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BOOK REVIEW : Pulitzer History Won't Stop the Presses : THE PULITZER PRIZE: The Inside Story of America's Most Prestigious Award By Douglas Bates Birch Lane Press, $19.95, 288 pages

July 16, 1991|CONSTANCE CASEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In this first unauthorized history of America's most prestigious journalism prizes, Douglas Bates breaks three longtime journalistic rules.

First, he buries his lead. That is to say the news--in this case the revelation of who the bad guys are--is not right up there at the top.

Second, he includes irrelevant facts, like who named Manhattan Beach (a homesick New Yorker who in 1912 won a coin toss with his real-estate partner) and how Joseph Pulitzer brought the Statue of Liberty to New York.

Finally, he fails to blow the lid off the whole filthy mess. This isn't really his fault, for there seems to be no filthy mess to blow the lid off of.

Instead of malfeasance or stupidity in the bestowing of these influential prizes, what we find is a group of people who are not always completely objective. Some of them arrive for the judging in limos, a lot of them work for the New York Times, but these attributes don't necessarily make them devils incarnate.

Despite these journalistic problems, Bates' story gets off the ground when he tells us about three finalists for the 1990 specialized reporting prize. What comes through is the persistence, to the point of heroism, of the reporters, all in their 30s: Jim Dwyer, Claire Spiegel and Tamar Stieber.

Dwyer, working for the New York tabloid Newsday, with a circulation of 700,000, wrote a series about subway workers' excessive overtime, excoriating "a transit system that . . . pays good money for people to work punch-drunk, tired, as dulled by fatigue as they would be by liquor."

Spiegel, working for the Los Angeles Times, with a circulation of more than a million, demonstrated how to write a lead in her series about an emergency care center.

"An 18-year-old girl was rushed to the hospital in December after a bullet fired from a passing car tore through her neck, pierced her jawbone, lacerated her tongue and blinded her in one eye. But when she arrived at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center in Watts, her ordeal was not over. In surgery, trauma doctors mistakenly slit her throat."

Stieber was in only her second year at a daily newspaper, the Santa Fe bureau of the Albuquerque Journal, with a circulation of 118,000, when she uncovered a link between a rare blood disorder and the over-the-counter dietary supplement L-Tryptophan.

Our author moves back and forth among his heroes and his examination of the Pulitzer institution.

He also provides a history of Pulitzer highs and lows, with the high being the prize to Seymour M. Hersh for his series on the massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. Hersh, later hired by the New York Times, worked at the time for Dispatch News Service, which was basically Hersh and a friend working out of a room in the friend's house.

The most famous low occurred when Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke fabricated a story about Jimmy, an 8-year-old heroin addict. Bates suggests that "a braver, less chummy (Pulitzer) board would have disqualified the Post from future competition--an 'NCAA suspension,' if you like--for at least a year."

Getting more into the meat of current newspaper issues, Bates asks, "Isn't it true that newspaper chains seek prizes to create a perception that they are doing great public good, while in fact their newspapers are drastically diminishing news content and quality in their pursuit of high profits?" Sounds right. But you're writing the book, Bates, so you tell us. Bates, 44, who toiled for 22 years as a news editor for the Register Guard in Eugene, Ore., and the Seattle Times before quitting to write screenplays, wants us to know that the prize money is peanuts. Used to be $1,000, upped in 1988 to $3,000.

Most of the Pulitzer money has run out and the prizes are bankrolled by undisclosed sources. Bates points out the irony in the fact that the bucks going to the winner of the investigative award come from a secret source. It is definitely an irony, but Bates doesn't follow the money--a basic rule of investigative reporting--to find out who the source is.

Bates finds the whole business very clubby. Which it is, because the Pulitzer board is basically a club. One with great power and well-meaning people equipped with the usual frailties. They want to make their enemies unhappy and their friends happy. They do their judging in secret to avoid arousing somebody's wrath or hurting somebody's feelings.

And, although they apparently have a hard time keeping a secret (Dwyer and Spiegel knew they had lost well before the official announcement), they don't leak the name of the persons or foundations that keep the Pulitzers alive.

Next: Jonathan Kirsch reviews "Heat: The Fire Investigators and Their War on Arson and Murder" by Peter A. Micheels (St. Martin's).

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