Former president Donald Trump had petitioned the board to take back the awards.
That the board’s decisions were vindicated was far less surprising than the fact that the Pulitzer Board had commissioned the reviews at all. What was it thinking? Attempts to gather Pulitzer input on that point have been unsuccessful; administrator Marjorie Miller didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.
Even so, it’s not difficult to divine the considerations that drove this august organization to undertake what was doubtless a costly rearview-mirror exercise. Those same considerations bear on countless media outlets still struggling with the conundrum of Trump coverage — how to distinguish between fairness on one hand and self-destructive deference on the other.
Some background: The 2018 Pulitzer award recognized 20 stories produced by The Post and the Times the previous year on an array of topics related to Russia and the 2016 election. The awards were announced in April 2018, about halfway through special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. The Pulitzer citation credited “deeply sourced, relentlessly reported coverage in the public interest that dramatically furthered the nation’s understanding of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and its connections to the Trump campaign.”
In April 2019, the Justice Department released Mueller’s report, which noted that it “did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in the election interference activities.” Immediately, Trump supporters revived chatter about the Post-Times Pulitzer distinction. “The Fake News Media’s coverage of the Russia Collusion delusion was endless, it even resulted in the staffs of the New York Times and The Washington Post receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for National Reporting into the so-called ‘Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and its connections to the Trump campaign,’” said Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.).
Mockery of the Pulitzer award became a staple of Sean Hannity’s program on Fox News. “The Washington Post, New York Times received Pulitzers for their coverage of the Russian probe. You’ve seen the coverage over two-plus years: Russia, Russia, Russia. Trump, Trump, Trump. Collusion, collusion, collusion,” Hannity said in an interview with Trump days after the Mueller report was released. “The Mueller report couldn’t be any more clear on the issue specifically. Do you think the news media in this country and their coverage on this owes you an apology?”
“A big one,” responded Trump, who weeks earlier had called upon the Pulitzer “committee” to revoke the honors. At that time, the Pulitzers refused to budge. “This criticism is fake marketing. We stand behind the Pulitzer selection process, which has endured for 103 years,” said Dana Canedy, then the head of the Pulitzers. Trump and his press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, made similar appeals in 2020.
Grievance, though, has no expiration date for Trump. Over the past year, he has sent at least three letters to the Pulitzers to further his petty ends. He wanted the board, he said in an October 2021 missive, to strip the Times and The Post of their prizes as well as to retract “the false statements which remain on the Pulitzer website.” He added: “Without holding the recipients to such a high standard of accountability, the integrity of the Pulitzer Prize namesake stands to be wholly compromised.”
The Pulitzer board accepted the challenge, saying in its recent statement that it had received requests from Trump and others over the past three years. Although the Erik Wemple Blog never received a response as to why the board commissioned the reviews, we see two considerations that could account for the decision: 1) The request came from a former president of the United States; 2) Some of the Trump-Russia reporting by other mainstream media outlets, indeed, failed the test of time. As this blog has pointed out, outlets including MSNBC, CNN and McClatchy glommed onto evidence-free allegations in the Steele dossier, lending a baseless boost to the collusion narrative. The Post itself corrected two dossier-related stories last fall.
So what harm could come of a review, right?
The Pulitzer statement said that it commissioned two evaluations from people with no connection to the Times and The Post. “The separate reviews converged in their conclusions: that no passages or headlines, contentions or assertions in any of the winning submissions were discredited by facts that emerged subsequent to the conferral of the prizes,” reads the statement. “The 2018 Pulitzer Prizes in National Reporting stand.”
The conclusions aren’t surprising. Whereas Trump’s made-for-Fox News version of the honored work casts it as a bunch of pieces hyping collusion, it’s actually a measured and careful collection of investigative stories on the misfeasance that characterized Trump’s first year in office. This Post piece focuses on then-future national security adviser Michael Flynn’s talks with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak; this one concerns Trump’s disclosure of classified information to top Russian officials during a White House visit; this one details Trump’s efforts to get intelligence officials to “help him push back against an FBI investigation into possible coordination between his campaign and the Russian government”; this Times piece exposes Trump’s attempt to persuade FBI Director James B. Comey to end the inquiry into Flynn’s actions; this one reveals that Trump told Russians that firing Comey had relieved pressure on him.
And as this blog noted in 2019, two of the stories furnished talking points for Trump and his allies: The Post published a story highlighting the Obama administration’s reaction to Russian interference in the 2016 election — a theme adopted by Trump, who falsely said his predecessor “did nothing”; and the Times published an article exploring how Comey shaped the 2016 election and included the detail that then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch had asked Comey to refer to the Hillary Clinton email investigation not as an “investigation” but as a “matter.”
Surely the Pulitzer board had some foreshadowing that the review would produce nothing actionable. The October 2021 letter signed by Trump, after all, takes broad swipes at the Times-Post work and pierces none of it. For example: “As has been widely publicized, the coverage was no more than a politically motivated farce which attempted to spin a false narrative that my campaign supposedly colluded with Russia despite a complete lack of evidence underpinning this allegation,” the letter reads. Another claim concerns the indictment of Michael Sussmann, a lawyer for the Clinton campaign, on charges of lying to the FBI about who he was representing when he offered material about an alleged link between servers for Moscow-based Alfa Bank and the Trump Organization. “Importantly, the indictment reinforces the falsehood of the Alfa Bank connection,” the letter notes.
Also important: Neither The Post nor the Times published the Alfa Bank story.
Trump’s response to the Pulitzer announcement highlighted the perils of acceding to his baseless demands: “If the Pulitzer Prize has become a blatant acknowledgement of false, liberal political propaganda, then the Pulitzer Board should just say so,” he stated. That’s the Trump trap — one in which any honest decision draws his condemnation.
At a media event this month on misinformation and the future of journalism, former Post reporter Wesley Lowery said, “We spend so much time in our industry trying to appease lunatics instead of just telling the truth, which is our job.” The Pulitzers’ decision to review the 2018 prizes in the national category amounts to lunatic-appeasement of the high-maintenance sort:
Just imagining the time spent by journalists who could have been doing useful work, all in service of a pathological liar’s continuing ability to set Big Journalism’s agenda: https://t.co/A2VmXzd7zX
— Dan Gillmor (@dangillmor) July 19, 2022
There’s no malice involved in lunatic-appeasement, however. The Pulitzers thrives as an organization only so long as it maintains ethical purity and clinical fairness. It’s from this good place that the impetus to review the Post-Times work stems. It’s a place, too, that Trump neither recognizes nor respects.