BOB GARFIELD: On April 8th the Pulitzer Committee will announce this year's awards for investigative journalism. Simply being considered for a Pulitzer Prize puts journalists and the papers they work at in an elite group -- like the Academy Awards. And similar to this year's Oscars, the Pulitzers are currently the center of a really good fight. In one corner the Seattle Times. The other corner, the Wall Street Journal. On the Media's Jad Abumrad has the call.
JAD ABUMRAD: Last March the Seattle Times published the 6-part series Uninformed Consent. After a two year investigation the series concluded that doctors at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, called Hutch for short, did not adequately inform patients of the risks involved in the clinical trials they were a part of. Many patients died -- prematurely, according to the series. A year later, Uninformed Consent has won 4 major journalism awards and the series is rumored to be a finalist for the Pulitzer. That's when the accusations started flying. Steve Goldstein, a spokesman for the Wall Street Journal, puts it bluntly.
STEVE GOLDSTEIN: With the evidence that the Seattle Times had, that story would not have passed muster in the Wall Street Journal.
JAD ABUMRAD: So Journal managing editor Laura Landro wrote an opinion piece entitled Good Medicine, Bad Journalism. Landro, a cancer survivor, accused the Seattle Times of short-sighted sensationalism, of ignoring the number of lives the center's research has saved, including her own. That same day the Seattle Times fired back with their own op-ed, Good Journalism, Bad Critique -- about Landro's piece.
DAVID BOARDMAN: There was absolutely nothing in her piece that undermined the validity of what we reported. She didn't even speak specifically to any of the details.
JAD ABUMRAD: David Boardman is the editor of the series.
DAVID BOARDMAN: She's very connected with the place. They saved her life. So she, she's not an unbiased source.
JAD ABUMRAD: Goldstein responds.
STEVE GOLDSTEIN: That's preposterous! And it's sexist! She is a professional journalist writing about a topic which she's very knowledgeable about.
JAD ABUMRAD: The op-ed tit for tat continued this week, mostly centered around the issue of timing. Why did the Journal decide to publish Landro's op-ed now versus a year ago? The Seattle Times contends and the New York Times suggests that the Journal may have been trying to derail the series from getting a Pulitzer.
DOUG BATES: I see this as the latest chapter in a long and storied history of the controversy over the prizes.
JAD ABUMRAD: Doug Bates, editor of the Oregonian and historian of the Pulitzer Prize, says the jury which met a month ago to select the finalists is supposed to keep the names secret till the board makes its decision in April.
DOUG BATES: But we people in the newspaper business are [LAUGHS] probably the biggest blabbermouths on earth.
JAD ABUMRAD: Still, the hubbub within the industry rarely breaks through to the outside world as it has this year. One notorious case: in 1981, Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke was awarded a Pulitzer for profiling an 8 year old heroin addict -- a story she later admitted was completely made up. The prize was retracted. This concern for accuracy, normally a good thing between journalists, can become a weapon in the hands of private institutions who may use it to bludgeon even worthy Pulitzer Prize submissions, says Dave Boardman at the Seattle Times.
DAVID BOARDMAN: You know this isn't about the Wall Street Journal trying to keep us from getting a Pulitzer. This is about the Hutch trying to keep us from getting a Pulitzer Prize.
JAD ABUMRAD: According to Boardman, even before the Landro editorial was published, an association of which the Hutch is the principal member, sent a packet of information the size of the Seattle phone book to the members of the Pulitzer Board.
DAVID BOARDMAN: This kind of thing has been going on behind the scenes for some time.
JAD ABUMRAD: Boardman recalls a similar situation with journalist Sam Roe, now with the Chicago Tribune.
SAM ROE: In 1999 when I was at my former paper, The Toledo Blade, we had published a 6-part series on Beryllium which is a metal used in nuclear weapons and whose toxic dust can cause an often-fatal lung disease.
JAD ABUMRAD: Roe's series provoked the ire of a Cleveland Beryllium manufacturer.
SAM ROE: And they started distributing a thick pack of materials, thick as the New York phone book actually, and part of it was titled A Chronicle of Reckless Reporting. But I honestly believe that they tried to intimidate the judges, not just the Pulitzer judges but other contest judges, by the sheer volume of it.
JAD ABUMRAD: The built in problem according to Roe is that the Pulitzer Board has limited time to evaluate not just newspaper submissions but also encyclopedia-sized challenges, and that hurts a reporter's chances. Seymour Topping, director of the Pulitzer committee, says that's not true. He declined to be taped for this interview but he did say, adamantly, that the board resists lobbying. Pulitzer Prize historian Doug Bates.
DOUG BATES: There, there have been those kind of controversies throughout the history of the prizes in journalism. That doesn't mean that a close look at that history leaves you feeling that the prizes are badly tarnished. Quite the opposite.
JAD ABUMRAD: Except in a few unusual years like this one.
DOUG BATES: It reminds me a lot of what happened this year in the Academy Awards.
JAD ABUMRAD: Like Oscar winner or Olympic gold medalist, the phrase Pulitzer Prize Winner will precede the name of the people who win it for the rest of their professional lives. Even in the most rarified news rooms, that's a distinction worth fighting for. For On the Media, this is Jad Abumrad.
BOB GARFIELD:Coming up, how to get noticed by Google, why the author of Primary Colors thinks Bill Clinton got a bad rap. Also the FCC makes TV more accessible for the blind.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media from National Public Radio.
"I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)"
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