The 2006 Pulitzer Award Preview | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The 2006 Pulitzer Award Preview

A look at journalistic greatness

For journalists, this is award season -- the time when the media engages in an orgy of self-congratulation. For the past few months, a slew of professional associations (few of which you've ever heard of) have been reviewing work submitted by local journalists. The results are now beginning to filter in, and reporters celebrate every plaudit as a chance to get a job somewhere else. Newspapers, meanwhile, gleefully post tallies of the awards their staffers ring up -- under the apparent belief that readers actually care.

Here at City Paper, we're above all that. (And by "above all that," we mean "usually incapable of winning awards ourselves.") So while other reporters have been burnishing their résumés, we've spent our time digging instead.

In April, the granddaddy of all journalism prizes, the vaunted Pulitzers, will be awarded to the finest print journalists in the nation. City Paper was able to procure an advance copy of the Pulitzer winners in all 14 categories -- complete with the committee's confidential assessment of each winner. We were gratified, though not surprised, to see that this year, our colleagues in Pittsburgh have swept the awards. We're proud to present this sneak peak -- and celebrate all the things that make journalism in Pittsburgh so distinctive.

For a distinguished example of investigative reporting by an individual or team, presented as a single article or series


In awarding this prize, the committee is mindful of the challenge facing the Pittsburgh Catholic: How could a Catholic newspaper report on allegations of sexual abuse by priests?

The Catholic has always set the bar high for such stories: More than once last year, it ran "media watch" articles faulting other media for anti-Catholic bias. So the stakes were huge on Sept. 21, when a Philadelphia grand jury announced the results of a three-year investigation of pedophile priests.

In its staff-written Sept. 30 story, "Philadelphia grand jury report sharply questioned," the Catholic practiced the kind of balance it preaches. The Catholic quoted only three-dozen words from the 423-page report, but that's apparently all the paper needed to hear. Demonstrating razor-sharp cut-and-paste skills, Catholic staff downloaded statements posted on the Philadelphia archdiocese Web site. This was only the beginning of the paper's digging: The Catholic managed to unearth remarks made by Cardinal Justin Rigali at a press conference. And thanks to its highly placed diocesan sources, the paper ferreted out a subsequent interview the cardinal gave to the Philadelphia Inquirer, and a letter Rigali sent to church members.

As a result, readers learned some shocking truths. For one, church officials believe the grand-jury report was "a vile mean-spirited diatribe" and a "sensationalized, lurid, and tabloid-like presentation." The Catholic devoted paragraph after paragraph to church officials insisting "we cannot accept ... the inference that there was any intentional, unlawful or criminal behavior" by the church. Without the paper's willingness to confront Catholic authorities, readers would never have known that any failures to remove pedophile priests "were the result of human error -- not criminal intent."

If church leaders demonstrate the rigorous self-scrutiny practiced by the Pittsburgh Catholic, perhaps the healing can begin.

For a distinguished example of local reporting of breaking news, presented in print or online or both


In this era of the 24-hour news cycle, the committee commends Trib p.m. for being first on the street (provided that street is Smithfield) with breaking news. The committee was further impressed with Trib p.m.'s commitment to finding local angles for international stories, and singled out the paper's wide-ranging coverage on July 7, when the paper highlighted that morning's London subway bombings.

The Trib p.m. was the first to report on the local impact of that horrific event, such as the status of Mellon Financial Group's London office ("the building was not affected, and the company was up and running"), and to provide a platform of reassurance for regional leaders ("Tom Murphy asked the public to be vigilant"). The committee further congratulates the Trib p.m. for not neglecting its base readership during a day of extraordinary news. With its daily commitment to documenting criminal justice ("Police called to O.J. Simpson's Fla. home"); business trends ("Wendy's points to finger for slipping sales"); tumultuous international events ("Protesters in thongs take on bull run"); and insightful gender issues ('Eva loves her beautiful body'), the Trib p.m. is the clear local leader in dispensing need-to-know information in a timely fashion. Of primary importance, the Trib p.m. found room for announcing the end of the NHL strike ("Hockey's back!") on an otherwise busy front page.

For a distinguished example of explanatory reporting that illuminates a significant and complex subject, demonstrating mastery of the subject, lucid writing and clear presentation, in print or in print and online.


Generally, the committee bestows awards to online stories only when they appear in print as well. But this year's winner was of such high quality that the committee made an exception.

While media outlets nationwide delivered plenty of information about what it was like to be a player or spectator at Super Bowl XL, WTAE went deeper still: Its reporters compiled an online blog outlining their frantic experiences at the event. The committee was especially impressed with WTAE's repeated explication of the wardrobe challenges the Super Bowl posed. Anchor Kelly Frey, for example, had to make a special trip to a department store for "some last minute black-and-gold clothes shopping," while Sally Wiggin described her efforts to finesse field access: "I have to wear a red vest to get on the field. I'd wear a garbage bag to get there." While the blog was truly a team effort, the committee recognizes Wiggin's outstanding work, particularly her gripping accounts of the event's unique, and even harrowing, sartorial challenges: "I have no idea how I looked with that hood and the wire coming out of the side of my neck. I must have resembled the Bride of Frankenstein" and "I do remember my raincoat (that folds up into a bag) that made me look like a wish [sic]." The committee stands in awe of WTAE and Sally Wiggin's dedication in the face of adversity: "My hair was as flat as a board, but who cares?! It's the freakin' Super Bowl."

For a distinguished example of beat reporting characterized by sustained and knowledgeable coverage of a particular subject or activity


The committee's choice in this category was made easy when it read "A mall opens, and the consumers flock" (July 15), the second of two bracing 2005 dispatches from the Galleria at Pittsburgh Mills by Post-Gazette business writer Teresa F. Lindeman. It's a rare reporter who'll dig for such insights as the love Americans have for consumer spending, but Lindeman plunges in. One shopper, she notes, "seemed honestly pleased to see Allegheny County's northeast neighborhoods finally get their own enclosed mall."

Following up on an April 3 report ("New mall mills about for unique identity") in which she sagaciously labeled Pittsburgh Mills "a new form of 'shoppertainment,'" Lindeman swaddles the reader in a warm cocoon of context, even suggesting that the grand opening of a shopping mall "ranked as a historic event." Lindeman also notes: "To keep up the excitement and give Pittsburgh shoppers a reason to explore Route 28, organizers plan a continuous stream of events for the next couple months." This is the sort of crystal-ball view one can get only from a seasoned reporter. We see Lindeman press a mall official for crucial information ("Costello would only say Mills likes to work with [clothier] H&M") and force the revelation that the company's first "PBS Kids Neighborhood play area," in St. Louis, "has proved to be extremely popular." With her refusal to shy from horn-handed details -- like the young women dressed as Kaufmann's shopping bags at the grand opening -- Lindeman takes beat reporting to a new level of front-line verisimilitude.

For a distinguished example of reporting on national affairs

STAFF - The Bulletin

For its unique contribution to the national War on Drugs, the community newspaper The Bulletin is hereby honored. This monthly, based in the city's East End, boldly gets in front of the illegal-substance scourge by publishing the names of everyone arrested in the neighborhood in the prior month. Invariably, the vast majority of those arrested face drug charges. But while the newspaper's distribution area encompasses a handful of city neighborhoods, it's a model for publications elsewhere, scrupulously noting in each case, via asterisk, that "[s]pecific charges (sale or possession) were not given" and acknowledging that "this is a list of arrests only, not convictions, and all arrestees are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law." Yet because we know, to paraphrase former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese, that most people who get arrested are indeed guilty, we recognize The Bulletin for its prescient equation of suspicion with criminality. Such willingness to single out, in print, individuals who have yet to be convicted, can't help but restore the fabric of communities already demonized in the public imagination.

For a distinguished example of reporting on international affairs

DIMITRI VASSILAROS, Pittsburgh Tribune-Revew

In this Blog Era, when the line between the yeoman's work of gathering information and the infinitely tougher task of commenting on it has become a virtual open border, the committee recognizes as the height of international reporting the relentless commentary of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Revew's Dimitri Vassilaros concerning foreigners right here in America.

It is in lamenting the scourge of illegal immigration, combined with the scourge of immigration itself, that the pen of Mr. Vassilaros shines like a beacon. Again and again, he squeezes through a chink in the fence of fact and braves the barren desert of speculation without losing sight of his ultimate goal -- convincing America that we are already convinced.

"America is seething" about the immigration issue, he writes in one recent report. "America's citizen foot soldiers are at the ready in every state, county and neighborhood waiting for their marching orders ... Frustration and anger about the invasion of more than 11 million illegal aliens overrunning the border with Mexico is as deep as the Grand Canyon and wide as America's six time zones.

"There is nothing huddled about Vassilaros's mass communication. His prose breathes free with the fire of indignation, proposing to "seal ... the southern border" to stem this "terrifying" problem: "President George W. Bush is turning America into Central America." He is indignant so that the rest of us don't have to be, any time soon.

Of "the millions of immigrants overrunning America -- at least a third are illegals," he points out. The rest, overrunning the country legally -- take heed! Mr. Vassilaros, descendant of one of the first Greeks to cross the landbridge from Siberia to settle this great land of his about 30,000 years ago, is still on the job, doing his ancestors proud.

For distinguished commentary


While many newshounds might take the easy road of puns and assumptions when covering animal-rights activists, one man's commitment to telling all sides of a story soars above the rest.

The committee cannot fail to note the vigilance of Eric Heyl, whose incisive and diligent coverage of the actions of animal lovers is notable for its sensitivity and compassion.

During last summer's Bassmaster fishing tournament, activists used images of dogs impaled on fishhooks to suggest that cruelty to fish was all too easy to countenance. Heyl's commentary on "the latest outlandish publicity stunt" (July 29) brought his trademark eye for nuance: "Try asking a bass to fetch a stick."

Lingerie retailer Victoria's Secret, meanwhile, has drawn the ire of Voices for Animals of Western Pennsylvania for mailing more than 1 million catalogs a day, decimating forests for paper and, as Heyl put it in a more recent column, "caus[ing] many furry animals a dramatic drop-off in the quality of life." Other news outlets ignored the group's protest at a Victoria's Secret store, but Heyl wrote about it a day in advance, and his curiosity led him to plumb the depths of the group's press release. Such deep appreciation, no doubt, spurred Heyl's generous assessment that it's "a free country" where "[p]eople can dress up ... to object to any perceived wrong if they desire." Though Heyl asserted that the activists had merely "carved for themselves ... a niche bitch," the committee lauds Heyl's stirring endorsement of our American freedoms.

We can only applaud this commitment to issues, where a scribe is so attuned to a group's actions that he criticizes them before they even take place.

For distinguished criticism

Kevin Kirkland, Gretchen McKay, PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE

"How can one house be everyone's dream home?" So asks, plangently, Kevin Kirkland of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in his take on the Pittsburgh Home & Garden Show. And indeed, each week, with tag-team efficiency, Kirkland and colleague Gretchen McKay construct a withering, lapidary critique of late-capitalist domesticity. The pair operates with surgical irony in the seemingly complacent pages of the Post-Gazette's weekend Home & Garden section. But careful readers (and the committee) understand that Kirkland and McKay are in fact taking a scalpel to the quiet desperation of America's homeowners. Their zeal harkens to Thorstein Veblen's formulation of conspicuous consumption in his classic Theory of the Leisure Class. One McKay salvo, "High-tech appliances create a stir in the kitchen," begins by noting that "[h]omeowners expect three things in an upscale kitchen." Through accumulated detail ("they also want appliances that are easy to use and .... fast, fast, fast"), she guides readers to an understanding of the ineluctable futility of the consumer treadmill, and of "high-end appliances" that promise to "take function and convenience to a whole new level." Kirkland is equally trenchant. In "Raising paneling to a new level," an exegesis of the home-theater phenomenon, he notes that "The walls, whose main job is to keep daylight from muting that beautiful picture, are usually boring black." This poetic aside on utility echoes in the void at the heart of our dreams of domestic bliss.

For distinguished editorial writing, the test of excellence being clearness of style, moral purpose, sound reasoning, and power to influence public opinion in what the writer conceives to be the right direction


The committee this year cites the dogged editorials of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and its director of editorial pages, Colin McNickle, for influencing public opinion in the rightest of directions.

McNickle harks back regularly to a bygone era of opinion writing: Noble efforts, in his view, take "gumption" and "moxie." The precious epithet "goodness gracious" and the insinuating punctuation of "Ahem ..." keep their rightful place in his lexicographical pantheon. Latin is used where English would serve. Funny labels and names are bravely employed, such as "H. Willy DeFleece" as a pseudonym for Pennsylvania House Democratic Leader Bill DeWeese, and, most persistently, The Block Bugler for the paper's cross-town rival, the Post-Gazette. Such witticisms no doubt score points with astute readers.

And vituperation, a McNickle specialty, is pushed to fresh heights: As he writes in one signed column, "Obfuscation and polemics have become these [liberal] pimps' preferred tools as they practice their sociopolitical proctology." This mixed-employment metaphor nonetheless puts its finger right up the problem. McNickle says of another opponent that he "treats the principles of Barry Goldwater like a teen-age girl treats a fresh pimple on prom night. That would be with disdain and derision." But of course.

But "the creeping crud of socialism" is McNickle's enemy No. 1 -- forever on the verge of winning its next victory, save for his vigilance. In one 60-day period, he or his editorial minions saw stateside socialism nearly triumphant no less than 11 times. Pittsburgh's former mayor, the nation's former vice president, even George W. Bush -- in McNickle's eyes, no one is immune from the taint.

The Trib's editorial page proves that extremism in the defense of liberty is no problem -- while moderation in the pursuit of justice is no way to write an editorial.

For a distinguished cartoon or portfolio of cartoons published during the year, characterized by originality, editorial effectiveness, quality of drawing and pictorial effect


Usually, the committee awards this Pulitzer to illustrators. But though Kelly is a columnist, the committee found his output as cartoonish as Thomas Nast's.

Kelly's Sunday column offers a whimsical parody of the right-wing mindset: its tendency to harp about "media bias" to explain away bad news, its refusal to admit inconvenient facts, etc. Most impressively, he does it without ever winking or breaking character.

If the committee didn't know better, we'd think he meant this stuff.

Consider Kelly's Sept. 11, 2005 column about the response to Hurricane Katrina -- titled "No Shame." (A sly double-entendre.) Kelly writes, "It is settled wisdom among journalists that the federal response to [Katrina] was unconscionably slow." But in fact, he opines with tongue planted firmly in cheek, the Katrina response was "the most monumental and successful disaster relief operation in world history." This parody of the conservatives' black-is-white worldview is pitch-perfect.

Kelly's most effective send-ups concern Iraq. Consider how he apes the right-wing commentators who can't admit they were wrong about Saddam Hussein's WMDs. As recently as Feb. 5 of 2006, Kelly was sardonically "predicting" that a former intelligence agent, John Loftus, would produce tapes of Saddam Hussein admitting the scope of WMD program. "Those who have bet their political futures that Saddam had no WMD may be starting to sweat," Kelly concludes.

Au contraire, as Kelly's many French-speaking fans might say. When the Loftus tapes were released two weeks later, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte said they "do not reveal anything that changes [the] postwar analysis of Iraq's weapons programs." Once again, Kelly had parodied conservatives who accept as "evidence" anything that tells them what they want to hear.

To date, Kelly has not acknowledged these "mistakes." But this is, of course, just another sign of his understated wit.

For a distinguished example of feature photography in black and white or color, which may consist of a photograph or photographs, a sequence or an album

"25 Most Beautiful Pittsburghers," Pittsburgh magazine

Pittsburgh has a tradition of quality photojournalism: In 1998, we presented Post-Gazette photographer Martha Rial with an award for "Trek of Tears," a harrowing photoessay depicting the plight of African refugees. But beautiful people have stories too, stories no less urgent than tales of Third World squalor. The committee lauds Pittsburgh magazine for having the courage to show us 25 Pittsburghers we would very much like to boink -- for the courage, really, to not turn away.

This is photojournalism in the raw, journalism that dresses its subjects up in expensive clothes and makeup to show them as they really are. Nor does the magazine shy from the tragic stories behind the beautiful faces: One of Pittsburgh's 25 most beautiful people, we were grieved to learn, is married to rock-and-roller Fabian.

Lots of publications might profile the wife of gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann, but only Pittsburgh magazine would expose her as someone who seeks to "impact others in a positive way -- through benefits, generous donations and volunteer efforts." (In a gesture of becoming modesty, no mention is made of Mr. Swann's political ambitions.) Only Pittsburgh magazine could penetrate the pretty faces and get to the poetry beneath, as when a professional model says, "Pittsburgh is very special to me."

As the magazine says, "Handsome face, beautiful sentiment." We couldn't agree more.

For a distinguished example of breaking news photography in black and white or color which may consist of a photograph or photographs, a sequence or an album

David Bachman, WHIRL magazine

Early on, the committee recognized that WHIRL magazine's stable of photographers deserved recognition. Each month, this society magazine holds up a mirror to Pittsburgh, forcing its denizens to confront the horrific truth. Here are the slackmouthed grins and glazed stares of Pittsburgh's social elite, scarecrows that make a mockery of all earthly ambition. This is powerful, damning social commentary: socialites caught, seemingly unawares, at various social functions, revealing the utter vacuity of a city's pretensions. Look on my facelift, ye mighty, and despair!

The difficult part was choosing which harrowing photoessay to honor. Eventually, however, the committed selected David Bachman's July 2005 spread depicting the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy's Spring Hat Luncheon.

The committee was first struck by Bachman's intrepid lens: He actually managed to find an African American at the gathering, no easy task among Pittsburgh's elite. Nor did he flinch from presenting the event's essential horror: esteemed Pittsburghers cavorting in the most insipid headgear imaginable.

Here is Ritchie Scaife, wife of Tribune-Review publisher Richard Mellon Scaife, in a hat that looks like a poodle shrink-wrapped in fuchsia cellophane and then microwaved until it explodes. Here is the Trib's Ed Harrell, sporting a cap even drunken Legionnaires might balk at. In their hollow eyes and fixed grins, we see the grinning specter of our own mortality. And we detect their dawning realization that nothing, nothing, can fill the existential void inside us all.

For a distinguished example of feature writing giving prime consideration to quality of writing, originality and concision


Jennifer Papale Rignani, Pittsburgh magazine

Journalists have always thrived on competition, so the committee envies readers in Pittsburgh. They're the real winners in a contest between two rival lifestyle magazines, WHIRL and Pittsburgh magazine. This year, in fact, the magazines split Pulitzers over the same event: the Pittsburgh Parks Conversancy Spring Hat Luncheon.

Two months before WHIRL's Dave Bachman took his Pulitzer-winning photographs, scribe Jennifer Papale Rignani gave Pittsburgh readers "Positively Brimming," a behind-the-scenes look at planning for the event.

As Rignani says in her May 2005 story, "It would be easy at first glance to dismiss the whole thing as frivolous, with its haute couture and caviar. Easy, but wrong." Indeed. How frivolous could an event be that draws women with names like "Holly Buffinton" and "Arabella Dane"?

Rignani shows us organizers weighing the decision to install a temporary hardwood floor. ("Do you know how much that could cost? Just get those heels dirty and have fun!") And there are tales of events gone horribly wrong. (During a storm one year, "waiters dashed to secure the tent sides ... and one dazzling socialite ran outside to put the top down on her luxury convertible.")

But most of all, there is poetry. "We bump brims all day," one participant says. "[W]e're not used to the brims, so we laugh a lot." The committee can well imagine. This isn't just a bunch of aging society matrons capering about on the lawn -- this is about the human spirit.

The Pulitzer is pleased to bestow this award on Rignani. But the real reward is seeing Pittsburgh magazine become more like its competitors every day.

For a distinguished example of meritorious public service by a newspaper through the use of its journalistic resources which, as well as reporting, may include editorials, cartoons, photographs, graphics and online material.

Pittsburgh City Paper staff, 2006 Pulitizer Award Preview

The committee was impressed with the moxie of this effort. Here we have an underpaid alt-weekly staff, led by an editor who couldn't get his hands on a journalism prize if he lurked outside an awards ceremony with a baseball bat. How could such a paper compete for a Silver Sow award, let alone the Pulitzer?

The answer: compile a half-baked feature story mocking the awards other, better journalists will win ... while striving to provide just enough "humor" to forestall those journalists from writing about the CP staff's numerous public-nuisance citations.

Ordinarily, this effort would barely slow the Pulitzer committee on its way to CP's back pages. (The committee sent in a question to "Savage Love" weeks ago.) But the CP staff has performed a public service, if only by accident. By drawing on its principal journalistic resource -- embittered peevishness -- City Paper has furnished a cover story just long enough to line the birdcage for the committee's macaw. For this, a grateful committee offers its thanks.

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