By Michael Miner
The Wandering Pulitzer
Blair Kamin won a Pulitzer Prize last week, though every jury that read his stories wanted someone else to judge them.
What Kamin does for the Tribune doesn’t fit neatly into a category. He’s the architecture critic, but his major opus in 1998, a series of articles on Chicago’s lakefront, as he says, “was more than just an aesthetic analysis. It went into politics and challenged the mayor for not doing big-picture planning. It was not at all a conventional piece of architectural criticism. It was unconventional in almost every aspect.”
The Tribune hedged its bets by nominating Kamin twice: for a prize in criticism but also in explanatory journalism. The heart of each entry was the lakefront series. Pulitzer administrator Seymour Topping says that when the Pulitzer juries met in New York in early March, jurors from both criticism and explanatory had the same complaint. “They said, ‘This is a very, very worthy entry, but it doesn’t fit neatly into either category.’ Some of his articles were actually criticisms in the sense of being reviews, and there were other articles that were actually in a sense architectural news stories.” Each camp believed Kamin belonged with some other.
On March 6 Kamin received an E-mail from a friend he asks me to call Deep Foundation. The message was titled “Finalist for the Big Prize!” and it said, “If my spies are correct, a bit of congratulations are in order. Good luck.”
“My arms started shaking,” says Kamin. Criticism or explanatory? he wondered. Tell me more, he wrote back.
Deep Foundation responded, “The park series was the one the jury liked…. It was the beat reporting category.”
Topping, on his own authority, had lifted Kamin out of criticism and explanatory journalism and dropped him into beat reporting. You can see the logic: whatever you wanted to call the stuff Kamin had written, he’d written it as the Tribune’s guy on the beat. Pulitzer finalists being tightly guarded secrets, the next day Kamin made a couple of calls, confirmed that he was a finalist, and found out who his competition was. “I had a nerve-racking six weeks,” he says.
In the clammy grip of human nature, Kamin did a Web search to check out his opponents. He decided he didn’t have a chance. Chuck Philips and Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times had done a heavy-duty study of corruption in the entertainment industry. The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman had probed the UN inspection team in Iraq.
“I just assumed there was too much opinion in my pieces,” says Kamin. “There was reporting in my pieces, but the reporting bolsters a critical argument, particularly in the lakefront series.” The series was even labeled “A critical assessment of the problems and promise of Chicago’s shoreline.” The Pulitzer Prize Board would make the final call, and Kamin gloomily imagined its discussion. He could hear board member William Safire thundering, “He has as much opinion in his pieces as I do in my column! That’s not beat reporting.” And Safire would be right.
Says Kamin, “So as the day neared, I really had steeled myself not to win. I was very proud to be a finalist. It was the first time I’d ever been a finalist. I just didn’t think I had much of a shot in beat reporting.”
Saturday, April 10, two days to P day. “The tension is mounting,” he says, “and I’m feeling pretty crummy because I’m convinced I’m not going to win.” Managing editor Ann Marie Lipinski called him at home. “She just said, ‘How are you doing?’ She’s been there, and she knows what it’s like.”
Kamin poured his heart out. He said he wasn’t sure he’d even come to work on Monday. Why be devastated publicly? He was on a fellowship taking morning classes at the University of Chicago, so he had an excuse if he stayed away. “It’s an important moment,” Lipinski told him. “And you should be there regardless of what happens.”
Kamin knew she was right. On Monday he showed up, and Lipinski took him to lunch. They talked about everything but the Pulitzers, left the restaurant at three minutes to two, and were walking up the back stairs of the Tower as the list of winners started to come in over the wire.
“The higher we got, the more depressed I became, because I figured this was it. We got to the fourth floor at the back of the newsroom. Ann Marie opened the door and said, ‘Are you ready?’ We walked in and looked across the newsroom, and there’s my wife, Barbara Mahany, who’s a Tribune reporter, and Barbara was waving at me kind of wanly.”
The Pulitzer for beat reporting had just come across, and sure enough, it had gone to Philips and Hiltzik at the LA Times. “So I said to Ann Marie, ‘That expression tells it all.’ Then about five seconds went by, and people started cheering. It was truly surreal, because I was kind of low at that point. I was sad. I knew I had lost. And Ann Marie turned to me and said, ‘You won.’ I said ‘What?’ with a look of disbelief. She said, ‘You won in criticism.’ I still didn’t believe her, and she just hugged me. This wall of people comes at you, and someone hands you a champagne glass, and the celebrating begins.”
The series nobody wanted had come out on top. Criticism juror Tom Shales, TV critic of the Washington Post, tells me, “He seems to do some investigative reporting and some advocacy editorializing, and some members of the panel didn’t quite know what to make of it. So we did the cowardly thing and sent it to another panel.”
But the first time the criticism jury tried to pass the Kamin entry to beat reporting, beat reporting wouldn’t take it. “We looked at it,” says juror Mel Opotowsky, ombudsman of the Press-Enterprise in Riverside, California. “He really knows his stuff, but it really seemed like criticism.”
“My feeling was that it was a very powerful piece of work, but it didn’t suit the definitions we were wrestling with for explanatory,” says Anders Gyllenhaal, executive editor of the Raleigh, North Carolina, News & Observer and a jurist in explanatory reporting. “Explanatory is sort of a squishy category, but it felt to us more like criticism or commentary.”
By Topping’s decree, beat reporting got stuck with Kamin. “So we went back and forth,” says Opotowsky, “and those strongly in favor of putting him in the top three mentioned the writing quality especially. And there were those a little concerned because it had a lot of opinion–more than opinion, it had his vision of how the lakefront ought to be.”
Kamin understands how much he owes the beat-reporting jurors. They didn’t think he belonged in their category, but they could see that on its own terms his entry was as good as anything around–and they picked it as one of their three finalists. So Kamin’s entry moved on to the 20-member Pulitzer Prize Board, which has the authority to reshuffle entries. It promptly did. By the necessary vote of three-quarters of its members, the board put Kamin back in criticism. Then it gave him the prize.
“For me,” says board member Andrew Barnes, editor and president of the Saint Petersburg Times, “the question is, how did it ever get away from criticism? We put it where it belonged, and it won. I think this assumption that things have to follow some dull format is pernicious.”
Says Opotowsky, “I was thinking of calling up the [criticism] panel members and saying, ‘I told you so.'”
There’s an inscription Blair Kamin’s especially fond of among the many on the walls of the Tribune lobby. It’s from Lincoln–“Let the people know the facts and the country will be safe”–and the lobby’s bust of Joseph Medill looks toward it. Medill’s the Tribune owner who helped put Lincoln in the White House.
“This was, I think, a great moment for the Tribune,” Kamin told me, speaking of his Pulitzer. “You know the history of McCormick Place–that was not a great moment for the Tribune and the lakefront. This was a very different Tribune that could allow a series like [mine] to be in its pages. This was more like the Medill Tribune and not the McCormick Tribune, because Medill championed Lincoln and Lincoln was about race. And the core of the series was all about race.”
The editors of America will remember 1998 as the year they realized how much they love trees. Forests died to keep the nation abreast of Bill and Monica, and hardened journalists wept at the sacrifice. Their pride in the year’s big story can be measured by their eagerness to nominate coverage of it for Pulitzer Prizes. Sure, it fetched a commentary prize for the New York Times’s Maureen Dowd. But in national reporting there were only two entries on the subject–from the New York Times and Washington Post. And a judge in investigative reporting recalls seeing none.
Speaking of commentary, it attracted 194 Pulitzer nominations, more than any other journalistic category. Breaking news attracted 65, fewer than any category but national reporting and international reporting, which most papers don’t even do. Covering breaking news was once more or less the point of putting out a paper. Now papers would rather brag about the quality of their pontification after the story’s broken.
Why correspondents drink:
(From State Department transcripts)
En route to Brussels, April 11–Secretary of State Albright to reporters: “I have been in touch with Foreign Minister Ivanov either every other day or twice a day. I mean we have very regular contact and we decided that it would be a good idea for us to get together in Oslo and for a number of reasons. One is that I think the Russians can play a useful role. They have been part of the Contact Group. They have played a useful role in Bosnia.”
Brussels, April 12–Albright at a press conference at NATO headquarters: “After all, the Russians were very much a part of how we dealt with Bosnia and how we’ve dealt with Kosovo for the last year and a half, and their role in the Contact Group was very useful and their general support for dealing with the problem in a political way I think has been useful.”
Oslo, April 13–Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov at a press conference after meeting with Albright: “That’s why I believe today’s meeting between us was very useful and very timely.”
Albright, same press conference: “As Foreign Minister Ivanov has said, we have had a very good and useful meeting.”
Ivanov, same press conference: “That is why, as far as the resolution of the Security Council of the United Nations, it undoubtedly can be useful.”
Oslo, April 13–Norwegian Foreign Minister Vollebaek at a press conference: “I’m sorry about the weather, but I understand that they had a very good and useful meeting anyhow. The Secretary has briefed me thoroughly on the constructive meeting that she had with Minister Ivanov earlier today. And we had a very useful exchange of views on the Kosovo crisis.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.