The Boston Phoenix
April 15 - 22, 1999

[Don't Quote Me]

Pulitzer Lite

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' circle.

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

Dan Kennedy's work can be accessed from his Web site:

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]

Articles from July 24, 1997 & before can be accessed here

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