With a Little Help From Her Friends

Not an especially gutsy establishment, Columbia University’s Pulitzer Board likes to deal in results. The Tribune had been studying the death penalty since 1999, and twice had become a Pulitzer Prize finalist for its reporting on the subject without winning. But at the end of his term Governor Ryan–who’d given the Tribune credit for opening his eyes–cleared out death row. This Monday the Tribune’s Cornelia Grumman won a Pulitzer for a series of editorials arguing for capital punishment reform.

The blanket commutation Ryan wound up granting wasn’t something the Tribune favored. But Grumman’s editorials argued for the kind of systemic changes proposed a year ago by Ryan’s Commission on Capital Punishment, such as videotaped interrogations, judicial screening of testimony by jailhouse informants, and a prohibition against the execution of anybody convicted solely on testimony of an accomplice or a single eyewitness. With Ryan’s name being bandied about for a Nobel peace prize, the time had come to give the Tribune the credit it was due, and Grumman’s was the entry on the table.

News that she was a finalist leaked weeks ago, and eyes were rolling at the Tribune: the paper’s years of reporting on the death penalty might finally be rewarded with a Pulitzer–but it wouldn’t be going to any of the reporters. When Grumman won, I asked her if she’d been aware of the wry amusement of some of her colleagues.

“Oh God, are you kidding?” she said. “When I heard I was a finalist my first thought was that it was the first time I got that far. My second thought was that I was just a footnote to these guys and their work over the last four or five years. They’re my heroes. They’ve done the bulk of the work in really pointing out the flaws in the death penalty system. I’m a little bit embarrassed about it. That’s not a gracious thing to say, but I guess I was the beneficiary of good timing.”

The Tribune began its coverage with a January 1999 series by Maurice Possley and Ken Armstrong, “Trial & Error, How Prosecutors Sacrifice Justice to Win.” That November, Armstrong and Steve Mills wrote “The Failure of the Death Penalty in Illinois.” Ryan’s response to the second series was to order a moratorium on executions.

Bundled together, the two series were entered for a 2000 Pulitzer in public service and became one of three finalists submitted by judges to the Pulitzer Board. A group of 13 Cook County assistant state’s attorneys were so alarmed by the prospect of a Tribune victory that they wrote the board a three-page letter accusing the paper of “slanted, sensational and manipulative journalism” whose only success was “in unjustly provoking public suspicion of [their] honorable profession.” The board also heard from the National District Attorneys Association, which said the Tribune entry “would be an inappropriate selection based upon the methodology…and the conclusions,” and from the Illinois State’s Attorneys Association, which called the death penalty series “grossly irresponsible.” These letters may have had no effect on the board, but it gave the Pulitzer to the Washington Post.

A year later the Tribune was again a defeated Pulitzer finalist, this time in national reporting for articles reviewing death penalty cases in Texas and several other states.

Expecting the Tribune to win in 2000, I started planning a column that I decided to write anyway. “The point I intended to make,” I explained in Hot Type, “was that sometimes it takes a village to win a Pulitzer, and this was one of those times. The prodigious fact-finding of Possley, Armstrong, and Mills didn’t begin at zero. To name only some other journalists–while scanting the essential contributions of lawyers, investigators, and citizens’ groups–the trail had been blazed by Rob Warden, writing years ago in Chicago Lawyer, by David Protess and his students, by the Reader’s John Conroy, and by the Tribune’s own columnist Eric Zorn and editorial-page editor Don Wycliff, who as individual writers seemed more troubled by injustice than the Tribune allowed itself to be as an institution.”

The village kept growing. And when somebody in it finally won a Pulitzer, it turned out to be a writer speaking for the Tribune as an institution and summing up. Carefully reasoned and passionately argued, Grumman’s editorials rang with the authority Mills, Possley, and Armstrong had earned for the Tribune. Oddly enough, Grumman, like the three of them, had been a Pulitzer finalist in 2000. She made the shortlist for articles she’d written with David Jackson in 1999 (before she joined the editorial board) on the privatization of care for abused and delinquent children. When she told me “This was the first time I got that far,” I reminded her it wasn’t.

But Grumman has a sharp sense of what credit, and how much of it, she’s actually due. “That was David Jackson’s work,” she said. “That’s been expunged from my own resume for personal reasons. It will never appear on my bio.”

She would have been embarrassed to win in 2000 but she was delighted three years later. Grumman earned her Pulitzer, though she properly welcomed it with a dollop of humility and a sense of humor.

Suck Up to Keep Up

Reporting a war from the enemy capital is a tricky business. You’re trying to find out what’s going on behind enemy lines and get word back to the folks at home. If you were wearing a uniform you’d be arrested and shot. But you don’t want to be shot.

You don’t want to vex the prickly hosts your government’s hoping to corner and kill or whomever it is you’re working for back home–some media outfit delivering war news to masses with an inflamed sense of patriotism and treason. So when the regime you deal with every day–the same one the public you’re reporting to asks God to emulsify–invites you onto their TV station to answer a few questions about the war as you see it, it’s hard to know what to do. Do you risk offense by saying no? Or do you tell yourself that as a journalist you have a duty to offer truth as you know it to anyone who wishes to hear it?

Such were my ruminations, offered in an attempt to explain the complexities of Peter Arnett’s predicament to A.E. Eyre. I’d found my friend in our favorite cafe hunched over the letters page of the New York Times. A headline wondered, “Was Peter Arnett Right, or Irresponsible?”

I pointed out that the headline posed a false set of alternatives. Arnett could have been both–or neither. Arguably, you don’t go on state television in the capital of the nation your country’s at war with and knock your country’s battle plan–even if it deserves to be knocked. Arguably, Arnett’s TV appearance was a shrewd investment in future scoops from Baghdad, even if what he had to say was self-serving, ingratiating blather.

“Which do you think?” said Eyre.

I allowed that it wasn’t Arnett’s finest hour. Arnett didn’t limit himself to what he knew was true. He trafficked in opinion.

“Which journalists should never do?” Eyre wondered.

What a reporter knows is priceless. What he thinks is rubbish.

“Not that I disagree with you,” said Eyre, “but the principle you just enunciated rules out half the PBS programming and every network TV show it’s worth waking up Sunday morning to watch.”

I said that there was one journalist Arnett surely envied–CNN medical reporter Sanjay Gupta, who inserted himself in his coverage to a degree Arnett could only dream of, performing neurosurgery on a two-year-old Iraqi boy.

“The boy died,” Eyre reminded me.

Yes, I said, but Gupta’s intercession was rightly praised. He’d transfigured a particularly unpleasant moment in the war–three civilian deaths when U.S. marines shot up a racing taxi.

“War is hell,” said Eyre.

But a doctor is always a doctor. Doctors answer to a higher code, and no one questions it.

Eyre looked puzzled. “Telling the truth isn’t a higher code?” he said.

You’d think it would be, I mused. But it rarely works out that way. The problem with journalism in America is that the public no longer recognizes it for the priesthood it has to be.

If I accurately read Eyre’s expression, he thought I was insane. He said, “Here’s Walter Cronkite on the subject of Arnett: ‘He besmirched his reputation, offended a nation and lost his job–justifiably so.'”

Exactly, I said.

“And then Cronkite goes on, ‘With him gone from the airwaves, Americans have lost an eye on Baghdad that had proved a valuable addition to our knowledge of a mysterious enemy.'”

Cronkite had put his finger on Arnett’s Faustian bargain, I said. Arnett had pandered to the Iraqis in order to open some doors in Baghdad. And Cronkite weighed the means against the ends and concluded it had been a bargain not worth making.

“No, he didn’t,” said Eyre. “On the evidence of this essay Cronkite did nothing of the sort. He didn’t have the slightest idea how to weigh Arnett’s means against his ends, so he settled on rhetorical thunder and intellectual incoherence.”

Cronkite is a great man and my friend Eyre a bitter nobody. It’s hard to take him seriously. And how would you judge Arnett’s means against his ends? I asked.

“I don’t know either,” Eyre admitted. “I hope to God that in his shoes I would have said no, but it’s hard to come up with a categorical reason why.”

He sucked up for access, I said. And reporters never do that, because once they do you can no longer trust them.

“Reporters don’t suck up?”

Not the good ones.

“So you didn’t catch Bush’s last press conference before the war?”

The White House press corps has to walk a fine line, I allowed. But access to George W. Bush is a far cry from access to Saddam Hussein.

“The difference being?”

I had to think about it. A little matter of patriotism, I said.

“So what you’re saying,” said Eyre, “is that before a president sends our nation into war, it’s unpatriotic to grill his ass about why we’re going?”

News Bites

The Sun-Times overreached this week in its series “Pension Jackpot–Striking It Rich on the Taxpayers’ Dime.” Tuesday’s installment encouraged us to stiffen with outrage at the thought of “nine disgraced judges” living comfortably in retirement. But as the story conceded, “none of these former judges was ever charged with a crime, the only way judges have lost their pensions.”

They included such figures as former supreme court justice James Heiple, who was censured by the Illinois Courts Commission for trying to get out of a traffic ticket but “left the court when his term ended in 2000.” And former circuit judge Ronald Himel, who was placed on leave by his chief judge in order to receive anger-management counseling but “was never charged with any ethical wrongdoing.” And former appellate judge Morton Zwick, who retired in 2000 after the Sun-Times “found that his campaign committee took gifts from an attorney with a case before Zwick” but who “was never charged with any wrongdoing.”

Reporter Tim Novak wrote, “Some say it might be time to take state pensions away from judges who tarnish the office.” But others might say it would be a good idea to charge and convict a judge of something before stripping him of his pension and labeling him “disgraced.”

RedEye, April 3: “Pfc. Jessica Lynch, rescued Tuesday from an Iraqi hospital, fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers after Iraqi forces ambushed the Army’s 507th Ordinance Maintenance Company, firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition, U.S. officials said Wednesday. Lynch, a 19-year-old supply clerk, continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her” (from the Washington Post).

Red Streak, April 3: “An Iraqi pharmacist who works at Saddam Hospital told Britain’s Sky television that he treated Lynch for leg injuries but that she was otherwise healthy. But he added, ‘every day I saw her crying about wanting to go home.’ The pharmacist…said Lynch knew the U.S. troops were on the other side of the Euphrates River and ‘she kept wondering if the American Army were coming to save her.'”

First Mayor Daley said he’d carved up Meigs Field to enhance security in Chicago. Then the Cubs announced they wouldn’t reinstall those green outfield screens that were necessary last year as a security measure.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.