The film industry has its Oscars, the music industry its Grammys. For the news media, it's the Pulitzer Prizes.
American newspapers are accorded no greater honour than the gold medal in the category Public Service, but journalists, photographers, writers, composers and playwrights also are singled out for glory.
On Monday the 100th edition of the prizes will be announced by the Columbia University School of Journalism, which administers the Pulitzer Prize. Following are several informative facts and curious tidbits about the prizes:
- The prize is named after Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911), a Hungarian-American newspaper publisher who bequeathed the money to set up the prize. As a young man Pulitzer emigrated from a small town in Hungary to the United States. Starting out in various odd jobs, he eventually came to the newspaper business and worked his way up the career ladder to become publisher of the New York World, where he pioneered the idea of investigative journalism. In his will Pulitzer bequeathed money for two purposes – to establish the Columbia University Journalism School and the Pulitzer Prize.
- Initially, Pulitzer conceived of four prizes for journalism, four for writers and playwrights and one in the area of education, but he allowed for changes in the awards. Today, prizes are handed out in 21 categories, 14 in newspaper journalism, including photography. The remaining seven prizes are for writers of both fiction and non-fiction, poets, composers and playwrights. The award comes with a certificate and 10,000 dollars. The newspaper that wins Pulitzer Prize for Public Service gets a gold medal.
- The prizes are reserved exclusively for US citizens although there are exceptions made for nominees who write a book about US history or whose article appeared in the US media. In those cases the nationality plays no role.
- If the jury is not convinced about the quality of the submissions in any of the categories, it can decide not to hand out an award that year. This happens more often than one would expect. For example in 2012 there was no winner in the literature category, while in 2014 the jury issued no award for journalism feature writing.
- Among the Pulitzer recipients is one US president: John F Kennedy. He was a senator when he won in 1957 for his historical book Profiles of Courage.
- The award ceremonies are not exactly a glamourous event like the Oscars. About a month after the prizes are announced, the winners are honoured at a luncheon held in the Columbia University Library.
- The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post have dominated the main awards, the latter most memorably in 1973 for its coverage of the Watergate scandal. But other papers have taken the top honour. In 1995 the Virgin Islands Daily News was cited for uncovering a corruption scandal. Smaller regional newspapers also have been honoured on several occasions by the Pulitzer jury. - The Pulitzer Prize is a huge honour, and in some cases, people have won it more than once. In fact, the record of four prizes is co-held by the poet Robert Frost, the playwright Eugene O'Neill and photographer Carol Guzy.
- Controversy has also accompanied the prize selection process, which is jointly carried out by the jury and by a supervisory board. In 1963, for example, the jury nominated the play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee, but the board members rejected it, saying the play, now regarded as a modern American classic, was not "morally uplifting" enough. Similar grounds were given for denying Ernest Hemingway the prize in 1941 for his novel For Whom The Bell Tolls. Twelve years later he would be accorded the ultimate honour – the Nobel Prize for Literature – for The Old Man and the Sea.
The biggest scandal in the century-old history of the prize was caused by the journalist Janet Cooke. Her reporting in the Washington Post about an 8-year-old inner-city heroin addict won the award in 1981, but soon she had to return it amid revelations that the entire story had been made up.