Washington Post and New York Times for their Russia collusion reporting, despite its heavy reliance on anonymous sources.
He pointed to the “deeply embedded Washington Post and New York Times DNA on last year’s Pulitzer Board, a third of whose 18 members were current or former Times or Post journalists.”
“In addition, two board members, ex-Timesman Stephen Engelberg of ProPublica and Emily Ramshaw of the Texas Tribune, head nonprofit newsrooms that share coverage with the Times and the Post,” said Mr. Kuntz, an editor at the New York Times for 28 years who helped in some years prepare submissions.
Both Mr. Engelberg and Ms. Ramshaw also served on the 2019 board.
Past board members denied any bias. “There is definitely no explicit bias. I never saw any evidence of that. Is there a subconscious bias? I don’t know how,” Jim VandeHei, a former board member and co-founder of POLITICO, told the Federalist.
Fred Brown, who teaches communications ethics at the University of Denver, praised the Federalist report as a “sterling bit of research,” showing “the ethical importance of transparency throughout journalism.”
“Given that there seem to have been quite a number of examples of this potential conflict of interest, I don’t see any particular reason for singling this one out,” Mr. Brown said, referring to the prize awarded to Ms. Griswold, in an email.
Certainly the board is free to honor anyone for any reason, and Amity and Prosperity had received plenty of buzz before winning the Pulitzer.
The book was a nominee for the Helen Bernstein Book Award and finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, as well as listed as one of the Washington Post Best Books of the Year, Seattle Times Best Books of the Year, and the New York Times Notable Books of the Year, according to Macmillan Publishers.
The Pulitzer Prizes described the work as a “classic American story, grippingly told, of an Appalachian family struggling to retain its middle class status in the shadow of destruction wreaked by corporate fracking.”
The praise hasn’t been unanimous. The author’s relationship to Mr. Coll provided fodder to the industry-funded group Energy in Depth, which skewered the book last year in a fact-check and renewed the criticism after the Pulitzer win.
Energy in Depth’s Nicole Jacobs pointed out that the organization is “housed by the Columbia School of Journalism, where Ms. Griswold’s husband just so happens to be the residing dean,” in her Thursday post, “2019 Pulitzer Prize Goes to an Inaccurate Anti-Fracking Book.”
There are 21 Pulitzer Prize categories under two headings—Journalism and Letters, Drama & Music—in addition to Special Citations. Winners receive a $15,000 prize and a certificate.