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Ted Rall: Why the Pulitzer Prize is Utter BS (analysis)

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Ted Rall
Written by Ted Rall

The Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning is bogus, says our Ted Rall, and not just because anyone can nominate his or herself. Ted Rall expounds (analysis).

aNewDomain.net — Our Ted Rall, himself a past Pulitzer Prize nominee, writes below that the Pulitzer Prize process is bogus. Why? Because the most-prestigious award in journalism is broken, he says. Check out the latest Ted Rall commentary below to find out why.

In a couple of months, the winners of this year’s Pulitzer Prizes in journalism will be announced.

I won’t be one of the winners. I forgot to enter this year.

And yes, you read that correctly.

Anyone with fifty bucks, a few stories to send in and a Pulitzer dream can take a shot at what many consider to be the most- prestigious prize in journalism.

Once you’ve self-nominated, by the way, you’re officially a Pulitzer Prize nominee.

Now, I have won awards. Plenty of them. I’ve judged them. And you’d shiver if you knew the lurid stories about how judges choose winners.

There’s a huge gap between the public perception that these prizes reward the year’s best work in journalism and its reality, which is that the selection process makes no sense and is corrupt to the core.

If people knew the truth, they’d be shocked. And the truth is that judges just brazenly let political biases and personal connections (or grudges) guide their supposed-to-be-objective decision making. Their tastes run boringly middlebrow.

No shock there. The judging processes for other contests are flawed, too, but I’m focusing on the Pulitzer because, as the most-prestigious award in the field, it is the one that most Americans have heard of and to which journalists are most likely to apply.

My rule is that I don’t apply to awards that are less famous than I am.

Still more troubling is the Pulitzer system of judging and what happens if you do nominate yourself or win.

Winning a Pulitzer is good for careers. It can score you a raise, land a book deal, protect you from a round of layoffs and, at bare minimum, earn you all measures of oohs and ahs when someone introduces you as a Pultizer Prize winner at a party.

Who wins the Pulitzer matters to American society.

It directly impacts the evolution of journalism.

For example, my fellow editorial cartoonists mimic the drawing styles, structural approaches and even the politics of previous winners purely out of hope that they themselves will eventually win the prize.

Every announcement of a winner sends a message. Most years, corporate-journalism establishment wants safe and middle-of-the-road journalists on board. And what wins the Big P is always going to be what editors and producers consider to be safe.

The Pulitzer goes to innovation — sometimes. Yet while the Pulitzer signals that one kind of daring is okay, it also signals that other daring works are too outré to be taken seriously. Much less employment-worthy.

Given the Pulitzer’s impact, you’d think that the people at Columbia University’s journalism school would award it thoughtfully. That they’d create a set of criteria and judging mechanisms capable of rewarding the highest-quality news photographers, playwrights, editorial writers and reporters in the United States.

You’d think. But this is not the case at all.

Most people believe that the Pulitzer for cartooning, for example, goes to the best cartoonist of the year. The truth is complicated. It’s byzantine.

The Pulitzer Prize for cartoonist goes to the best portfolio of 20 cartoons drawn by a cartoonist the previous year. And these are the ones that the cartoonist selects himself.

Now, a typical political cartoonist draws about 200 cartoons a year.

That means the judging committee for political cartoons never sees 90 percent of an artist’s work. And they don’t see any of the work from cartoonists who didn’t enter that year.

And so, after the committee announces particularly-egregious winners, the jurors’ common refrain is: “Hey, he had a great portfolio.”

That’s almost never true.

Maybe it is for the best that judges only look at a tiny slice of U.S. political cartooning because most Pulitzer jurors are so ignorant of the field.

Each prize category — biography, fiction, cartooning, whatever — gets judged by a committee.

As for cartooning, until recently the judging committee was comprised entirely of editors and editorial-page editors, some of whom didn’t even run cartoons in their publications.

Still others, like photo editors, worked in other fields.

Some have admitted to fellow panelists they’d never even seen an editorial cartoon.

None had the obsessive, comprehensive knowledge of American political cartooning you’d want or expect out of a panel of judges.

And most jurors were ignorant of entire genres of cartooning altogether.

Just a year ago, a juror insisted that entries by alternative weekly cartoonists — Tom TomorrowWard SuttonRuben Bolling, me — shouldn’t be considered for the Prize because she didn’t think our genre was political cartooning at all. And she’d never seen them before, so she wasn’t sure that the cartoons themselves were even political cartoons.

If you’re not familiar with political cartoons, how can you tell if an entry is good, original or just hackneyed?

You can’t.

The committee selects three finalists. These are sent to the main Pulitzer Prize committee, which chooses the winner among the three finalists.

They are able to opt not to award a category prize at all. This happened in fiction a few years ago. Or they’re able to ignore the category committee’s recommendations and pull the winner out of thin air. This is what happened the year I was a finalist.

And, yes, I took it personally.

In recent years, the cartooning committee has included one or two actual people who actually knew something about cartooning, an academic and/or a previous Pulitzer winner.

But most committee jurors are still drawn out of the never-seen-one-before faction of jurors.

Columbia tells committee members to choose finalists everyone will agree with.

So, unless someone throws a hissy fit — this almost never happens —  the result is a trio of compromise finalists. The one or two jurors who know what they’re talking about negotiate these choices with the two or three who don’t.

The lowest common denominator wins.

The winner is selected by the very establishmentarian, very old and very staid Pulitzer Board.

Though it is possible that the classical philosopher, the rural South Dakota newspaper publisher and the New Yorker writer who sit on the board are voracious consumers of the 60 or so political cartoons produced daily by the nation’s graphic satirists, it is far more likely they will be casting ballots in an important election between candidates they know nothing about.

And that’s just BS.

For aNewDomain.net, I’m Ted Rall.

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About the author

Ted Rall

Ted Rall

Based in New York, Ted Rall is aNewDomain's chief commentator and a nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist. A Pulitzer nominee, Rall's latest book is the NYT bestselling book, Trump: A Graphic Biography.
Support his work and see his toons first at his site on Petreon.