L.A. Times Wins 2 Pulitzer Prizes

The Los Angeles Times won the Pulitzer Prize for public service Monday for a series of stories that detailed how Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center provided care so poor that it sickened and imperiled some patients. The award is the most coveted of America's journalism prizes.

The Times' Moscow bureau chief, Kim Murphy, won a Pulitzer for what judges called "eloquent, wide-ranging" coverage of Russia. Murphy shared the international reporting award with Newsday correspondent Dele Olojede.

The Times and the Wall Street Journal were the only publications to win more than one of the annual prizes given by an independent board of journalists and presented by Columbia University.

The double victory gives The Times a total of 13 Pulitzers over the last five years, the most successful run in the paper's 123-year history.

Other winners included a writer for a weekly newspaper in Portland, Ore., for reporting on former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt's affair with a 14-year-old girl; a Boston Globe reporter for stories about stem cell research; and a Sacramento Bee writer for editorials on efforts to reclaim the flooded Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Journalists at the Los Angeles Times celebrated the awards at a noon newsroom gathering. Editor John S. Carroll told the assembled crowd that the public service victory felt particularly special and that he hoped it would usher in an era of even greater reporting "on California topics ... that I hope will change people's lives for the better."

Reporters and editors gave a loud and extended ovation to Publisher John P. Puerner, who has been seen as a champion of the newspaper's editorial operations in an era of cost-cutting. Puerner announced last month that he would take a "self-imposed career break" at the end of May, to be replaced by his protege, Jeffrey M. Johnson.

The Times ran its five-part series, "The Troubles at King/Drew," in December 2004. But the idea arose in 2003 with lead reporters Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber focusing broadly on Los Angeles County's public health system.

The writers realized they were onto something disturbing when they discovered that two King/Drew patients had died after hospital employees failed to properly monitor them. Then the hospital lost its accreditation to train general surgeons.

"That helped solidify our thinking that the problems at King/Drew were a lot more severe than at any other county hospital," said Ornstein, 31, who joined the paper less than four years ago. "We knew we just had to focus on it."

But major hurdles confronted the two reporters and colleagues Mitchell Landsberg and Steve Hymon.

The hospital they were writing about was created after the 1965 Watts riots, a move meant to bring high-quality healthcare to the area's poor and mostly African American residents.

Previous attempts to reform the hospital near Watts had been called racist by its supporters and some politicians. But the reporters and editors tackled the race issue, explaining how the pride that helped create the hospital later was used to rebuff criticism, no matter how well documented.

Care had deteriorated so much over three decades that the hospital had "become a source of shame," according to one Times editorial.

Among the case studies that put a face on the substandard care were those of a 9-year-old daughter of Guatemalan immigrants who went to King/Drew with two broken baby teeth and died after a series of errors; a 52-year-old woman who staggered to a nursing station for help and later died -- poisoned by a glass of liquid tissue preservative left on her bed stand; and a 40-year-old woman whose reproductive organs were removed because of a mistaken diagnosis of cancer.

The woman, Johnnie Mae Williams, who was left infertile as a result, was one of several people who did not know her condition until told by a Times reporter.

"Here was this woman who thought she was a cancer survivor saved by the hospital," said Weber, 41, who won prizes in the 1990s for her reporting on failures of Orange County's foster care system. "I knew she wanted to have more children. And to tell her that was just devastating."

Newspapers seldom publish such major investigative projects without citing confidential sources. But the Times series quoted only those who agreed to be identified.

Since publication of the series in December, a national accrediting group has stripped the hospital of its seal of approval, and federal regulators threatened to pull $200 million in funding from the hospital. The county also proceeded with plans to close the hospital's trauma center, approved last fall despite angry protests.

Deputy Metropolitan Editor Julie Marquis, who helped launch and oversee the series, said she hoped the award would bring notice so "that the community will finally get the medical attention it deserves."

The newspaper will receive a gold medal for the public service award -- considered the highest honor issued by the Pulitzer board. (Other winners receive $10,000.) The Times previously won four of the medals, the last in 1984 for a series on Latinos in Southern California.

Although a large team -- including photographer Robert Gauthier and editorial writer Mary Engel -- contributed to the public service award, Murphy's international reporting prize came mostly from solitary work in dangerous places.

The veteran reporter's stories were driven, according to the Times' nomination, by a "restless curiosity" that took her from the resurgent jazz clubs of Moscow ("Did Stalin have a boogie soul?" she wondered) to the oil boomtown of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (a place, she wrote, that "Russia wears like a holstered gun on its eastern hip").

Murphy shifted from sweeping accounts of the political makeover taking place under Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to intimate portraits such as the one she wrote about 27-year-old Zalina Dzandarova, a mother who was confronted with a "Sophie's choice" when terrorists took hundreds of people hostage at a school in the southern Russian city of Beslan.

The latter story told how guerrillas allowed Dzandarova to escape with her 2-year-old son, but only if she left her 6-year-old daughter behind. Murphy wrote a second story detailing the mother's joy and guilt after her daughter survived.

Times Foreign Editor Marjorie Miller called Murphy a reporter of superb instincts.

"She is so incredibly dogged and so good at what she does and has what I always think of as news in her blood," Miller told colleagues at an evening reception. "She just knows where to go and how to get there ahead of everyone else."

Joining Murphy in winning the international reporting prize was Olojede of Newsday, which, like The Times, is owned by the Chicago-based Tribune Co. Judges said his Pulitzer-winning stories presented a "fresh, haunting look at Rwanda a decade after rape and genocidal slaughter had ravaged the Tutsi tribe."

The Times had finalists in two other categories: Ronald Brownstein in the beat reporting category for the "clarity, consistency and quality" of his presidential year political reporting, and Luis Sinco for what became an iconic photo of a U.S. Marine in Iraq stopping for a smoke during the battle of Fallouja.

The Wall Street Journal also won two awards. Amy Dockser Marcus took a beat reporting prize for her "masterful" stories about the struggles of cancer patients, their families and doctors. Joe Morgenstern won a criticism award for his film reviews.

The Pulitzer board described Morgenstern -- familiar to Santa Monica-based KCRW (89.9 FM) listeners for pointed critiques delivered sotto voce -- as delivering reviews with "rare insight, authority and wit." (The KCRW reviews are a local segment inserted into NPR's nationwide program "All Things Considered.")

The Pulitzer board gave the investigative reporting prize to the Willamette Week of Portland, Ore.

Reporter Nigel Jaquiss, in his first job out of journalism school after 11 years as a commodities trader, exposed the long-concealed sexual misconduct of former Oregon Gov. Neil Goldschmidt with a 14-year-old baby sitter.

His editor at the 90,000 circulation weekly, with just four news reporters, said Jaquiss used "native intelligence and doggedness" to corroborate accounts that bigger papers had either ignored or failed to prove.

"That took real courage," said Pulitzer juror Felice Belman, an editor for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor. "This man they were reporting on, after all, was the guy in Oregon politics."

Among the other award winners:

* The staff of the Star-Ledger in Newark, in breaking news reporting, for its coverage of the resignation of New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey after he acknowledged he was gay and had carried on an extramarital affair.

* Gareth Cook of the Boston Globe, in the explanatory reporting category, for describing "with clarity and humanity, the complex scientific and ethical dimensions of stem cell research."

* New York Times reporter Walt Bogdanich for national reporting for his expose on the corporate cover-up of responsibility for fatal accidents at railway crossings.

* Julia Keller of the Chicago Tribune, another Tribune Co. newspaper, for her "gripping, meticulously reported" reconstruction of a tornado that ripped through Utica, Ill.

* Both photography awards stemmed from the war in Iraq. The Associated Press won for its breaking news photos of the bloody conflict.

Deanne Fitzmaurice of the San Francisco Chronicle won the feature photography award for an essay on an Oakland hospital's effort to help an Iraqi boy injured in an explosion.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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