The September Brill's Content story about fairness and thoroughness in the Pulitzer Prize process included two examples in which the writer himself was neither fair nor thorough.
More phone calls would have helped.
Seth Mnookin paints -- or maybe tars -- with a broad brush.
In the September issue of Brill's Content, Mr. Mnookin lit into the process by which Pulitzer Prizes are awarded to newspapers. The process "is plagued by questions of fairness and accuracy -- and no one's doing anything about it," part of the headline read.
There's no question the Pulitzer board has made an atrocious mistake or two in handing out its hundreds of journalism awards since 1917. There's no question, either, that the integrity of the system relies in large measure on the honesty and goodwill of the newspapers that submit entries and the instincts and intuition of the 17 journalists and academics who are voting members of the board. And there's no question that, sometimes, honesty and intuition aren't enough.
That was the theme of Mr. Mnookin's story, and it was a legitimate theme.
But two of the examples Mr. Mnookin cited to prove his point don't prove it. In fact, they raise questions about Mr. Mnookin's own fairness and accuracy -- or at least the thoroughness of his reporting. And a promotional piece Brill's Content sent out three years ago to prepare for the launch of the magazine raises a more serious question: Was Mr. Mnookin's story shaped to fit the preconceived notions of this magazine's founders?
First things first.
(Before that, though, a disclosure. I served on the Pulitzer board from 1983 to 1992 and was chairman of it in that final year. In 1997, I won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. So I am inclined to be defensive about the boards of the 1980s and appreciative of the boards of the 1990s.)
Back to Mr. Mnookin and the two examples.
In one example, he takes the Pulitzer board to task for the gentle way it dealt with a series produced by Sam Roe of the Toledo, Ohio, Blade. The series was about the use of beryllium in the production of nuclear bombs, and it was harsh on a company called Brush Wellman Inc., a manufacturer with a large facility in neighboring Elmore, Ohio.
Brush Wellman, anticipating that The Blade would enter the series for a Pulitzer Prize, sent a long letter outlining its complaints about the articles to Seymour Topping, who administers the prizes. The company also posted on its website its response to the points in the Blade story.
Mr. Mnookin takes Mr. Topping to task for not passing the Brush Wellman complaint along to the Pulitzer jury. And Mr. Mnookin characterizes the Brush Wellman Web posting as a "point-by-point refutation" of the story.
There are three problems with this. The first problem: "Refutation" is a loaded word. It means to demolish an argument by producing evidence of the truth. Mr. Mnookin did not investigate the accuracy of the Blade series. His use of "refutation" -- and his editors' approval of that word -- implies that he believes that Brush Wellman was right and The Blade was wrong. It was, at best, a careless choice of words, at worst an editorial comment that maligned the work of a newspaper.
The second, and worse, problem: Mr. Mnookin never called anyone at The Blade for comment. If he had called Ron Royhab, the executive editor, Mr. Royhab would have said what he said in a strong letter to me: "1. Since The Blade series was published 17 months ago, neither Brush Wellman nor anyone else has identified a single factual error in the entire Blade series. 2. Neither Brush Wellman nor anyone else has requested a retraction or correction of any fact published in the series. 3. No legal claims of any kind have been filed or threatened against The Blade. Ohio's statute of limitations for libel has expired." Mr. Royhab also wrote: "We would like to know the basis on which Brill's Content published the assertion that Brush Wellman has refuted -- that is, 'proved to be false or erroneous' -- even a single sentence in our story." Thomas Clare, a Washington lawyer who represents Brush Wellman, says he "absolutely, completely" disputes the first two of Mr. Royhab's assertions, but that's not the issue here. The point is that Mr. Royhab's position should have been included in the story.
The third, and worst, problem: Mr. Topping says he did indeed pass along the file to the Pulitzer board as soon as Brush Wellman allowed him to -- and before the board met to award the prizes this spring. Mr. Topping says that shortly before the Pulitzer screening jury met, Brush Wellman sent him "a very large report" complaining about the Blade series. But he says -- and Brush Wellman confirms -- "that the report was sent to me under terms that it be confidential." He says he told the company he needed to show the complaint to Blade editors for their comments, and he says it was "some weeks" before he received that okay. (Lawyer Clare says the "confidential" tag was on a routine fax cover sheet. He says that he sent the material to Mr. Topping by Federal Express on February 23, that Mr. Topping called him and received permission to distribute the material on March 3, and that he sent Mr. Topping a letter confirming that phone conversation on March 9.) The seven-person screening jury met in New York for three days starting February 28, and Mr. Topping says that when he realized the jury might select the Blade series as one of the three finalists, he summarized the complaint to its members. The jury, thus informed, included the series among the three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.
Juries usually select the finalists four to six weeks before the Pulitzer board meets, and all of the articles are then shipped to board members. They read them at their leisure at home or at work and then go to New York for two days to deliberate and debate and discuss before selecting the winners. Mr. Topping says that he "presented the full report [from Brush Wellman] to the board and discussed its contents" when the board met on April 6 and April 7. Mr. Topping notes that he himself thought that the series "was a very good one…[that it] surfaced a very bad situation." But for one reason or another, the board gave the prize to The Associated Press for its (also controversial) series on the No Gun Ri massacre during the Korean War.
All of this -- Mr. Mnookin's failure to call The Blade, The Blade's response, and Mr. Topping's elaboration on why the complaint was not immediately sent to the jury and his disclosure that it was presented to the full board -- puts a decidedly different cast on Mr. Mnookin's example. Indeed, it pretty much demolishes its usefulness in proving Mr. Mnookin's central assertion about the Pulitzer process. And, of course, it proves once again that there is more than one side to every story and that a reporter can never make too many phone calls.
The second example also centers on a phone call not made -- and, thus, an impression not valid. Coincidentally, it's also about the latest prize for investigative reporting and involves the third finalist, a series about pharmaceutical companies that was coauthored by Gina Kolata and Kurt Eichenwald of The New York Times. Mr. Mnookin points out, correctly, that the Pulitzer guideline "stipulates only that newspapers must include challenges to the accuracy of the specific entry in question…[and] that when newspapers submit entries by journalists about whom past questions have been raised, the newspapers are not required to notify the Pulitzer board of the writer's history."
Using that as his launching point, Mr. Mnookin then noted some past criticism of the work of Ms. Kolata, who did not complain to this magazine, and of Mr. Eichenwald, who complained vigorously. Here's what Mr. Mnookin wrote: "And Eichenwald came under fire when he wrote a blistering page-one story in the [New York] Times about alleged evidence of a Texaco executive referring to black employees as 'f---ing niggers.' In fact, further examination of several microcassettes showed that the executive had actually said 'poor St. Nicholas.' Eichenwald was criticized in publications ranging from The New Republic to The American Spectator for everything from shoddy to biased journalism. And yet none of this year's board members who spoke to Brill's Content said they were notified of any concerns, past or present, with either Kolata's or Eichenwald's work."
That paragraph is absolutely factual -- but, as this magazine says every month in proclaiming what it stands for, accuracy of fact is not enough. "Our first principle is that anything that purports to be nonfiction should be true. Which means it should be accurate in fact and in context," the policy promises. The part about Mr. Eichenwald was about as inaccurate in context as is possible in a magazine. Mr. Eichenwald did write what this magazine says he wrote, and he was roundly criticized. But "f---ing niggers" were the words in a transcript filed with the court and were the words that virtually every listener thought he or she had heard -- and the listeners included top Texaco executives, lawyers, and viewers of Nightline and Good Morning America. Further, when the tapes ultimately were enhanced, the offensive "f---ing niggers" did not become a sympathetic "poor St. Nicholas" but rather, taken in full, the equally racist and newly anti-Semitic sentiment that "I'm still struggling with Hanukkah, and now we have Kwanzaa. I mean, I lost Christmas, poor St. Nicholas, they sh---ed all over his beard." Mr. Eichenwald reported all this the moment it became evident.
"Though Eichenwald's reporting was later questioned by some columnists, it is hard to imagine how he could have been more thorough at the time," writer Alison Frankel concluded in a 12,433-word article on the Texaco case in March 1997. (Talk about thoroughness! Twelve thousand four hundred and thirty-three words is nearly five times the length of this lengthy essay.) That article appeared in The American Lawyer, which was then owned by Steven Brill, who is the Brill of Brill's Content.
Mr. Eichenwald should be given space to vent, so here are the final three paragraphs of a two-page letter he sent to Brill's Content (a letter he ultimately declined to let run for reasons too Byzantine to get into here):
"I acknowledge that the point about me was a small one in Mr. Mnookin's article. And indeed, he informed me in a voice mail after publication that he felt no need to check his information with me because it played such a minor role. But to me, this is a new standard in journalism -- how many pejorative sentences are required until we must seek comment from those we are writing about? I had always thought the answer was one.
"Yet, while Mr. Mnookin could not be bothered to call me, he did have time, according to his article, to approach the Pulitzer board members and besmirch my reputation on the basis of his lazy, incomplete reporting. Somehow, I doubt he'll be calling them back to say that he was wrong -- all I can hope for is a correction or a tortured explanation following this letter that justifies his sloppiness.
"But there is also a bigger point here. Is Brill's Content advocating that reporters subjected at any point in their careers to criticism -- no matter how irrelevant, inaccurate or wrongheaded -- must submit that information to the Pulitzer committees? I hope not. I cannot think of a better way to reduce much of American journalism to pablum -- working to avoid offense rather than to challenge the way we think."
Again, a simple phone call or a check of the clips might have allowed Mr. Mnookin to give readers a more rounded story -- or prompted him to find a better example to prove his thesis.
And that raises the most troubling issue of all. Was that thesis based on solid reporting or on some preconceived notion of the editors or of founder Brill? They will have their say at the end of this column, and I hope it's convincing. To the outsider, the facts look pretty bad.
In the fall of 1997, almost a year before this magazine was launched, a promotional piece urged would-be subscibers to "reserve your free premiere issue now!" Below that was a mock-up of a potential cover. "Tarnished Pulitzer," it said in big type that stretched across the cover. "Back scratching, conflicts of interest, no checking for accuracy. Is this any way to run a journalism award?"
That didn't go unnoticed by Mr. Topping of the Pulitzer board. He sent a copy to board members, noting that there had been "no approach by reporters or editors of the magazine to indicate whether such a story was, in fact, scheduled." In June 1998, Mr. Topping sent board members another note. He referred to his earlier memo and noted that "since that time we have had no contact with the staff of [Brill's] Content. However, the current issue of U.S. News & World Report has an interview with [Steven] Brill in which brief mention is made of what he is said to have in mind. [Mr.] Brill told the reporter he plans a series of stories based on fact checking of Pulitzer Prize–winning stories."
Now comes Mr. Mnookin with just such a story, and Mr. Topping, for one, thinks the Brill's Content reporter "came into my office with a preconception." Of course, some preconceptions turn out to be true. There's nothing wrong with preconceptions as long as reporters and editors are willing to abandon them when the facts intervene. Still, it doesn't look good.
Even touts should rely on facts. (Speaking of facts, Mr. Mnookin added the gratuitous sentence that Pulitzer Prizes "catapult workaday hacks onto management tracks." There were no names, no examples, no specifics.)
So was Mr. Mnookin's story right or wrong? Both, probably. Mr. Eichenwald, despite being labeled with a sin he didn't commit and being lumped with sinners he doesn't approve of, thinks Mr. Mnookin's "story was right -- but [in its own reporting] it reinforced the problem that we're sloppy, we repeat other people's errors, we don't let the facts get in the way sometimes." Mr. Topping, on the other hand, says, "I didn't like it. I thought it was in many ways an unfair story….I thought there were so many holes in it. So many questions and so many holes in it. I thought at first of writing something, [but I concluded it's] such a bad story it's not worthy of us to reply."
In fact, it was not a bad story. It was a strong story with some weak reporting, a good story with some bad examples. (And some good ones. One long example was about The Associated Press's Korean-massacre story that relied in part on a source who had lied. The AP had its say in a letter in the last issue, and Mr. Mnookin effectively rebutted -- make that refuted -- the points made in that letter. The AP story was deeply, deeply flawed.) Some more phone calls, some more research, some more care would have produced for Brill's Content a story that was stronger and fairer -- and that might have prompted the Pulitzer board to do what it should have done decades ago: disclose the names of the finalists the moment they're chosen so that everyone knows who's in the running and critics -- competitors, sources, experts, whoever -- can make their case before rather than after the fact.
The Pulitzer process is as clean an operation as I've ever seen. It's run by honest men and women of goodwill and strong instincts. But that's not always enough to ferret out sham and shame. A little more openness would go a long way.
It would unearth the criticism before it's too late.
And it would end a month of rumors and gossip in newsrooms and saloons.
All that would solve two other problems.
The first is this: Journalists shouldn't keep secrets.
The second is this: Most can't.
SETH MNOOKIN RESPONDS
Michael Gartner points to two examples in my piece that he feels raise questions about my own "fairness and accuracy." Both of the cases deal with muddled, ongoing disputes.
Although Brush Wellman Inc. submitted dozens of pages of documents to the Pulitzer organization (regarding the Blade series), neither the jury nor the board got to examine these documents. My point in writing about this case was to illustrate that the Pulitzer juries and board are not given any context or history in which to make their decisions. I did not make a judgment as to whether the newspaper or Brush Wellman was correct, though this is a topic that continues to elicit pitched emotions on both sides. Instead, I wanted to illustrate how even after the subject of an investigative dispatch submitted a lengthy report disputing The Blade's work, the Pulitzer jury was not given access to this information and was instead offered a brief summation by the Pulitzer board secretary, Seymour Topping. Mr. Gartner -- who, as he points out, knows about the Pulitzer process, having served on the Pulitzer board for almost a decade -- confuses the issue here. After writing in his column, "Mr. Mnookin takes Mr. Topping to task for not passing the Brush Wellman complaint along to the Pulitzer jury," Mr. Gartner goes on to say, "Mr. Topping says he did indeed pass along the file to the Pulitzer board [italics added] as soon as Brush Wellman allowed him to -- and before the board met to award the prizes this spring." As Mr. Gartner knows, the Pulitzer juries and the Pulitzer board are two different things: The juries are the people that are supposed to examine stories in depth and present their selections to the board; the board then chooses the winners. Furthermore, Mr. Topping's version of the chronology of these events to Mr. Gartner differs from what Mr. Topping told me on two separate occasions. Whatever the case, Mr. Gartner again muddies the waters by writing that "Topping says that he 'presented the full report…to the board [italics added] and discussed its contents.'" Mr. Topping told me he had summarized the report for the board. Mr. Gartner's own column quotes Mr. Topping's personal views on The Blade's series: It "was a very good one" and it "surfaced a very bad situation." If I were representing Brush Wellman, Seymour Topping is not the man I would want summarizing my concerns. Nothing Mr. Gartner writes changes my view that Brush Wellman's concerns were either ignored or summarily dismissed.
On one point, I agree with Mr. Gartner. Although my Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary lists "to deny the truth or accuracy of" as a definition for "refute," it is not the first definition. "Refutation" is a loaded word, and was a poor choice in this instance. I apologize.
As for Mr. Eichenwald, some commentators continue to believe that he was guilty of bias or overzealousness; some believe that he did everything a good reporter should do when working on a hard-hitting story. Indeed, the contretemps in this column shows how this dispute continues; the point I was making is that nowhere in the Pulitzer process were people made aware of this history. (An aside: Mr. Eichenwald is not accurate when he writes that I left him a voice message saying I didn't call him because he played such a minor role in my story. I told him, in several voice messages, that I had not called because I had no interest in getting in the middle of his feud over his articles; instead I wanted to illustrate how these back histories were routinely overlooked. And although Mr. Gartner quotes liberally from Eichenwald's letter and writes that Eichenwald "ultimately" refused to let us run his letter "for reasons too Byzantine to get into here," the reason is actually quite simple: Eichenwald would not let us run his letter unless he had a chance to vet my response.) Mr. Gartner seems to believe that there is no further disagreement over Mr. Eichenwald's reporting in the Texaco case. That is simply false. Mr. Gartner writes that "a simple phone call or a check of the clips might have allowed Mr. Mnookin to give readers a more rounded story." The implication here is that I was unaware of the March 1997 American Lawyer article on the Texaco case. In fact, I was aware of that article. As I told Mr. Gartner in a telephone conversation, I read that article and discussed it with my editors. That article serves only to illustrate that there are different points of view about this case.
In regard to the Eichenwald and Blade passages, Mr. Gartner and I disagree about both the need for and appropriateness of a phone call. In recounting the fact that there had been either a controversy about or an objection to an author or article under consideration, I was not taking sides -- indeed, I did not want to take sides -- but was illustrating how the Pulitzer board does not present these disputes to juries to consider. For this reason, I didn't call a number of the historical figures I dealt with in my article: Patricia Smith, the reporters behind a Lawrence [Kansas] Eagle-Tribune Pulitzer Prize, or Mr. Eichenwald's writing partner, Gina Kolata. I was writing not about ongoing journalistic feuds but about the Pulitzer Prize process. However, I do agree that I should have made my implicit neutrality more explicit. Since the history in both cases is fraught, this neutrality should have been highlighted more.
Finally, to address the question of how this story came about, I initially proposed a piece on Mark Schoofs, a Village Voice reporter who had won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. That idea then evolved, over a series of discussions with my editors, including Steven Brill, into a larger story about the Pulitzers. I had no knowledge of previous promotional material dealing with the Pulitzer Prizes. I would have told Mr. Gartner this had he asked.
Since Mr. Gartner served for a decade on the Pulitzer board and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997, perhaps it is not surprising that he defends the process so vigorously, writing, "The Pulitzer process is as clean an operation as I've ever seen. It's run by honest men and women of goodwill and strong instincts." Fine. I don't think, nor do I ever imply, that the Pulitzer process is run by bad-willed crooks with weak instincts. I do write about how flawed the process is. And to rip down this argument, Mr. Gartner takes two minor, supplementary examples -- two examples that total 416 words in a 6,573-word story -- and uses those to cast aspersions on the entire piece. Indeed, I find it ironic that Mr. Gartner begins his column with the sentence "Seth Mnookin paints -- or maybe tars -- with a broad brush." Mr. Gartner never addresses two of my main points -- that the Pulitzer process is rushed and that conflicts of interest abound -- and yet feels comfortable writing "Well, maybe" in response to a rhetorical question as to whether my story delivers what it promises in a headline.
Michael Gartner assumes I was assigned to do a hatchet job. In response, he gives Seymour Topping -- the man who oversaw the Pulitzer board that awarded Mr. Gartner his own prize -- an opportunity to belittle my piece and to lament that he would have written a letter but concluded that my piece was "such a bad story it's not worthy of us to reply." This is a cop-out. If Topping has problems with my story -- indeed, if there is a single factual inaccuracy or misrepresentation -- he should say so.
STEVEN BRILL RESPONDS
Michael Gartner's and Seymour Topping's reactions to our piece about the Pulitzers warmed my heart. For it reminded me of why I started this magazine. Imagine how these two journalists and every other journalist would react if they heard about the tire industry meeting annually to give awards for the safest tires and found that the awards were handed out 1) by executives at the companies that make the tires and 2) without anyone ever testing the tires for safety -- whereupon the winners touted the awards with all kinds of self-congratulatory advertising. Or imagine the journalists' reaction if awards were given for medical breakthroughs that cured cancer by a group that never checked to see if the cures actually cured anything. Then imagine if in each case those involved simply assured some skeptical reporter asking about the awards that "those who decide on the awards are fair, honest people."
I will bet Michael Gartner ten tickets to his minor-league baseball team's opening day next spring that every single reader of ours who is not a journalist understands this, whereas lots of journalists won't. It's exactly the way lots of lawyers -- to take another example of a group seen by outsiders as self-protective and unaccountable -- don't get it when the public complains about them.
The point of our article was simple and indisputable -- so simple, in fact, that, yes, it made for a logical and easily understood example of stories Brill's Content would tackle that I could cite in the materials we used before launching the magazine. And that point is that an award that doesn't focus on any issues related to the values inherent in the award itself -- accuracy and fairness -- is just not a credible award and, in fact, is emblematic of the arrogance and lack of accountability of those who are responsible for it. Seth's examples, as he explains, were meant only to illustrate the controversies the jury doesn't know about or ignores, not to take sides in those controversies.
Michael's suggested solution to the problem -- publicizing the finalists in order to elicit comments from those who might be critical of the articles -- is an excellent idea, as would be sending a questionnaire to the main subjects of any article submitted for an award (an idea I suggested in a column here a year ago). But I'll bet Mr. Topping will oppose both suggestions, and I hope that before responding below to our responses, Michael will ask him about that and include his reaction in that response.
MICHAEL GARTNER RESPONDS
I have read the responses and reread my column. Neither response is persuasive. I rest my case.
Beyond that, I accept Steven's bet. His check, for $90, should be made payable to the Iowa Cubs. Opening day is April 13.
is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and lawyer who has edited papers large and small and headed NBC News.
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