No journalism awards are awaited with as much anticipation as the Pulitzer Prizes. And among those Pulitzers, none is more revered than the Joseph Pulitzer Gold Medal. "Pulitzer's Gold" is the first book to trace the ninety-year history of the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, awarded annually to a newspaper rather than to individuals, in the form of that Gold Medal. Exploring this service-journalism legacy, Roy Harris recalls dozens of "stories behind the stories," often allowing the journalists involved to share their own accounts. Here are a vivid description of the "Boston Globe's" uncovering of sexual misconduct by Catholic priests; an analysis of how the "New York Times" helped the community cope with the 9/11 attacks; and tales of the brilliant coverage of Hurricane Katrina by two wounded papers, the "Times-Picayune" in New Orleans and the "Sun Herald" in Gulfport, Mississippi. Readers will recognize some of the stories, like the "New York Times'" Pentagon Papers exclusive and the Watergate scandal that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein dug up for the "Washington Post".
But Harris takes his Gold Medal saga through two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights struggle, and the Vietnam era before bringing public-service journalism into today's age of environmental and corporate exposes. Among the hidden treasures that come alive: how the "Boston Post" exposed the original Roaring Twenties Ponzi schemer - dapper, silver-tongued Charles Ponzi himself - and how northern California's tiny, remote Point Reyes Light, thirty years ago, discovered that the Synanon antidrug program had become a dangerous armed cult. (As the Light investigated, one Synanon critic was attacked by a rattlesnake that had been stuffed into his mailbox by group operatives, taking the story, and the Light's fame, national.) Through these and other Gold Medal accounts, newspaper teamwork gets its due as a driving factor in great journalism, and Harris acknowledges reporters and editors who may have received little personal attention when their papers received the awards. He also examines the evolution of the judging process since the first Pulitzers in 1917, addressing controversies arising over the public-service selections.
At a time when newspaper journalism is severely challenged, story after story illustrates how public-service reporting has been a point of pride for the American press, whether by small-town papers or metropolitan dailies. "Pulitzer's Gold" offers a new way of looking at journalism history and practice and a new lens through which to view America's own story.
Roy J. Harris Jr. is former deputy chief of the Wall Street Journal's Los Angeles bureau and a senior editor of The Economist Group's CFO Magazine. He lives in Hingham, Massachusetts.