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L.A. Times Wins 2 Pulitzer Prizes

April 05, 2005|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Times won the Pulitzer Prize for public service Monday for a series of stories that detailed how Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center provided care so poor that it sickened and imperiled some patients. The award is the most coveted of America's journalism prizes.

The Times' Moscow bureau chief, Kim Murphy, won a Pulitzer for what judges called "eloquent, wide-ranging" coverage of Russia. Murphy shared the international reporting award with Newsday correspondent Dele Olojede.

The Times and the Wall Street Journal were the only publications to win more than one of the annual prizes given by an independent board of journalists and presented by Columbia University.

The double victory gives The Times a total of 13 Pulitzers over the last five years, the most successful run in the paper's 123-year history.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 07, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Pulitzer Prizes -- An article in Tuesday's Section A about the Pulitzer Prizes said this year's winner for criticism, Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal, also gave film critiques on National Public Radio. Morgenstern's film reviews are broadcast exclusively on Santa Monica-based KCRW (89.9 FM), a local segment inserted into NPR's nationwide program "All Things Considered."

Other winners included a writer for a weekly newspaper in Portland, Ore., for reporting on former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt's affair with a 14-year-old girl; a Boston Globe reporter for stories about stem cell research; and a Sacramento Bee writer for editorials on efforts to reclaim the flooded Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Journalists at the Los Angeles Times celebrated the awards at a noon newsroom gathering. Editor John S. Carroll told the assembled crowd that the public service victory felt particularly special and that he hoped it would usher in an era of even greater reporting "on California topics ... that I hope will change people's lives for the better."

Reporters and editors gave a loud and extended ovation to Publisher John P. Puerner, who has been seen as a champion of the newspaper's editorial operations in an era of cost-cutting. Puerner announced last month that he would take a "self-imposed career break" at the end of May, to be replaced by his protege, Jeffrey M. Johnson.

The Times ran its five-part series, "The Troubles at King/Drew," in December 2004. But the idea arose in 2003 with lead reporters Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber focusing broadly on Los Angeles County's public health system.

The writers realized they were onto something disturbing when they discovered that two King/Drew patients had died after hospital employees failed to properly monitor them. Then the hospital lost its accreditation to train general surgeons.

"That helped solidify our thinking that the problems at King/Drew were a lot more severe than at any other county hospital," said Ornstein, 31, who joined the paper less than four years ago. "We knew we just had to focus on it."

But major hurdles confronted the two reporters and colleagues Mitchell Landsberg and Steve Hymon.

The hospital they were writing about was created after the 1965 Watts riots, a move meant to bring high-quality healthcare to the area's poor and mostly African American residents.

Previous attempts to reform the hospital near Watts had been called racist by its supporters and some politicians. But the reporters and editors tackled the race issue, explaining how the pride that helped create the hospital later was used to rebuff criticism, no matter how well documented.

Care had deteriorated so much over three decades that the hospital had "become a source of shame," according to one Times editorial.

Among the case studies that put a face on the substandard care were those of a 9-year-old daughter of Guatemalan immigrants who went to King/Drew with two broken baby teeth and died after a series of errors; a 52-year-old woman who staggered to a nursing station for help and later died -- poisoned by a glass of liquid tissue preservative left on her bed stand; and a 40-year-old woman whose reproductive organs were removed because of a mistaken diagnosis of cancer.

The woman, Johnnie Mae Williams, who was left infertile as a result, was one of several people who did not know her condition until told by a Times reporter.

"Here was this woman who thought she was a cancer survivor saved by the hospital," said Weber, 41, who won prizes in the 1990s for her reporting on failures of Orange County's foster care system. "I knew she wanted to have more children. And to tell her that was just devastating."

Newspapers seldom publish such major investigative projects without citing confidential sources. But the Times series quoted only those who agreed to be identified.

Since publication of the series in December, a national accrediting group has stripped the hospital of its seal of approval, and federal regulators threatened to pull $200 million in funding from the hospital. The county also proceeded with plans to close the hospital's trauma center, approved last fall despite angry protests.

Deputy Metropolitan Editor Julie Marquis, who helped launch and oversee the series, said she hoped the award would bring notice so "that the community will finally get the medical attention it deserves."

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