Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly
(July '09, pp. 230-3

Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public-Service Journalism. Roy J. Harris Jr.
Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2008. 488 pp. $39.95 pbk.

Researchers, teachers, and students will find fine, even unexpected, value in this well-presented look at what Roy J. Harris Jr. calls journalism’s “most coveted prize of all: the Public Service Gold Medal.”

Harris’s idea is simple and intriguing. He traces the top prize from the Pulitzers’ beginning in 1917 to 2006, describing the winning works, stories behind the works, and inside dope from the judging. A veteran reporter and editor, Harris calls the book a “labor of love,” partly because his father, also a reporter, was himself associated with several Pulitzer prizes in St. Louis.   

For more recent winners, the author conducts original interviews with writers, editors, and Pulitzer judges. These add human interest, insight, and backstage drama that transform the book from an archive into an up-to-date testimonial to the challenges and rewards of journalism at the peak.
As history, the book adds to the record of a significant niche. Joseph Pulitzer, the St. Louis and New York publisher, conceived the prizes early last century and gave Columbia University $500,000 (as part of the bequest creating the first journalism school) to administer them.

According to Pulitzer’s will, a “gold medal costing $500” was to honor “the most meritorious and disinterested public service rendered by any American newspaper” each year. It became the industry’s leading prize, or as the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee puts it, “Big Casino…the cream of the cream.”

Beyond niche history, Harris also uses the Pulitzer story to trace larger trends and themes in journalism and cultural history. He often pauses, for instance, to dwell on a particularly influential editor (such as Carr Van Anda of the New York Times), or a newspaper’s special place within an era (the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from the 1930s to 1950s, possibly “the finest local newspaper staff ever assembled”), or evolving news values (the rise of environmental reporting in the 1990s).

By placing prize-winning works within their larger public and professional contexts, he produces a book that could easily serve as a supplement in history or in media and society courses. Perhaps more surprisingly, the book also has much to teach students about journalistic techniques, and it also would work well as a supplement for basic and advanced reporting.

The range of stories here is striking, of course. The Gold Medal has gone to stories covering the original Ponzi scheme, the KKK, “ambulance-chasing lawyers,” bootlegging and gambling, mine safety, drug trafficking, voter fraud, military abuses, education failures, church scandals, almost every kind of natural disaster, and government waste, corruption, and inefficiency at every level. Many projects are readily identified just by a word of two: the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, Katrina, 9/11.

How reporters found the stories is equally striking—and should prove eye-opening to students. Listening to a former advertiser put the Lufkin (Texas) News onto Marine training abuses. Browsing a trade newsletter alerted the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to deadly problems with military helicopters. Examining a personal water bill led the editor of the Washington (N.C.) Daily News to a contaminated town water supply. And a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter was donating blood when he began to wonder about the blood industry, leading to a series about how little government regulation or supervision was involved.

Similarly, students will benefit from studying the reporting techniques that turned these ideas into exemplary journalism. Many projects serve as case studies of sensitive, painstaking fact gathering, interviewing, document searches, computer analyses, and tenacious freedom-of-information filings. Assembling the Boston Globe’s database of nearly 200 priests suspected of sexual abuse, for example, required combing through cryptic church reports, suing to unseal closed court records, cultivating secret sources, and cross-checking names in multiple documents.
For other stories, community and even family connections pay off. An editor at the Whiteville (N.C.) News Reporter found cases of KKK violence because his wife, a teacher, “listened to children gossiping at school” and learned of beatings.

The anecdotes and nuggets are almost endless here, making this book readable as well as instructive.

If there is a negative, it might be that the book somewhat glosses over criticisms of the Pulitzer selection system: that there may be a “familiarity” edge for big papers, or that over-networking can lead noted journalists to look out for one another. To his credit, Harris confronts these issues, but he tends to let Pulitzer insiders pooh-pooh the likelihood of anything unseemly.

Overall, though, this is a fine contribution to both scholarship and instruction, a book that can be read for fun, consulted for research, and assigned for class.

Above all, perhaps, it seems inspirational. In these days of uncertainty in both the news media and journalism education, many readers may find themselves pausing over Joseph Pulitzer’s thoughts as he contemplated endowing the prizes in 1902: “My idea is to recognize that journalism is, or ought to be, one of the great and intellectual professions; to encourage, elevate, and educate in a practical way the present and, still more, future members of that profession, exactly as if it were the profession of law or medicine.”

University of Maryland