Joseph Pulitzer, one of the founding masters of yellow journalism, published papers that were disreputable, exciting, and aimed proudly at the lowest common denominator. The prizes that bear his name tend more toward the reverent, the bland, and the safely middlebrow. The 2002 awards, announced this week, include honors for the pop biographer David McCullough, best known for gargantuan, unreliable bestsellers praising the more authoritarian statesmen of the American past; the commentator Thomas Friedman, whose great talent is to summarize succinctly whatever happens to be conventional wisdom at the moment; and a series of Los Angeles Times editorials that were published unsigned and suffer from the mushy voicelessness that usually afflicts such articles.
The New York Times won a record seven Pulitzers, which can be read either as a testament to the paper's hard-working staff or as evidence of the prize-granters' penchant for playing it safe. The closest they came to taking a risk this year was allowing the serial plagiarist Doris Kearns Goodwin to stay on as one of the judges. So why no Pulitzer for best plagiarized story? There is a Pulitzer for music but none for rugby, a Pulitzer for poetry but none for animal porn. Above all, there are Pulitzers for dull, didactic five-part series written especially to please a board of judges, but none for good reporting that's so nitty-gritty no editor would think to submit it to any award committee.
Yes, yes: Over the years, many winning writers, photographers, and cartoonists have been quite good. But like the countless talents who never contend for such prizes, they will be remembered for their work, and not for the poor man's Oscar they captured along the way.