McGuire on Media

The Enquirer/Pulitzer flap should inspire better investigative work; Cronkite School doing its part

I get asked fairly often for media comments and much of the time they’re not worth sharing.  I was asked a question yesterday that started a cascade of thoughts that may be worth sharing.

I was asked this by a major national news organization: “(The National) Enquirer has applied for a Pulitzer for their long Edwards coverage. Tons of bloggers are pushing their case and the campaign has made the mainstream. What do you think?”

Here was my reply. “This comment may not be consistent with the ”priesthood” view, but I will be shocked if the Enquirer wins a Pulitzer for two reasons. One, I am convinced there will be bias in the jury room and on the board against that particular publication. The jury and the board occasionally like to do “roguish” things. This one would be way outside the boundaries. There’s no conspiracy there, just the reality.  

“The second reason is far more substantive and more determinative. The Pulitzer is never awarded for “newsbreaks” or scoops.  Even in the breaking news category, writing, depth, texture and context are all rewarded. I can’t imagine the Enquirer piece winning on those standards.”

Several of the blogs I read including this one seem to imply that the mere news break and the fact that it was proven correct qualifies it for a Pulitzer. I contend there is no precedent for “good scoops” winning the big prize.

Now, I wish I would have pointed out that the Enquirer is a magazine which would apparently make it ineligible. I think the charge Enquirer executive editor, Barry Levine made here is bogus. “Obviously, they’re looking for excuses rather than have to objectively review our submission,” said Executive Editor Barry Levine.  I think the Pulitzer administrators are above that. The accusation seems reckless, not surprising but reckless. 

Now I also wish I would have expressed the sentiment I’ve seen in now unknown places that The Enquirer, TMZ and others are doing their best to crash the parties previously reserved for mainstream publications.  That party-crashing should not be decried. Instead it should force mainstream publications to realize they can’t keep cutting watchdog reporting without serious consequences. 

I disagree with Levine’s beef with the Pulitzer board, but I partially agree with him when he said, “If it wasn’t this they would come up with another excuse, paying tipsters or something else. The Pulitzer committee needs to get their heads out of sand and recognize that media organizations like the National Enquirer, bloggers, Web sites, and local  news gathering sites made up of laid off reporters are the new face of American journalism and doing the heavy lifting,” said Levine.

Unfortunately that heavy lifting part is too true. Too many newspapers are still concentrating on the routine and the mundane rather than making the earth move with strong in-depth and investigative pieces. Without getting in the business of citing specific examples for fear of offending, I do think that the Star Tribune and the Arizona Republic have picked up the pace of high-profile stories lately, but I am cheering for the day when it is clear every newspaper is making in-depth and investigative pieces their priority.

Here at the Cronkite School that subject is getting big-time attention. Our Cronkite News Service under the leadership of Steve Elliott produces some important investigative work and so does our television program NewsWatch.   

My long-time friend and treasured colleague, Rick Rodriguez, can routinely be heard two doors down counseling students about in-depth work that has real impact.  His in-depth reporting crew produces some top-notch pieces.  And further down the hall long-time industry colleague Len Downie has developed a new class for students on accountability journalism.  He’s teaching the basics of that art to 14 hungry ASU students and several students from across the country who are a part of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative’s innovative News21.

News21 is another place that is stretching the boundaries of in-depth and investigative work.  That site is worth visiting and you can use a free widget from News21 to send readers to the site. You can even customize the widget to promote material of specific interest to your market.  It’s a great way to look at what the future of important work might look like. 

Schools like the Cronkite School are doing their part to train young reporters to go beyond the obvious to find stories that really matter.  We just have to pray their talents and skills will find a place in the changing American journalism.