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Pulitzer Prize Honors 100 Years Of Public Service Journalism


A big day Monday for a group of people who'll wake up as journalists, poets or playwrights but they'll go to bed Pulitzer Prize winners. And that designation will follow them for the rest of their lives. The Pulitzer Board will announce this year's list of winners the day after tomorrow and mark a milestone for the prizes themselves because 2016 is the Pulitzer's centennial. Journalist and historian Roy Harris is the author of "Pulitzer's Gold." He joins us now from the studios of member station WGBH in Boston. Mr. Harris, thanks very much for being with us.

ROY HARRIS: Thank you, Scott. It's great to be here.

SIMON: So who was Joseph Pulitzer and what makes him the gold standard?

HARRIS: Oh, he was a conflicted character. But he's definitely the gold standard today. Back in the 1880s and '90s, he was most well-known for his war with William Randolph Hearst and the beginnings of yellow journalism. And I traced it back to 1902 when he decided to provide for the Pulitzer prizes, which he put some money for in his will, I think he was trying to salvage his reputation.

SIMON: We should explain he was the founder, publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

HARRIS: Absolutely, The Post-Dispatch and then the New York World. So he had global ambitions for sure. He had moved from St. Louis to New York.

SIMON: Your book concentrates on the prize in public service journalism, although there are 21 Pulitzers that are given - 14 in journalism and then there are five for books, one for drama, one for music. Explain this public service journalism. I hate to say we live in a time where that it might be necessary to explain.

HARRIS: It was the first of the prizes that he designed. An idea that you would look at a news organization and see what that news organization had done during the year to improve the community. And people really didn't know what they were. It was up to the newspaper that won to promote it.

SIMON: The prize in 2003 went to The Boston Globe for their investigation into clerical abuse scandals in Boston. Before it was ever an Oscar-winning movie, it was a Pulitzer Prize.

HARRIS: And it was also a chapter in a book, I might add (laughter). When I had the idea of turning the history of the public service Pulitzer Prize into a journalism story, and in a way an American history story as kind of viewed through the big story of the year, The Boston Globe was plopping on my deck every morning with these stories.

And it became very clear to me that the work that The Globe was doing, exposing the cover-up by the Catholic Church of the abuse of youngsters in the church, as someone who would follow the Pulitzer Prizes for a while, it seemed to me that those stories were truly remarkable.

SIMON: The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune - dare I put it this way, all the usual suspects - have won Pulitzers. I want to get you to talk about the public service journalism that in 1979 went to a weekly called The Point Reyes Light.

HARRIS: That's right. That was a case of - back in the days, we remember of the late '70s - the time of cults. And in Point Reyes, Calif., the glorious West Marin County north of San Francisco, The Point Reyes Light was keeping eye on a cult that had moved into a nearby town. And the cult was called Synanon, and it had kind of the shades of Alcoholics Anonymous. The idea was to find people who were recovering from narcotic addiction and to help them recover.

But in this case, it turned into a cult. They were storing arms there in Marin County. And the little newspaper got hold of that word and were publishing stories exposing what was happening.

SIMON: We have to ask about a less suspicious moment for the Pulitzers. Walter Duranty's reporting on the Soviet Union for The New York Times in the early 1930s has been, to say the least, discredited over the years. The Times doesn't even display the Pulitzer. The charge has been that Duranty and his editors, if I might put it this way, drank the Stalinist Kool-Aid at The Times.

HARRIS: Yes, there are a couple of stories. That series of stories, his coverage, that must've been a very difficult thing to cover, I would think

SIMON: The famine in the Soviet Union or I guess he considered it an alleged famine, yeah.

HARRIS: Yeah, and then you also remember the Janet Cooke scandal where she did a series of articles on children of drug addiction. And this was at The Washington Post. It had won the prize for her work, "Jimmy's World," and then they went on to withdraw the prize because they discovered that the stories were made up by Janet Cooke. Those two pieces of work I think stand out. And neither won public service, but there are some old public service prizes that I think we would look at with a jaundiced eye now.

SIMON: Roy Harris, a veteran journalist and author of "Pulitzer's Gold: A Century Of Public Service Journalism," thanks so much.

HARRIS: My pleasure. It's great to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.