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Pulitzer Entries Prove Press Is Still Great by Dave Zweifel
Published on Wednesday, March 15, 2000 in the Madison Capital Times
Pulitzer Entries Prove Press Is Still Great
by Dave Zweifel

Those who bemoan the state of journalism in America should have been with me earlier this month.

I was among a group of newspaper people -- from editors to columnists, critics to prize-winning photographers -- who gathered at New York's Columbia University to do the first-round judging for this year's Pulitzer prizes.

The Pulitzers, the top national awards for excellence in journalism, will be announced in early April after the 19-member board makes the final picks in each of the 14 categories that we judged last week.

Our job was to select three finalists in each of the categories -- investigative reporting, breaking news reporting, beat reporting, and so on. It is from those three that the board itself will choose the overall winner.

I was assigned to the seven-member jury that judged explanatory reporting, a broad category that includes some of the country's best reporting and writing. Specifically, the winner is to represent "a distinguished example of explanatory reporting that illuminates a significant and complex subject, demonstrating mastery of the subject, lucid writing and clear presentation.''

Over three days we sat around a dining-room-sized table stacked high with huge scrapbooks and sleeved binders that held the entries. Each of us was admonished to read the 169 entries that had been submitted to the Pulitzer Prize office and somehow agree on three to recommend for the prize.

I found there are no frivolous entries in the Pulitzers. Every one was an example of first-class journalism that is being practiced in all corners of America, despite the contention by many that "all today's journalists are interested in are scandals and sensationalism.''

Several of the entries represented months, even years, of hard work wading through records and reports, interviewing dozens and dozens of people, double-checking comments and supposed facts, and then putting it all together in flowing prose that will hold the reader's interest.

There were numerous examples of newspapers rescuing victims of injustice, of righting a wrong, of getting a law passed to solve a problem. There were exposes of wrongdoing not only by government officials, but by private interests as well. Many used their state's open records laws to get to the root of a problem and then lay it all open so the public could see and understand for itself.

The process helped bolster my opinion that despite its shortcomings, newspapering in the United States is better today than ever before.

While indeed the big sensational stories are etched in our memories -- the OJ trial, the Columbine school massacre, JFK Jr.'s plane crash -- major stories are being broken every day in the best tradition of what this business is supposed to represent.

True, the press does fail in many areas. It is often too timid, too much a captive of wealthy interests, too interested in making money, which in turn creates that love affair with scandal. And the trend toward fewer and larger conglomerate ownerships is a threat that can't be ignored.

But what I saw last week is a press still very much interested in doing what's right and willing to make sacrifices of time and money to do so.

That's the press that attracted so many of us to this business. That's the press we've got to keep alive.

Dave Zweifel is the editor of The Capital Times.

2000 The Capital Times


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