The Pulitzer Prize Enters the 21st Century (Sort Of)

Today’s question is: “What’s a committee to do when it’s charged with awarding prizes for top quality newspaper journalism -- if the newspapers aren’t around anymore?”

The Pulitzer Prize committee recently answered that question by announcing that newspapers no longer need a corporeal form but, instead, may exist solely in cyberspace. Joseph Pulitzer, after whom the prize was named, would no doubt be delighted by the committee’s willingness to embrace the future. I suspect, though, that he would also be dismayed by the committee’s periodic habit of elevating leftist ideology over sound journalism -- a trend that will no doubt continue even in cyberspace.

Joseph Pulitzer, a half-Jewish, half-Catholic immigrant from the old Austro-Hungarian empire, was a military mad youth who, for a fee, came to America to fight in the Civil War. At war’s end, he combined native intelligence, hard work, and sound journalistic skills to become one of America’s leading newspaper publishers and a father to the investigative journalism that swept America at the beginning of the 20th century. It was Pulitzer who articulated the modern American journalistic credo, one founded firmly in the Constitution (and one that many modern journalists apparently forgot in the heady months of the Obama candidacy):

Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mould the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations.

With this high-flown message in mind (and with a generous donation from Pulitzer’s estate in hand), both the Columbia School of Journalism and the Pulitzer Prize came into being. In the 90 or so years since then, the prize committee has successfully recognized many exemplary books, newspaper articles, plays, and photographs.