Eyes on the (Pulitzer) Prize

Story written by Seymour Topping.

Across the United States, celebrations have been in progress this year under what is termed the Campfires Initiative, marking the centennial of the Pulitzer Prize awards in American journalism and the arts.

The Pulitzer Prize Board cites the initiative as intended to inspire “new generations to value high-quality arts, letters and journalism, to use Pulitzer Prize-winning work to explore questions and issues relevant to our times and to use the social media and other interactive technology to deepen the impact of Pulitzer Prize works on the cultural landscape.” Forty-six state humanitarian councils are engaged under the initiative in Pulitzer-themed projects. Participants include media organizations, schools, historical societies, libraries and other groups as well as teachers. The origin of the Pulitzers contains a history lesson out of the workings of American democracy. 

The Pulitzer Prizes program was established at Columbia University by a bequest in the 1904 will of Joseph Pulitzer, an American born in Mako, Hungary, in 1847, the son of a wealthy grain merchant of Magyar-Jewish origin and a German mother. He was educated as a teenager in Budapest in private schools and by tutors. Restive at age 17 and seeking adventure as a soldier, he traveled to Hamburg, Germany, where he met a bounty recruiter for the U.S. Union Army and contracted to enlist. 

Eluding the bounty escort, he jumped ship in Boston Harbor and decided to enlist for a year in the Lincoln Cavalry. Thereafter, he made his way to St. Louis, where after laboring at odd jobs — studying English and the law in a library in his free time — he got a job as a newspaper reporter. Enjoying extraordinary success in journalism mixed in with business dealings, he vaulted into the role of newspaper publisher at the age of 25. He eventually came into ownership of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the New York World. Pulitzer managed to maintain the closest editorial and business direction of his newspapers for years despite becoming severely ill and virtually blind. He died aboard his yacht, the Liberty, in 1911. 

A year later, the Columbia Journalism School was founded, with the first Pulitzer Prizes awarded in 1917 under the supervision of an independent advisory board made up of distinguished journalists and academics as specified by the Pulitzer mandate. The president of Columbia and the dean of  the J School serve on the board. The guiding Pulitzer creed is framed in bronze on the wall at the entrance of the school. It states: “Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demogogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mold the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations.”

Next April, the Pulitzer process will enter its second century as the board gathers in the Pulitzer Hall World Room of the Columbia J School to select winners in 14 journalism and seven arts categories. Typically, more than 2,400 entries are made in the competitions. Under the supervision of the administrator, juries in each of the 21 categories make three nominations to the board.  In prior weeks, the board would have read the texts of the journalism entries and the 15 nominated books, listened to recordings of the nominated music, read the scripts of the nominated plays and attended performances or seen videos where possible. 

The winners are then notified secretly, prior to a press announcement and a subsequent formal award ceremony. The careers of the winners will thus have been transformed and their works become quality examples for the next generations. 

Seymour Topping, former managing editor of The New York Times, served as administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes from 1993 to 2002.

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