Dumbing down with Maureen Dowd and the AP. Plus, Peter Canellos's poison pen,
and Ruth Shalit says good-bye to all that.
by Dan Kennedy
Maureen Dowd. Maureen Dowd. Jesus. It was bad enough when the
Pulitzer board this week awarded the top prize for commentary to the It Girl of
the New York Times op-ed page. It was worse when the judges specifically
cited her superficial (if occasionally hilarious) columns on the Bill
Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair as "fresh and insightful." But what made it
nearly intolerable was that she beat out the Village Voice's Nat
Hentoff, one of the runners-up. Hentoff, an eloquent First Amendment stalwart
since the 1950s, has never won a Pulitzer.
Then again, Hentoff, an anti-choice civil-libertarian atheistic
septuagenarian, makes people uncomfortable. Dowd, by contrast, never fails to
pander to the conventional wisdom of the moment.
There was a time when you couldn't win a Pulitzer for punditry unless you were
an old-fashioned chin-stroker on the order of James Reston (national reporting,
New York Times, 1957), Walter Lippmann (international reporting, New
York Herald Tribune Syndicate, 1962), or David Broder (commentary,
Washington Post, 1973). Those days, for better or worse, are over.
But giving the award to Dowd smacks of Pulitzer Lite -- especially when
compared with recent winners in the commentary category. Last year the prize
went to the New York Daily News' Mike McAlary, who was dying of cancer.
After battling back from an ethical lapse earlier in his career, McAlary earned
the prize with his dogged reporting on Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who
claimed he'd been brutalized by police. In 1997 the winner was the Boston
Globe's Eileen McNamara, a sometimes irritating moralizer who's
nevertheless a first-rate reporter and a passionate crusader. Even humorist
Dave Barry, who won in 1988 when he was at the Miami Herald, had more
interesting things to say about the human condition than Dowd does. Then again,
that was before Barry put his brain on cruise control -- a setting Dowd opted
for four years ago, when she moved from the Times' Washington bureau to
the op-ed page.
Unfortunately, commentary was not the only category infected with the Pulitzer
Lite virus. The trivialization extended to feature photography -- and, if
anything, the choice here was even more egregiously awful. The Associated Press
-- which also won in spot-news photography for its coverage of the embassy
bombings in Kenya and Tanzania -- got the feature award for its coverage of the
impeachment drama. Do you remember any truly noteworthy images from the
Clinton-Lewinsky-Starr mess? Me either. Cruise on over to the AP's Web site
and you'll see why. The winning entry consists of
photos by 15 photographers who shot public events, most of them staged for the
media. The pictures are competently executed but, with few exceptions, show no
more imagination than is needed, say, to stake out O.J. Simpson's estate.
Here's Betty Currie showing up for her grand-jury interrogation. There are
Monica Lewinsky and William Ginsburg walking to a waiting car. Here's Bill
Clinton biting his lip during that odious White House pep rally while Hillary
glares with a mixture of defiance and disgust.
The two finalists beaten out by this prefabricated photojournalism were
Daniel Anderson, of the Orange County Register, who took pictures of
children growing up in sleazy residential motels, and Bill Greene, of the
Globe. I'm not familiar with Anderson's work. I am familiar with
Greene's, and it says something pretty damning about the state of the Pulitzers
that the AP's celeb shots were deemed more worthy than Greene's entry.
Greene and writer Wil Haygood documented the work of Donald Anderson (no
relation, presumably, to Daniel Anderson), an African-American social-justice
advocate who travels throughout small rural communities in the South. Greene's
14 published photos included remarkable shots of a boy arriving in a tuxedo for
his middle-school graduation, a volunteer making the rounds of the local jail,
and a woman taking care of her husband, who had recently lost his foot to
gangrene caused by the raw sewage that flows through their neighborhood. Great
stuff, but not good enough for the Pulitzers, apparently. Greene -- currently
shooting in the Balkans -- will have to content himself with being a two-time
Newspaper Photographer of the Year, as chosen by the National Press
Photographers Association and the University of Missouri.
Greene's was one of three Globe entries to make it to the finals. The
others were Gail Caldwell's book reviews and Dolores Kong and Robert Whitaker's
series on psychiatric patients subjected to dangerous medical experiments. This
was the third time Caldwell has been named a finalist.
Which raises a question: one year after the Pulitzer judges came within a hair
of awarding the commentary prize to Patricia Smith, who later resigned after it
was revealed she had fabricated characters and quotes, is the Globe
being punished? Certainly some at the Globe are wondering whether that's
the case. In the aftermath of Smith's departure, it was learned that editor
Matt Storin and his top lieutenants had strongly suspected Smith of faking
columns in 1995. Maybe the judges, who named Smith a finalist last year, are
pissed, although it should be noted that the Globe didn't win anything
last year, either.
Perhaps the Globe can take heart from the experience of the
Washington Post. In 1981, the feature-writing prize was awarded to Janet
Cooke for her reporting on a seven-year-old heroin addict. Cooke was forced to
give it back after it was revealed that she'd made it all up. The Cooke affair
was the biggest embarrassment in Pulitzer history, far more damaging than
Smith's near-miss. Yet by 1983, the Post was back in the winners'
Can the same thing happen at 135 Morrissey Boulevard? That's impossible to
say. But Gail Caldwell shouldn't give up just yet.
The Globe's rookie metro editor, Peter Canellos, may already have
learned a valuable lesson in the aftermath of his toxic memo describing
three-quarters of his reporters as "not capable of writing a marquee Sunday
piece" and most of his editors as incapable of editing them: when I asked him
to comment, he declined. Smart move.
Still, it's going to take a while for his agitated staff to calm down. The
memo was intended as a private communication for executive editor Helen
Donovan, who's been charged with revitalizing the Sunday paper. Somehow it
ended up on a newsroom bulletin board. From there, it was only a matter of time
before it ended up in the Boston Herald's "Inside Track."
It's not that Canellos was wrong. The "lack of talent on the staff," as
Canellos so indelicately put it, has been a massive obstacle to improving the
Globe's local coverage for years (see
"Get Me Rewrite," News,
May 22, 1998). To be sure, there is a sizable cadre of bright,
hard-working reporters. But the plain fact is that the Globe's local
coverage is uneven, and much of it is unnecessarily dull.
Canellos, a veteran reporter who took over the top metro job in March after
short stints as assistant city editor and city editor, was being viewed with
some suspicion even before the memo. Earlier this year, his predecessor, Teresa
Hanafin (now the paper's computer guru), moved reporter Zachary Dowdy to a
night shift and veteran court reporter John Ellement to a Friday-through-Monday
general-assignment slot. But Canellos is widely viewed as a driving force
behind both of those shifts -- and friends of Ellement, who's popular in the
newsroom, went so far as to start a petition drive in protest.
"There's some deadwood, but to indict three-fourths of the staff -- that's
just wrong," says one reporter.
Canellos tried to make amends -- or at least to explain himself -- at an
hour-long meeting last Friday. Several sources say reporter Judy Rakowsky was
particularly outspoken about the memo's effect on morale, but Rakowsky declined
to discuss her remarks with the Phoenix. A reporter who was present for
most of the meeting came away grumbling. "It didn't satisfy many people," he
says. "It didn't make people feel good about what he thinks of them. It'll take
some time to heal." Another source says of Canellos, "He's arrogant. Not
horribly so, but he's got to knock that shit off."
Retorts a Canellos supporter: "Clearly it's left some people feeling
threatened. But maybe they ought to be."
In the meantime, Canellos should heed the words of Martin "The Mahatma"
Lomasney, the legendary ward heeler from Boston's West End: "Never write if you
can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink."
Remember Ruth Shalit? In the early 1990s, she was the child prodigy of the
New Republic, cranking out dauntingly well-written,
conservative-oriented think pieces. She was the risingest of rising young
stars, and she was soon writing for the likes of GQ and the New York
Times Magazine. But she was caught plagiarizing -- not once, but several
times. And before she could get her legs back under her, she blundered badly,
writing a massive piece for TNR in 1995 that criticized the
Washington Post's affirmative-action program. Her opus, unfortunately,
was full of errors and misquotes, and resulted in a libel suit.
Shalit has virtually disappeared since then, even as her younger sister, Wendy
Shalit, has achieved some measure of fame for her antifeminist tract, A
Return to Modesty (Free Press).
It turns out that Ruth Shalit never really left -- until now. She's moving
from Washington to New York, finally taking TNR editor Chuck Lane's hint
that maybe she ought to, you know, move on. She's going into advertising. And
-- according to a terrific piece in last week's Washington CityPaper by
media critic and editor in chief David Carr -- she's bitter. Her take on her
inability to revive her magazine career: after another young TNR star,
Stephen Glass, was exposed last year as an illusionist on the scale of Houdini,
it was her fate to be forever lumped with him, even though her transgressions
weren't nearly as serious.
"When people started writing pieces about Steve Glass, it all sort of got
thinned out," she whines to Carr. "It was `Steve Glass, fabulist' and `Ruth
Shalit, plagiarist.' The rest of who I was and what I had done got dumped." But
though it's true that Glass's misdeeds were worse than Shalit's, hers were
certainly bad enough. Too bad she can't see that.
Carr's prose is at times overwrought, especially when he describes Shalit's
manipulative attempts to pull him into her emotional orbit. But for anyone
interested in what went wrong with Shalit's once-promising career, it's a
must-read. The CityPaper's Web site is
Articles from July 24, 1997 & before can be accessed here