Journalists are the most craven recognition freaks on the planet. We make our mistakes in public because we want our innermost thoughts pasted on the refrigerator of American consciousness.
And then there is always the slim, but exquisite, possibility that there may be a lovely prize down the road—readers are just one more externality on the way to the judging panels. But recognition can be elusive. Right around Pulitzer time every year, the same refrain bounces around every newsroom: Prizes don’t mean jack. Those juries are all politics. The best stuff never gets picked. After all, how could they be fair if they didn’t choose us?
Unless they win. After a long dry spell in which the Pulitzer Prize process was the subject of much internal keening, the Washington Post came up gold-plated in this year’s sweepstakes. Last Monday, the Post landed the public service award for a massive series on D.C. police shootings that revealed that local cops had grown reckless enough to make Wyatt Earp seem gun-shy.
They deserve it. The series had the tang of a Pulitzer when it ran. It had data: D.C. cops shot and killed more than twice as many people as cops in other similarly-sized cities. It had color: An off-duty D.C. cop interrupted his fishing long enough to shoot another guy downriver. And it had implications: The combination of undertrained early-’90s recruits and the adoption of the hair-trigger Glock 9 mm handgun made for a bloody coincidence.
Best of all, it had impact: The Justice Department agreed to investigate D.C. police shootings, and Police Chief Charles Ramsey ordered additional firearms training for all of the department’s 3,500 members. The “Deadly Force” team managed to bring order out of a chaotic set of numbers and draw a bulletproof conclusion that city and police officials could not ignore.
A gold medal for “meritorious public service” will soon arrive at the paper. The last time the paper took delivery on that kind of hardware was in 1973, for its Watergate reporting. Post Editor Leonard Downie was serving as deputy Metro editor at the time. Even though publisher Donald Graham is a proud veteran of D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department, Downie’s happy to win one for a story about lawless lawmen.
“We’re very proud of this particular award because it brought about change in the community, and I think that’s the highest calling for a newsperson. There were many, many people here involved, and I think they produced a series of enormously high quality,” says Downie.
Reporters Jeff Leen, Sari Horwitz, and David Jackson, along with database savants Jo Craven and Ira Chinoy, share credit. The project was overseen by Rick Atkinson. The award was especially sweet for Leen, who came to the Post in 1997 after having been nominated 12 times while at the Miami Herald.
“I’m very happy for the Post as a newspaper, because they put their chips and resources into this project and trusted us to turn this into something,” says Leen.
Leen has since been promoted to investigative editor, and Chinoy will remain as head of computer-assisted reporting. But the rest of the team will no longer be doing investigative work at the Post. Jackson returned to the Chicago Tribune after a short tour at the Post. Craven, unimpressed with her next posting in the Manassas bureau, will become a journalism teacher at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Project editor Atkinson has left the paper to write a tidy three-volume history of World War II. And Horwitz is back on Metro, covering poverty issues.
“It’s a bit sad that the team has been dismantled so quickly, but that’s usually the case when you get a big group together,” says Leen.
The Post had six Pulitzer finalists, including the winner—a record for the paper and a vast improvement over recent trips down the Pulitzers’ vanity catwalk. You’d have to go back to 1995 to find a winner on the newswriting side: Leon Dash’s still resonant series on drug addict Rosa Lee Cunningham. The paper contended in a surprisingly broad range of categories given its generally narrow bandwidth of coverage. Other Post finalists included: Barton Gellman, for a story about U.N. weapons inspection teams in Iraq who did a little spying on the side (speaking of spying, part of that story first ran in the Village Voice); David Hoffman, for a series on Russia’s Cold War legacy; Eric L. Wee, for a profile of an obsessive postcard collector; and editorialist Fred Hiatt, for his opinion pieces on human rights around the world.
And then there’s versatile Style writer Henry Allen, a most deserving, yet still waiting, bridesmaid. Where’s the justice? Monica Lewinsky brought home prizes in three categories—as comic template for Seattle Post-Intelligencer cartoonist David Horsey, as photographic target for AP, and as pornographic subject for New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd—but the odds weren’t with Allen. He only wrote 15 stories last year, and Monica, well, she generated a few more than that. Allen—who has been nominated by his paper myriad times and made it to the finals twice—will have a tough time getting by the annual gathering of journalistic stiffs who seem intent on viewing all entries through the monocle of convention.
Allen was nominated this year in the criticism category for his reviews of photography and painting exhibitions, but he defies categorization, which is part of the reason he may still be waiting at the altar long after they blow out the candles. This year, the Pulitzer board reversed a decision by the criticism committee and awarded the Chicago Tribune’s Blair Kamin the criticism prize for his series on Chicago lakefront development, even though the committee had moved his work to the beat-reporting category. Allen was reportedly the clear favorite before the switch was made, but he was able to put his near-miss in context.
“Hey, every time you walk out in the newsroom, you get shit for working in Style. The world is still not used to this kind of journalism….Our weirdness keeps us from getting rewarded. And my stuff looks particularly strange,” he says. “I’m not criticizing. I think they are wonderful awards that reward good work…[but] if you are going to have Brahmins and mandarins deciding this stuff, they aren’t going to pick my stuff. Mandarins don’t do gonzo.”
Allen does, and he’s no tin-horn Tom Wolfe, either. His prose echos with the bongo of the beatnik, a rat-a-tat cadence that can be very punishing when typed by the wrong hands. He’s the only writer working in English who can use “aurelianic” and “frat boys” in the same clause without getting laughed out of the room. Listen to a couple of Allen’s ledes that appeared in the seriously-in-love-with-seriousness Post in the past year:
Who could have imagined ice in Macondo, a mud hut village beneath a sun like the shrunken head of an angry god—a god who could hammer on you till you staggered through the jungle like a lost missionary shrieking chapters of Revelation?”
The picture works, or it doesn’t work. Back then in America, when there were 48 stars on the flag and shabbiness still came cheap, I learned to look for motels that had a circle of rocks out front, painted white like some sort of Stonehenge signal to Druids of funkiness like me.
Florid? His ledes have more bouquets than a Mafia don’s funeral. Overwritten? Twelve monkeys couldn’t kick up this much racket. But it’s astonishing stuff, the kind of writing that makes you leave the morning coffee untouched. Allen’s probably not going to get a Pulitzer, but he deserves some kind of goddamn medal for arguing all of those wacked-out tales past his editors.
The Wonk Baton For the past month, Washington Monthly editor and publisher Charles Peters has been busy with the start-up of something called “Understanding Government,” a boutique foundation dedicated to fostering “lively reports” about “what goes on inside government’s executive agencies” through small grants for magazine articles and a book. Writer Nicholas Lemann has guest-edited the Monthly in his absence, leading to speculation that Peters will loosen his grip on the wheel of the magazine he invented.
The Monthly’s neoliberal inventions of three decades ago are convention today, but the price of victory has been dear: There’s no edge or mileage left in ideas that now preoccupy the mushy middle. Peters indicates that sometime in the next 18 months, a combo editorship involving Lemann and Monthly alum James Fallows will look for new policy frontiers. “I still love running the Monthly, but I want to take advantage of the fact that there are good people available and interested in seeing it prosper,” says Peters. Lemann says he’s a lifer at the Monthly, even though he plans to continue to live in New York. “Essentially, I would like to be involved in the magazine for the rest of my life, but I would not want to be the day-to-day editor.” Lemann is working to put together a board and funding that would oversee the magazine and appoint a young editor to a three- to five-year term.
Another associate of the magazine has doubts whether Peters is ready to go on to next: “This would be a great time, because Nick [Lemann] is prepared to do something with the magazine and Charlie [Peters] has this other project to work on, but I doubt when it comes down to it if Charlie can really let go.”
National Velvet Hammer Jackson Diehl, recently appointed assistant managing editor for the national desk at the Post, is making himself at home by doing some early spring cleaning. The national desk has historically been the ultimate reward for industrious and well-behaved Posties, a place that once they clawed their way into, they couldn’t be dynamited out of.
That was before Kid Dynamite: “We have more reporters on National than are officially authorized, and a good way to solve that is to have some movement into the rest of the paper. There is nothing punitive about it, although some people find it upsetting…and that’s normal,” says Diehl.
People on National aren’t jumping out of windows—but they are staying away from them just in case someone feels like pushing. The Post used to solve problems by ignoring them, drawing up huge wiring diagrams that left people out of the loop without anyone’s ever actually telling them. No more. When Diehl inherited more than his share of slots when he took over his new job, he decided to make real, actual cuts. People who have been told that they will be leaving the plush carpet of National reportedly include: Tom Kenworthy, Denver correspondent, who will be closing the bureau and coming back to Washington in a year for an assignment that has yet to be determined; Barbara Vobejda, welfare and social issues reporter, who will be moving to projects; Judy Havemann, welfare and health-care reporter, will reportedly be going to work as a recruiter for the paper; Roberto Suro, Justice Department reporter, next assignment to be determined; and Bill McAllister, National general assignment reporter, undetermined as well. They are all considered to be hard-working contributors, and no one is quite sure how they ended up on the list. In a newsroom speech to the National staff, Diehl reportedly told the rest of the crew that no one has a sinecure and that he would feel free to move people out as he deemed necessary.
Kenworthy says he has no problem with the decision.
“We have new leadership on the National staff. What they are doing—and I think it’s appropriate—is deciding what the priorities are and how resources should be allocated. That’s what they are paid to do,” he says.
Another national desk reporter is of two minds.
“National isn’t going where it is supposed to go. It’s moribund, and [Diehl] needed to make changes. But under [previous national desk editor] Karen [DeYoung], there was a premium placed on solid, workmanlike prose and good reporting. Doing something remarkable was considered almost a liability. These people carried out those commands and embraced those values, and now they are not being given a chance to get with a new program,” the staffer says.
TRB’s New Haircut The New Republic redesign hits desks all over town this week. People will hate it.
The New Republic isn’t supposed to be new, after all. It’s supposed to be dowdy and taciturn to keep the wonks from revolting, but that isn’t exactly the kind of look that has advertisers pulling their ads from Vanity Fair and handing them to Marty Peretz. At a time when George—a magazine that has spent millions of Joe Kennedy’s ill-gotten dollars trying to make politics seem sexy—finds any lame excuse it can to get T&A on its cover, is it really so unforgivable that the New Republic wants to try on a new outfit?
Of course, there’s nothing transgressive in the new look. It looks a bit like the redesigned Mother Jones on the cover (another brainiac journal that’s trying to wriggle of the pigeonhole) and cops those cute, short cutlines from the Economist. The front is preoccupied by a pretty new flag, so there’s not much room for type. Still, that didn’t stop the editors from jamming a hail of blurbs on the cover to let the reader know that the “Special Double Issue” is really something special. It’s a mess, but it won’t last.
“That’s an artifact of the huge issue. There are 50 writers represented, and there were a lot of people we wanted represented on the cover,” says Editor Charles Lane. “We have other mockups of regular issues, and I think you’ll find it’s a very clean, balanced front page.”
“In general, we just felt that we had to have some color on our pages, clean up the typefaces, and make more room for a variety of illustration and photographs. It’s not that radical. We wanted a more attractive package for both readers and advertisers and [to] hopefully get a little bump on the newsstand,” he adds.
Redesigner Roger Black has a number of magazine tart-ups on his vitae, including makeovers for Newsweek, Reader’s Digest, Esquire, and a rackful of other titles. But rest assured, big thinkers: There’s still a cramped sort of feel to the little headlines that hover over stories, and there are a bundle of other semiotic messages to tell you you’re still reading a very serious magazine.