Mr. Ponzi, meet Mr. Pulitzer

Posted: Monday, April 20, 2009

For people who think of newspapers as an anachronism in this day of texting, twittering and 24/7 online tracking of local, national and global events, the Pulitzer Prizes must seem downright prehistoric.

Today, the annual celebration of a handful of journalists, employed for the most part by the mainstream daily press, will begin with a news conference at Columbia University. Word on the winners of American journalism's most prestigious awards will spread, via the Internet, radio and television and, finally, Tuesday's newspapers.

Why should we care about the Pulitzers?

For one answer, look back at a Roaring '20s character who remains wildly relevant today: investment charlatan Charles Ponzi. The man whose name personifies the "pyramid scheme," it turns out, is also a major player in the story of modern watchdog reporting - of the type that all media junkies want to preserve.

And Ponzi's tale also speaks to the continuing power of the Pulitzer Prizes.

The early 20th century featured a mainstream media much more in disrepute than today's. By then, "yellow journalism" - the sensationalist, jingoistic approach adopted in the 1890s by publishing giants William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer - was largely discredited, but it remained a fresh memory as newspapers sought a new model of success.

A leader in the search was that same Joseph Pulitzer, a reformed man after his shameful New York circulation battles with Hearst. In a 1902 memo, Pulitzer dreamed up a plan to advance both public service and professionalism among the press: offering prizes for extraordinary journalism and university-based schooling for future journalists.

When Pulitzer died in 1911, his bequests set up Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism and, in 1917, the first Pulitzer Prizes.

In a brilliant stroke, he combined his three journalism Pulitzers - for public service, reporting and editorial writing - with others to honor America's masters of arts and letters. The idea was to "elevate" newspaper work to the status of that more-established literary excellence. Today, there are a total of 14 journalism prizes.

Choosing exemplary journalism was tough. Indeed, there were no recipients for the public service award in 1917 and 1920, and no reporting prize in 1919.

That's where Ponzi comes in.

In search of a model, the Pulitzer board began focusing on watchdog journalism: public-minded reporting aimed at exposing governmental or private malfeasance. And the hallmark entry in 1921 was from The Boston Post, whose editor, Richard Grozier, had grown suspicious of the charismatic Italian immigrant who promised to double investors' money in 90 days.

Pulitzer jurors cited the Post for "pricking the Ponzi financial bubble, in investigating his claims to be operating in foreign exchange and throwing doubt on him at a time when the public officials were inactive and other newspapers were either ignoring him or treating him as a genuine financial wizard." The newspaper had used local experts to analyze Ponzi's supposed strategy - the purchase of obscure international postal-rate conversion instruments, which actually had no investment value. And the Post spread word of his fraud convictions in Canada and in Georgia - and mug shots - across its front pages.

The Post's Pulitzer honor awakened papers around the country to the value of tough, courageous journalism. In half a dozen cases over the next few years, Pulitzers were awarded to journalists who took on the Ku Klux Klan - including Southern editors who challenged vicious and powerful KKK leaders in their communities.

Then, in 1927, a Pulitzer public service award honored an Ohio editor who made the ultimate sacrifice. In his coverage, Don Mellett of The Canton Daily News exposed the underworld of mobster Jumbo Crowley. One evening, the pesky watchdog was gunned down outside his house.

Such stories set the tone for generations of journalists - among Pulitzer winners through the Depression, World War II and, perhaps most notably, the Vietnam era. It was then that Pulitzers cited Seymour Hersh's exposure of the My Lai massacre (winning in 1970), The New York Times' analysis of the top-secret Pentagon Papers (1972) and The Washington Post's Watergate coverage (1973).

Despite the newspaper industry's 21st-century plight, Pulitzer-winning work has been hardly less remarkable. In the public service category alone, The Boston Globe was recognized for its careful and powerful revelations about sexual abuse of parishioners by Catholic priests and the global ramifications of the shocking cover-up by the church (2003).

The Los Angeles Times won its fifth public service Pulitzer in 2005 for disclosures about medical problems and racial injustice at King/Drew Medical Center. And The Washington Post was honored in 2008 for exposing scandalous abuses at Walter Reed Army Medical Center where veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were being mistreated.

Fewer oases of great journalism remain in this time of financial pressure on newspapers. And high-cost "project reporting" of the type responsible for many Pulitzers is particularly vulnerable to newsroom budget cuts.

But investigative reporting still attracts idealistic students, seeking whatever opportunities they are offered. The journalism to be honored Monday will continue to be studied by those aspiring reporters, and veteran journalists as well, for lessons about what is possible in their profession - if they have the courage to stay in it.

• Harris, a journalist in Hingham, Mass., is the author of "Pulitzer's Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism." From 1974 to 1994, he was a Los Angeles-based reporter and editor for The Wall Street Journal.

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