Wrongly awarding Pulitzers means never having to say you're sorry
- Jul 20, 2022
It is now widely accepted the allegations that presidential candidate Donald Trump colluded with the Russians to win the 2016 election were falsely made as part of a defamation campaign launched by Hillary Clinton. The allegations went far beyond the dirty tricks politicians are known to play – going on to impair Trump's presidency. Trump remained the target of critics believing he was not legitimately elected. Playing a major disinformation role in the Russian hoax were two publications – the New York Times (NYT) and Washington Post – that were subsequently recognized for their "contributions" by the Pulitzer Prize Board.
In 2018, praising the two newspapers for their national reporting, the board awarded them a Pulitzer "for deeply sourced, relentlessly reported coverage in the public interest that dramatically furthered the nation's understanding of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and its connections to the Trump campaign, the President-elect's transition team and his eventual administration."
Despite findings more recently coming to light that no Trump/Russia collusion occurred, which true "deeply sourced, relentless" reporting should have revealed, the tribute above to the two newspapers remains memorialized on Pulitzer's website, with the NYT and Washington Post proudly acknowledging the award as a badge of honor and good journalism.
On May 27, 2022, Trump sent a letter to the Pulitzer Board as follows:
"There is no dispute that the Pulitzer Board's award to those media outlets was based on false and fabricated information that they published. The continuing publication and recognition of the prizes on the Board's website is a distortion of fact and a personal defamation that will result in the filing of litigation if the Board cannot be persuaded to do the right thing on its own."
Trump's letter caused Pulitzer to engage two independent sources to review the matter. It claims these two sources, acting separately, arrived at the same conclusion, i.e., "that no passages or headlines, contentions or assertions in any of the winning submissions were discredited by facts that emerged subsequent to the conferral of the prizes."
What Trump will do in response to Pulitzer's refusal to revoke the awards remains to be seen.
By way of background, the Pulitzer Prize is the result of an endowment by newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer in 1917 to recognize outstanding reporting. It has come to be highly esteemed, being awarded every May since 1917. Awards are made by Columbia University upon the recommendation of a Pulitzer Prize Board of judges appointed by the university.
To its credit, the NYT has now received 133 Pulitzer awards. This is more than any other publication. In second position to the Times is the Washington Post, which has received 65 Pulitzers. However, for the NYT, it is not the first time the newspaper has received an award despite questionable reporting.
In 1932, Pulitzer granted the NYT an award for a series of dispatches written by Walter Duranty. He was head of the newspaper's desk in Moscow where he wrote about the Soviet Union's Five Year Plan. That series failed to report on a major failure of the program in the form of a 1932-1933 famine, which claimed the lives of an estimated 5 million people (1 million Russians and 4 million Ukrainians). Duranty helped feed Soviet leader Josef Stalin's propaganda machine by suppressing the truth. He covered up the death count, writing, "there is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation."
Fake news had won the NYT a Pulitzer which, after Durranty's false reporting was exposed, the Pulitzer Board twice declined to revoke.
We are now living in an era of fake news reporting, reflected by the fact that recent polls show public trust in the media has hit an historic low. Only 16% of adults in America say they have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in newspapers.
Some newspapers have taken positive steps to root out fake news and heighten accountability. USA Today recently removed 23 articles from its website after an internal investigation revealed a reporter had fabricated quotes. But this, unfortunately, is more the exception than the rule. Pulitzer's refusal to accept accountability for wrongly awarding prizes only encourages fake news "fiction" writers to continue their ways as they know a Pulitzer may be their ultimate reward.
If Pulitzer is not going to demand such accountability, it then falls to the newspapers that inappropriately received the awards to take some kind of action. Sadly, returning the Pulitzers will not happen. Nor can we hope to see minimal accountability in the form of a simple asterisk on their websites acknowledging the award's faulty foundation of truth. How long will it take to restore the public's faith in journalism? However long it takes for journalists to realize they must take positive steps to restore honesty and integrity in their profession.
While woke activists have managed to put a pox on our Founding Fathers and others for not eradicating slavery, far more people died from the 1932-1933 famine Duranty knew about but failed to report. One would think these activists, ever respectful of human life, would therefore push to honor the unreported famine casualties by demanding the newspapers relinquish their Pulitzers.
The Pulitzer Prize Board should be setting a corrective course for journalism in America. Failing to withdraw awards for false reporting does not do so. As long as it embraces the attitude of wrongly awarding a Pulitzer means never having to say you're sorry, there is little hope such a course correction will be quickly undertaken.
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