On Monday, journalists in newsrooms around the country gathered awkwardly together to celebrate the announcement of this year’s Pulitzer Prizes, which honored Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical "Hamilton," as well as a number of excellent works of journalism, but especially the musical "Hamilton." At last, "Hamilton" is getting some attention.
This year’s honorees in the journalism category included a terrific investigation from the Associated Press that explored the role of slavery in our seafood supply chain; a massive Washington Post venture that documented police shootings nationwide; and the Los Angeles Times' coverage of the San Bernardino shootings. The New Yorker became the first magazine ever to win a Pulitzer for journalism with its study of the Cascadia fault line. The New York Times, which had traveled to Afghanistan to gather the stories of Afghan women, took the award for international reporting. The Tampa Bay Times stuck close to home to pick up a pair of accolades for investigative and local reporting. (Over here at The Huffington Post, we were bridesmaids for our investigation, by Jason Cherkis, into the heroin treatment industry. It was an honor to be at the wedding.)
It was, in short, a pretty great snapshot of the journalism world. First-time wins for The New Yorker and The Marshall Project reflect the Pulitzer board's commitment to expanding the franchise and recognizing the excellent work of the present moment. But in some cases, it takes time to fully appreciate the importance of a work of journalism. Sometimes the true significance of things is only visible in hindsight. With that in mind, I submit that it’s time for the Pulitzers to take on the challenge of getting retrospective.
There’s one example of unrecognized work that immediately comes to mind -- work so prescient that even those who created it didn’t fully recognize what they’d done at the time. In 2002, a group of reporters at Knight-Ridder (now McClatchy Newspapers) wrote a series of articles on the run-up to the disastrous Iraq War. These articles were, as The Huffington Post noted in 2008, “virtually alone in their questioning of the Bush Administration’s allegations of links between Saddam Hussein, weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism.”
And to give you an idea of how difficult it was to be a dissenting voice back then, consider that the work in question often didn't earn the respect of many of the newspapers owned by Knight-Ridder, as reporter Jonathan Landay told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in 2013.
"Lone holdout" is a good word because even some of our newspapers -- we work for a chain of 30 newspapers. Even some of our own newspapers wouldn’t print our own stories. Why? Because they say it wasn’t in The Washington Post. They hadn’t seen it in The New York Times, so how could we, as Knight-Ridder journalists, have gotten the same thing? So it was very lonely.
As The Washington Post’s media reporter Erik Wemple rightly states, “Every five years or so, around mid- to late March, Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel should be media stars.”
Alternatively, this could be the sort of journalism that becomes famous in mid- to late April. So let’s do it: Let’s add a category to the Pulitzer Prizes, one that involves looking back at previous years and re-evaluating the past in light of what's happened since then.
What I’m suggesting here is that the Pulitzer board undertake a simple elongation of its window of perspective. The board should, on a yearly basis, take a look back at the journalism landscape and rediscover the work whose excellence it took time to reveal. Whether it’s a five-year window, a 10-year window or some other time frame, the exercise would be useful in recapturing the work that either missed the cut, or wasn’t on the radar, at the time the awards were distributed. It would be a great way of recognizing writers prescient enough to spot crises before they happened, writers who bucked trends when it was harrowing to do so, and writers who provided a foundation on which subsequent work could be built.
Taking on this challenge would be of enormous, widespread benefit, especially to the journalists whose work was left behind by the arbitrariness of time.
Interestingly enough, the Knight-Ridder reporters experienced no small amount of self-doubt as a result of having their work dismissed for so long. As Gilbert Cranberg, arguing in 2006 for a retroactive Pulitzer for the Knight-Ridder team at Nieman Watchdog, noted, Knight-Ridder bureau chief John Walcott didn’t submit his team’s work for Pulitzer consideration during the window in which it was actually produced:
As Bureau Chief Walcott recalls it, "I think we may not have submitted the '02 work because its merit wasn't clear until Bush attacked Iraq in March '03 and then the WMD never materialized. In other words, we may have lost out because we were so far ahead of the curve..."
A year later, therefore, Knight Ridder used its bid for an '04 Pulitzer to declare, in effect, "We told you so." Nevertheless, Knight Ridder's Washington Bureau's frequent, fearless, ground-breaking, skeptical and authoritative reporting was no secret to hard-to-impress journalists.
Cranberg went on to note that even if the Knight-Ridder team had submitted its work for consideration in 2002, it would have been “questionable how it would have been regarded” by those adjudicating the awards at the time, all of whom would have been influenced by the fashion of the moment. “Recall that this was a time when much of the press uncritically lauded Colin Powell's deeply flawed pro-war presentation to the U.N. Security Council," Cranberg wrote. "The press, whether consciously or otherwise, reflected public opinion, which then strongly favored a war to oust Saddam.”
It shouldn't count against a media organization to be ahead of its peers on an important story. By expanding its prize circle to include retroactive recognition, the Pulitzer board could encourage this sort of trend-bucking courage in coverage.
And it could help to remap the media landscape in important, beneficial ways. As former Knight-Ridder reporter Warren Strobel told Amanpour in that same interview, the lack of recognition their work received had long-term effects on the media landscape: “I have to say, 10 years later, as it stands, we’re not exactly getting -- except for your kind invitation, you know, other people are talking about this, and they’re not necessarily the people who got it right.”
Had the Pulitzers shed a little light on the efforts of these reporters, even years after the fact, it might have been an important and edifying corrective. It could have ensured that the right people got to keep telling the right story. (Consider this as well: After all these years, during which Knight-Ridder was absorbed by McClatchy, it has become much more difficult to find the Knight-Ridder team’s work online. It takes some dogged internet sleuthing if you want to actually read this coverage -- coverage that should shine above and beyond nearly all the other Iraq reporting from that time period.)
This is not an attack on the Pulitzers' existing track record. And it’s not about issuing some sort of make-up call after the fact, as sometimes happens in the entertainment industry with “lifetime achievement awards" and the like. The Pulitzers already have a mechanism for doing this, in the form of their Special Citations and Special Awards (which, as Cranberg notes, are as likely to go to authors and composers as to journalists). Prizes and plaudits like that are often mainly about letting the people handing out the accolades feel good about themselves.
What I’m suggesting is that looking back on the media landscape of a bygone year become a task that the board undertakes as a matter of serious research -- really getting elbow-deep in it. It would be an experiment born of intellectual curiosity and a desire to do a public good -- the same impulses that lead people to create the work that the Pulitzers already recognize every year. And if people knew the Pulitzer board was looking for old work to make new, there'd be no shortage of amateur and professional critics offering up suggestions.
The effort could lead anywhere -- including back to some of the original honorees. But it could also help recover greatness that gets lost in the shuffle of the everyday. It would shed light on work that may have previously looked slight by comparison, but which provided a strong foundation for further reporting or social change. And it would help reinforce the idea that journalism is practiced on a continuum, where the past informs the present to reveal salient facts about our lives. It’s the sort of thing that maybe only the Pulitzers could do.
In the end, it’s all about asking a perennial question for reporters: What’d we miss? By leading an effort to look back on the ground already covered, the Pulitzers can help deepen our perspective, reward those who were ahead of their time and shine a light on the ways in which journalism can be vital and lasting. After all, if Lin-Manuel Miranda can get a Pulitzer for doing precisely this, maybe the Pulitzer board itself ought to give it a try.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.