By Michael Miner

Always a Bridesmaid

Last August 13 the grisly story of Abner Louima broke across New York City. Louima, a Haitian immigrant, had been arrested outside a Brooklyn nightclub, beaten by cops, and then sodomized with the handle of a toilet plunger inside the station house.

The New York Times went wild. Two stories on Louima the first day, six pieces–an editorial among them–the second day, six more the third. But the Times didn’t get to Louima himself, meaning it couldn’t duplicate the interview that ran August 13 in the competing Daily News:

“Abner Louima trembled in his hospital bed yesterday as his wife, Micheline, touched his cheek and wept. A plastic tube ran from his torn bladder into a plastic bag. His urine was red.

“This is a tale straight from the police dungeon, an allegation of brutality at the hands of cops from Brooklyn’s 70th Precinct that seems so impossible, so crudely medieval.

“‘They said, “Take this, nigger,”‘ Louima said, ‘and stuck the stick in my rear end.'”

Every reporter in New York might have been scrambling for a piece of the Louima story, but this was the piece that made certain the story haunted the city. And last week its author won the Pulitzer Prize. In its usual fastidious way, as if begrudging him his victory, the Times reported: “And the award for commentary was given to Mike McAlary of The New York Daily News, among the first to break the news of the police mistreatment of Abner Louima.”

Among the first. Well, it’s technically true, inasmuch as the Times published Louima’s allegations at the same time the Daily News did, and a cable-TV news station beat both papers. But McAlary had the exclusive interview with Louima and, in the days to come, exclusive interviews with the black fiancee of the white cop accused of wielding the plunger and with the cop himself.

In the view of the Daily News, the Louima story belonged to its man and no other. McAlary won the Pulitzer, his paper reported, “for exposing the Abner Louima police torture scandal….McAlary introduced New Yorkers to a 30-year-old Haitian immigrant whose allegations of police brutality rocked the city….McAlary followed the exclusive with days of dogged reporting and columns about the scandal.”

Describing the tumultuous celebration in its newsroom, the Daily News went on to say, “It was the paper’s second Pulitzer in three years. Columnist E.R. Shipp, a winner in 1966, looked on as McAlary gave his emotional speech.”

I wonder what Shipp was thinking. McAlary had won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, and Shipp had chaired the commentary jury. (Of course, the Daily News didn’t mention this.) Which doesn’t make McAlary’s victory an inside job. McAlary won even though Shipp’s jury didn’t choose him as one of its three finalists. Shipp’s jury hadn’t even read McAlary’s entry. Shipp’s jury had been overruled.

Shipp, obviously in an awkward position, didn’t return my calls. Joyce Purnick, metro editor of the rival Times and also in an awkward position, told me, “I congratulate him, and I leave it at that.” Though Purnick wouldn’t discuss her feelings, I have good reason to believe she disagreed with McAlary’s victory and was upset by it. And Purnick wasn’t simply some grousing competitor. She too had sat on the commentary jury.

It’s a small world. The Pulitzer may be journalism’s highest honor, and McAlary may deserve it (I think he does). But the Pulitzer’s had no better luck than lesser awards in coming up with a selection process that demands respect.

If the commentary jury had had its way, chances are the winner would have been the Chicago Tribune’s Bob Greene. Rumor had him winning the award, and if rumor had held up you might at this moment be reading BobWatch. “Ed Gold” had heard the rumor too, and he was cranking up his own tribute to Greene’s victory. But the Pulitzer was snatched (not for the first time) from Greene’s waiting hands.

The Tribune did win a Pulitzer last week. Paul Salopek triumphed in explanatory reporting for his coverage of the Human Genome Diversity Project. Explanatory reporting is a fertile area in print journalism, which can’t compete with other media in speed but is unexcelled in exegesis, and Salopek’s category was so strong that it actually produced two winners. The Pulitzer Prize Board moved another of the explanatory-reporting finalists, the Supreme Court coverage of the New York Times’s Linda Greenhouse, over to beat reporting, passed over that jury’s three nominees, and gave her the Pulitzer there.

And in editorial cartooning the board really flexed its muscles. It rejected all three nominees, including the Tribune’s Jeff MacNelly–who, what the hell, had won it three times already–and gave the Pulitzer to an entry in the slush pile, Stephen Breen of New Jersey’s Asbury Park Press.

Which brings me back to Bob Greene. The Tribune submitted columns by Greene on his main preoccupation, abused children, and the commentary jurors liked them a lot. “My sense was, if there was any consensus pick it was Greene,” says another of the jurors, Tribune deputy editorial-page editor R. Bruce Dold. (A very small world, no?) Dold would have been acutely sensitive to the length of the debate: whenever Greene’s merits were being argued, Dold had to get up and leave the room.

“From early on, Greene was almost a lock as a finalist,” Dold recalls. “The discussion was over the other two.”

The jury eventually picked syndicated columnist Robert Samuelson and the Boston Globe’s Patricia Smith, a former Sun-Times feature writer best remembered in Chicago as the queen of the Poetry Slam. Forbidden by the Pulitzer rules to indicate a preference, the jury submitted the names of Greene, Samuelson, and Smith, listed alphabetically, to the board. But rather than honor Greene or Samuelson or Smith, the board found its winner in McAlary, who’d reached the finals in breaking news reporting.

“It was absolutely the right thing to do,” says Pulitzer board member Andrew Barnes, president of the Saint Petersburg Times. And board member Edward Seaton, editor in chief of Kansas’s Manhattan Mercury, argues, “He really broke the story and kept up with it and commented regularly on it. It was different from the others, I’ll grant you. But we looked at the commentary that had made the finals in one category or another, and it stood out.”

The Tribune was represented on the Pulitzer board by Jack Fuller, who’s now head of all the Tribune Company newspapers. Naturally he recused himself. The New York Times’s man on the board was columnist William Safire. Nobody on the board came from McAlary’s paper. You can’t call his triumph illegitimate.

“It’s not unprecedented, and it’s within the rules,” said Joe Distelheim, editor of Alabama’s Huntsville Times and a commentary juror. “I can’t tell you this was one of the ones we’d have put in the top three. But the process is that we nominate three, and the board does what it wants.”

Does the process need reform? I asked him.

“I’m not sure I’m the one to say that,” he said, and laughed. “There’s a certain feeling you did a lot of stuff for nothing.”

Purnick told me, “That’s their choice. I simply think it raises some questions about the role of the jury, which takes this–at least my jury did–took the job very seriously, and came up with what we thought were viable, intelligent nominations for finalists. But this is their right, and we knew that going in.”

If McAlary had been entered in commentary from the get-go, Purnick told me, she probably would have left the room when his entry came up for discussion. “It’s really a very pristine process,” she said. The problem with purity as coin of the realm is that its flip side is foolishness. Imagine the five-person commentary jury coming down to Greene, Samuelson, Smith, and McAlary and needing to eliminate one more. Greene and McAlary are similar columnists who’d entered similar kinds of stories–hard news they’d commented on while covering it. Who’d done better at the journalism both of them do? Before that debate could begin, Purnick would have recused herself, Bruce Dold would have recused himself, and of course jury chairman E.R. Shipp would have recused herself too. Only two jurors would have been left in the room.

Back in 1973 Greene also was a finalist in commentary. David Broder won. “Everybody admired [Greene’s] writing very much,” a juror told me then. “There were a couple of judges I think who would have preferred him….It was somewhat a question of which had the greatest impact.” A quarter century ago the boy wonder of Chicago journalism lost out to one of Washington’s syndicated sages. This time he lost out to someone who wasn’t even in the field.

“Like I say,” says Greene, “you can’t control stuff. The only thing as a writer or columnist you have any control over is the work you do.”

News Bites

Mistakes happen. Chicago magazine doesn’t call attention to itself as an outpost of empire, but it’s owned by Primedia, a New York company. Recently the head office sent out a renewal notice to lapsing subscribers. “We want to be sure you’re one of the lucky Chicagoans who has a copy of ‘The Best of Chicago’ discount coupon book,” it said. “All you need to do is return the enclosed coupon along with your renewal instructions.”

The name on the notice was “Neil Eisenberg/For New York Magazine.”

Eisenberg, based in Manhattan, is a marketing manager for both Primedia magazines. I read him the note.

“Well, that’s very embarrassing,” he said.

Following the Tribune’s coverage of the recent Masters, I noticed one too many trivial errors to keep still about. Two–bite your tongue. But three?

“In 1937 Gene Sarazen hit the ‘shot heard round the world’ when his second shot hit the flag [of the 15th hole] and dropped into the hole for an eagle 2.” Sorry, a double eagle. “The par 5 [13th hole] was the 16th easiest hole of the day. Easy for almost everyone that is but Fred Couples.” Say what?

And how can this be? “Augusta has four par-5 holes,” the Tribune reported. “Last year Tiger Woods was 13 under par on Augusta National’s par-5 holes en route to his record 18-under-par victory.” Furthermore, “Last year Woods hit all the par-5 greens in two shots and didn’t 3-putt a single hole.”

Do the math. If the Tribune meant that Woods hit the par fives in two shots more often than not, it should have said so.

A reader who followed the Masters in the local papers dropped me a note with the comment, “What really happened? Two columns, same topic, different facts.” Enclosed were columns by Jay Mariotti and Skip Bayless on the round that Tiger Woods and Fuzzy Zoeller played together. Zoeller, you’ll recall, made that “fried chicken and collard greens” crack after Woods won last year’s Masters. Woods was slow to accept the apology.

Mariotti and Bayless agreed that Zoeller got the warmer hand at the first tee. In Mariotti’s account there was no letup. “Did they have to cheer so wildly?…Hole after hole, pro-Fuzzyism was all the rage….Woods…had to endure a five-hour barrage of the Fuzzy Wuzzys….The nonstop ovation soundtrack did send uncomfortable messages.”

Bayless’s take: “The galleries were corpse-like. No roars. Not one ‘You da man!’ Nothing more than polite applause and an occasional restrained cheer….The way Fuzzy fans cheered Zoeller was by not cheering Tiger. The result often was deafening silence.”

And what about the two golfers themselves? Mariotti: “It’s obvious the relationship remains cold….The tension lingers.” Bayless: “Woods and Zoeller did speak occasionally and seemed amicable enough.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Mike Werner.