Shadowing Mr. Pulitzer

History has it that Joseph Pulitzer was a big cheese in the formation of modern journalism’s sense of itself. There’s a view that he shaped the approach to the craft, informed the way today’s journalists think about what they do, the way Freud shaped modern thinking on human consciousness. History may be embellishing a bit.

So hyperbole aside, here’s at least two things Pulitzer did do: he left US$2-million in his will to Columbia University, which led to the creation in 1912 of one of the first training institutions for journalists in the world; and he made provisions, in the same will, for a prize honouring excellence in journalism, literature, music and drama, which led to the first Pulitzer Prize awards ceremony in 1917.

Today the Pulitzer Prize is regarded by many as the most coveted distinction in the practice (the journalism practice, that is, if not the other three), and its recipients carry it as proof that they have reached the supreme pinnacle of professional achievement. To maintain such levels of esteem, the Pulitzer Board puts a suitably serious face on the judging process, and the selection of 21 annual winners from 2,000 odd entries is presented as the result of lengthy and agonised debate amongst elder statesmen from the editor, publisher and educator fraternities. According to the official Pulitzer website, “the awards are the culmination of a year-long process that begins early in the year with the appointment of 102 distinguished judges who serve on 20 separate juries and are asked to make three nominations in each of the 21 categories.”

Of course, journalists being journalists, it doesn’t take long to find the contrary voice. Slate editor-at-large Jack Shafer, writing the day after the awarding of this year’s Pulitzers, is a nice example: “As a judge of other, lesser journalistic contests, I can tell you that it’s a good thing the winners are chosen in private rather than under the scrutiny of C-SPAN’s cameras. There’s no real science or even fairness behind the picking of winners and losers, with the prizes handed out according to a formula composed of one part log-rolling, two parts merit, three parts ‘we owe him one,’ and four parts random distribution.”

To support his case Shafer quoted two extracts from a column by Alexander Cockburn, which had appeared twenty years earlier in the Wall Street Journal: “[the Pulitzers are] a self-validating ritual whereby journalists give each other prizes and then boast to the public about them,” and, “If bankers gave themselves prizes (‘the most reckless Third-World loan of the year’) with the same abandon as journalists, you may be sure that the public ridicule would soon force them to conduct the proceedings in secret.”

It goes without saying that neither Shafer nor Cockburn ever won a Pulitzer. Still, could be they never bothered to enter.

Whatever Shafer and Cockburn’s beef, they symbolise a larger point. The Pulitzers, as the poster child of journalism awards everywhere, represent a tension that’s endemic to the entire phenomenon. The Pulitzer Board’s paranoia about credibility is worn like a flak-jacket because the shotgun cynicism of rogue journalists is inevitable.

It’s a tension faithfully repeated on the South African awards circuit. To experience it, just go to a banquet hall in the Sandton Sun, the Jo’burg Hilton or Vodaworld on the apposite night and compare the upbeat speeches of sponsors and convenors of judging panels – “you’re the best this country has to offer” – with the into-the-beer glass-recriminations of an audience bent on ego preservation – “thanks, but we aren’t for sale that cheap.”

And an added element on the local scene, an irony to sweet to ignore given the above, is the unofficial competition going on between the various judging panels and committees themselves. The trophy? Undisputed recognition as “South Africa’s Pulitzers.”

So which one is it and why do we need to know? Mondi, Vodacom, Sanlam, South African Breweries? One in one category and some others in the rest? Maybe it’s the number of local journalism awards [see table] that’s the problem. A case of quantity killing quality?

“No, all awards are good, really,” says Peter Sullivan, group editor-in-chief at Independent Newspapers and member of the Newspaper Association of South Africa. “My own belief is just that people should be aware of how long the list is, all journalists should be encouraged to apply, not only those fortunate enough to have mainstream access, but most importantly there should be a kind of ranking, a first-grade or second-grade or third-grade award. Otherwise we all become ‘award-winning journalists’.”

Denis Beckett, former convenor of judges for the Mondi Paper Magazine Awards and by anybody’s account one of South Africa’s most accomplished journalists, is typically terse on this one. “When you see ‘award-winning journalist’ next to a name, take it with a pinch of salt. To me the awards that count are the awards competed for. You must have some awards that carry a degree of credibility. There are some. America has the Pulitzers, we have the Mondi’s, I suppose.”

The “I suppose” meaning it’s not official, I suppose? If Beckett has to qualify his own opinion on the top award, then how does anyone else, or any self-appointed organisation, stand a chance at dispassionately and impartially ranking them? Maybe the issue is just this: any decision on the top award, like any decision on the top journalist entering one award, must admit to some element of subjectivity. However rigorous the judging process, you can’t discount the judges’ personal preferences. It’s consolation for the loser and ammo for attack—different judging panel, different winner.

Acknowledging this dilemma, a dilemma (again) of credibility, may not be the worst way for an award to advance its cause. Joel Netshitenzhe, CEO of the Government Communication and Information System, did it subtly enough at the launch of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Media Awards last November. “We might end up like the boxing fraternity,” he said. “If your boxer cannot win the WBC title, then establish the WBA or IBO.”

Unfortunately for Netshitenzhe, what wasn’t mentioned on the night was that the Freedom of Expression Institute had, mere days before, withdrawn as an SADC Media Awards stakeholder because of concerns on two points: the creation of an SADC “accreditation system or procedure for media practitioners”, and the requirement that competition entries only be accepted from “authorised media agencies.”

Smacks of Zimbabwe. Which brings up the question of why governmental blocs, or corporates for that matter, sponsor awards in the first place.

Beckett doesn’t see anything to sniff at in Mondi’s involvement, one of the country’s top two paper producing monopolies. “It’s the completely logical thing to do. It’s more logical than a bubblegum manufacturer.”

Sullivan, for his part, goes into the delicacies of the matter, outlining a few of the sponsors’ potential motivations. “First, it is extremely difficult to get your story or your company’s or your industry’s into the mass media, where you might think it belongs. So why not create an award – then the journalists will definitely write about it! Unfortunately, that’s wrong. Journalists are not ‘bought’ so easily, and setting parameters for the award is often difficult.

“Second, South African journalism is so poor and desperately needs upskilling, so let’s do something about it instead of just moaning. Third, South African journalists really deserve a pat on the back for being good, let’s reward them, and get some credit for our company’s social responsibility.”

But whether, a la Sullivan, the awards are inspired by “self-interest and a desire for promotion, or its opposite, pure philanthropy aimed at improving reporting skills,” the big test, a la Beckett, has got to be the calibre of journalists that enter. Sure, the R100,000 first prize on offer by Vodacom may be enough in itself to attract the cream, but what’s wrong with that? And if Mondi or Sanlam or South African Breweries can attract a similar class for a tenth of the prize because they’ve been around for longer, there’s not much wrong with that either.

Thing is, if you win, and your newsroom makes your triumph part of the next day’s news, it’s probably better to retain the scepticism that got you there in the first place. Like Shaffer says about the Pulitzers: “If another trade association gave itself awards – and despite the presence of a few academics on its board, the Pulitzer Prize Committee is a glorified newspaper trade association – would its winners get page one play? Never.”

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