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The Pulitzer as a Mirror

PUBLISHED: April 21, 2009

The winners of the 2009 Pulitzer prizes were announced yesterday, and I can’t help but wonder what the announcement—and implicit acknowledgement of what was considered newsworthy over the last year—says about the state of society and media.

It sure was a good year for the New York Times, as the publication took home five awards, the second-most in its history, and a haul that brings their grand total to 101 since the awards were instituted in 1917. I like the Times as much as the next person—I have my favorite columnists and bloggers, I read the magazine every Sunday, and truth be told, if I am idly sitting at a computer and check the news without thinking about it, I am probably more likely to type in than anything else. But here’s the rub: is this the only newspaper that prints writing worth reading? Especially in an era in which communication across venues and public access to information have only continued to grow? Is it really a good thing for readers if the best talent (or what is presumed to be the best talent) clusters at only a few newspapers?

But speculations about literary monopolies aside, where things really get interesting is comparing topics between today’s Pulitzer Prize winners and those from a decade ago. Some things, it seems, don’t change. Scandal always brings out good stories. (Here’s to you, Eliot Spitzer.) Journalists still like to take on those in positions of authority who abuse their power.

Yet it is when we turn to the international and commentary categories that we are reminded how much the world has changed since 1999. Surprisingly, although we may have forgotten, there were financial woes in the late 1990s, and the 1999 Pulitzer for international reporting went to the Wall Street Journal for its coverage of Russia’s financial crisis. A decade later, however, the prize went to the New York Times for coverage of America’s military and political challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan. After two wars, billions of dollars, and thousands of lives, it is sobering to remember that only a decade ago, none of what has dominated international affairs and international reporting for years had even happened yet.

In commentary, 1999’s award to Maureen Dowd reminds us of a topic most Americans would prefer to forget: then-President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. A decade later, presidential behavior is still making the news, only this time it is Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post who takes home the award for his coverage of the election of the first African-American president.

Can we even imagine what will be newsworthy in 2019?

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