Copyright The Los Angeles Times
For better or worse, a significant number of people have come to regard the Pulitzer Prizes as the American news media’s annual report card.
Thus, more than a few brows were arched this week when not a single award in a print category went for journalism of any sort connected to the ongoing war in Iraq. (Both photo prizes — for breaking news and features — went to Iraq-related entries, but more on that in a moment.) With American servicemen and women still dying and Iraqi casualties mounting by the week, the nagging question hanging in the air is whether the U.S. media are somehow falling short on this story.
For the sake of convenience — or, more precisely, realism — we’ll put aside the question of whether the Pulitzer results ought to be read like tea leaves, let alone like a scorecard. The fact of the matter is that they are.
Three years into the occupation of Iraq by the United States and its allies, this most intensely covered of wars has produced just one Pulitzer Prize for print reporting, three for photojournalism and none for commentary or editorial writing. Is that really too few, and if so, what does the insufficiency signify?
In searching for a benchmark against which this performance can validly be measured, one place to start is with the war in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.
The first Pulitzer for journalism concerning that story was awarded in 1964, when David Halberstam of the New York Times and Associated Press’ Malcolm W. Browne shared the prize for their reporting on the war and the fall of the Diem regime. The last Vietnam Pulitzer was handed out 40 years later, when the Toledo Blade won a prize for investigating atrocities committed by an elite and secretive U.S. Army platoon. Over those four decades, print reportage about the war in Southeast Asia earned nine Pulitzers, and photojournalism five. Along the way, three Vietnam-related books also won the prize for nonfiction.
Obviously the U.S. had been deeply involved in Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia before the Pulitzer board chose to recognize any of the journalism concerning that intervention. As Halberstam said this week, “There was a generational fault line that had to be bridged before the Pulitzer juries or board felt comfortable in honoring any of the work being done in Vietnam. I know that when I won mine, there was a strong sentiment among some people that the board was taking sides against the Johnson administration. I know Scotty [Reston, then the New York Times’ associate editor] did some pretty good arm-twisting on my behalf.”
BUT even allowing for a bit of a time lag, there are those who suspect that reporting from Iraq has been compromised from the beginning by the fact that more than 600 journalists took accreditation as so-called “embedded” reporters, accepting the training and restrictions that are part of that novel arrangement. Certainly Gen. Tommy Franks, who commanded allied forces in the invasion of Iraq, thought embedding had created a new kind of war correspondent.
In his memoir, “American Soldier,” he recalled that as the embedding “process unfolded, it became clear that the traditional distrust and animosity between the military and the media was breaking down. I heard reports that journalists who had moved to Camp Pendleton, Fort Stewart and Fort Bragg were already talking fondly of ‘my outfit.’ This same spirit was spreading on the ships and air bases where reporters were embedded. There was a certain Ernie Pyle spirit developing — reporters bonding with the soldiers and Marines.”
Later, when President Bush asked Franks, “How are the troops, Tommy? What’s their morale?” Franks replied, “Sir, the embedded media provide a pretty good indication.”
Similarly, Sir John Keegan, the distinguished military historian who analyzed the Iraq invasion for Britain’s Observer newspaper, has argued on more than one occasion that the embedding process eliminated what he sees as the corrosive skepticism that has characterized relations between the U.S. press and the military since Vietnam.
In Keegan’s and Franks’ minds, that’s all to the good. But even analysts who regard skepticism as a healthy rather than corrosive quality in a journalist tend — on balance — to discount the notion that embedding somehow housebroke the press corps.
If reportage out of Iraq is somehow inhibited, they point out, it has far more to do with the security situation than with the journalists’ mind-set.
Peter Osnos, a leading publisher of contemporary nonfiction books as founder and head of PublicAffairs Press, covered Vietnam from 1970 to 1973 for the Washington Post and believes “if there was an absence of prizewinning reporting out of Iraq last year it was because everybody’s ability to do the kind of journalism they normally would do was substantially reduced by the deteriorating security situation. In all my long experience with war correspondents, I’ve never heard as much frustration as I did from people in Iraq this year about not being able to do the work they wanted to do.”
Halberstam agrees. “I don’t think embedding damaged any of the correspondents,” he says. “In modern mobile warfare, there simply isn’t any alternative to embedding if you are going to have this many reporters this close to the front. Our guys thought that once they got to Baghdad, they would become normal correspondents again. But this place is dangerous in a way Vietnam never was, and they haven’t been able to do that.”
Some of the consequent gap has been filled by the new prominence American newspapers across the board now accord distinguished photojournalism. As pointed out earlier, while 40 years of coverage of Vietnam produced four Pulitzer Prizes, the war in Iraq already has produced three, and this year, both photography awards were Iraq-related. So, too, were the other two finalists in the feature photo category.
The absence of a prize for Iraq-related commentary or editorials may be more of a comment on the inherent conservatism of the Pulitzer jurors and board members than it is on the work offered for their consideration.
It is striking — and not a little disturbing — to realize that in all the years of contention over the American intervention in Southeast Asia, not a single columnist or editorial writer was singled out for recognition.
A good report card grades you in every subject.