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Times Writer Wins Pulitzer; Post Wins 3

TIMES STAFF WRITER

J.R. Moehringer, a Times national correspondent based in Atlanta, won the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing Monday for his evocative portrait of an isolated river community in Alabama where descendants of slaves live on the land of their ancestors.

The Washington Post won three Pulitzers, including the most coveted of all journalism awards--the Pulitzer gold medal for public service--primarily for reporter Katherine Boo’s stories disclosing neglect and abuse in the city’s group homes for the mentally retarded. Boo documented cases of beatings and rapes in her first two stories, published in March 1999, then wrote another story in December when her ongoing work disclosed that more than 116 people--10 times the number acknowledged by authorities--had died in the homes during a six-year period.

The Post also won Pulitzers in criticism, for Henry Allen’s “fresh and authoritative writing on photography,” and in feature photography, for Carol Guzy, Michael Williamson and Lucian Perkins and their “intimate and poignant images depicting the plight of the Kosovo refugees.” The Post, which also won three Pulitzers in 1993, has now won 35 since the prizes began in 1917. This year, the paper had eight finalists, including its three winners.

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Moehringer’s poetic recounting of the story of Gee’s Bend resident Mary Lee Bendolph, woven through an account of 150 years of the town’s history, and his discussion of how a proposed ferry to the mainland might change everything, was published as a 9,600-word, four-page special section of The Times on Aug. 22, 1999.

The story, “Crossing Over,” was honored as “a distinguished example of feature writing, giving prime consideration to high literary quality and originality.”

The Pulitzer--Moehringer’s first after a near-miss as a finalist two years ago--is the 24th won by The Times since the prizes began in 1917.

The Wall Street Journal, which had previously won 21 Pulitzers, added two more Monday--one in commentary, for Paul A. Gigot’s “informative and insightful columns on politics and government,” the other in national reporting for the work of several staff members in “revealing stories that question U.S. defense spending and military deployment in the post-Cold War era and offer alternatives for the future.”

Drama, Fiction, Music Also Honored

The Pulitzers are awarded annually by Columbia University in New York and include 14 prizes in journalism and seven in the arts. This year’s arts winners:

* Donald Margulies, in drama, for his off-Broadway play “Dinner with Friends.” Margulies, a Pulitzer finalist in 1992 and 1997, said he had heard that he was being considered for a Pulitzer this year and was “feeling rather pregnant for the last few days” in anticipation of the announcement. He characterized his winning play--which examines two couples whose long-term friendships with each other begin to crumble when one of the couples splits up--as “a midlife reflection on the pains of fidelity, friendship and sexual passion.” The play premiered in Louisville in 1998 and received its second production at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa later that year.

* Jhumpa Lahiri , in fiction, for “Interpreter of Maladies,” a collection of short stories published as a trade paperback by Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Co. Lahiri, 32, whose prize-winning book was her first, was chosen over finalists Annie Proulx, a previous Pulitzer winner, and Ha Jim, the current National Book Award winner. She was born in England and reared in Rhode Island and has traveled often to India, where her parents were born and reared and where several stories in her prizewinning book are set.

* David M. Kennedy, in history, for “Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945" (Oxford University Press). Kennedy has taught history at Stanford University since 1967 and has also written books on World War I and on the life of Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood.

* Stacy Schiff, in biography, for “Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabakov),” published by Random House. Like Kennedy and Margulies, Schiff was previously a Pulitzer finalist--in 1995 for her book “Saint-Exupery.”

* C.K. Williams, in poetry, for “Repair” (W.W. Norton & Co.). Williams teaches creative writing at Princeton University.

* John W. Dower, in general nonfiction, for “Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II” (W.W. Norton & Co./The New Press). Dower, a history professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said Monday that his victory was so “astonishing” that “I’m going to dance around with my wife for a few moments.”

* Lewis Spratlan, in music, for his composition “Life is a Dream, Opera in Three Acts: Act II, Concert Version.” The opera was commissioned by the New Haven Opera Theater in the 1970s, but the company went out of business before the opera could be performed.

Among the other journalism award winners were two in Denver, both for coverage of the Columbine High School massacre that left 12 students and one teacher dead and 23 others wounded before the two teenage gunmen killed themselves. The staff of the Denver Post won the prize in reporting breaking news for its “clear and balanced coverage” of the shooting. Its ross-town rival, the Rocky Mountain News, won in breaking news photography for its “powerful collection of emotional images” taken after the shootings.

Stories Drew Ire, Launched Inquiries

The other winners in journalism:

* Sang-Hun Choe, Charles J. Hanley and Martha Mendoza of the Associated Press, in investigative reporting, for “revealing, with extensive documentation, the decades-old secret of how American soldiers early in the Korean War killed hundreds of Korean civilians in a massacre at the No Gun Ri Bridge. The reporters conducted more than 500 interviews, about half of them with U.S. veterans, and covered their office walls with old Army maps to determine which battalions had been in the area at the time of the massacre.

* Eric Newhouse of the Great Falls, Mont., Tribune, in explanatory reporting, for his “vivid examination of alcohol abuse and the problems it creates.” The Tribune, with a circulation of 34,000, let Newhouse spend half his time for a year producing the 12-part series. He called his prize “a reward for small papers all over the country. This should be a signal to all of them that an extraordinary effort on a significant subject does not go unnoticed.”

(Ironically, given the subject of Newhouse’s stories, Jim Strauss, executive editor of the Tribune, was not in the newsroom when the prize was announced because he was test-driving a new car--his own car having been totaled by a drunken hit-and-run driver a week earlier.)

* George Dohrmann of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, in beat reporting, for his “determined reporting, despite negative reader reaction, that revealed academic fraud in the men’s basketball program at the University of Minnesota.” Dohrmann, 27, a former Los Angeles Times sportswriter, helped report the stories that led to the departure of Jim Harrick in 1996 as UCLA basketball coach. In St. Paul, he spent three months talking to a secretary in the academic counseling office at the university before she trusted him enough to tell him that she had written more than 400 term papers, take-home exams and other class assignments for more than 20 of the school’s basketball players. His story triggered an NCAA investigation of the school.

* John C. Bersia of the Orlando Sentinel, in editorial writing, for his “passionate editorial campaign attacking predatory lending practices in the state, which prompted changes in local lending regulations.”

* Joel Pett of the Lexington, Ky., Herald-Leader, in editorial cartooning.

* Mark Schoofs of the Village Voice in New York, in international reporting, for his “provocative and enlightening series on the AIDS crisis in Africa.” The Pulitzer was the third for the Voice, and Schoofs said it was “incredible that an alternative weekly would put this kind of effort behind a major international reporting effort.”

Schoofs spent six months in nine African countries, spending about $20,000 of the Voice’s money, and was hospitalized for several days with malaria in the course of his reporting. But the effort was well worth it, he said. “AIDS in Africa is a catastrophe of enormous proportions. I got a letter the other day from the headman in a village in Zimbabwe telling me that a woman I’d interviewed had died. Her husband was already dead. So while I’m sitting here drinking champagne today, her four children are orphans, with probably not enough money to go to school.”

Champagne flowed--and similar thoughts were expressed--in many newsrooms Monday as word of this year’s Pulitzer winners arrived on computer terminals and telephone lines.

At least one winner--Newhouse in Montana--didn’t believe it when he was told that he had won.

“CBS called and asked me for my reaction and I said: ‘My reaction to what?’ When they said I’d won a Pulitzer, I figured it was a practical joke and I went looking for the culprit.”

Newsroom a Scene of Celebration

In The Times’ newsroom, where word of Moehringer’s victory was greeted with loud applause, modesty was the order of the day. Moehringer thanked his editors for their support and encouragement and said in an interview: “The first draft I wrote was atrocious but they encouraged me to write it again.”

In particular, Moehringer thanked Michael Parks, editor of The Times, for “allowing this [story] to go into the newspaper”; Karen Wada, a managing editor, for “championing it”; Scott Kraft, the national editor, for “cheerleading it”; and Bret Israel, an assistant national editor, for “brilliantly editing it and having the patience of Job with me.”

Moehringer also thanked Times photographer Clarence Williams, who lived in Gee’s Bend for two weeks to take the photos that illustrated the story.

Moehringer, 35, a Times reporter since 1994, made four trips to Gee’s Bend over 18 months to report his story and get to know the residents of the village during each season of the year. He had first been tipped to the unique nature of the town by Times Atlanta bureau researcher Edith Stanley, who had seen a story in an Alabama newspaper mentioning the possibility of a ferry coming to the town, which had been founded by Joseph Gee in 1820.

With Stanley’s help, Moehringer dug through old tax, census, plantation and property records, 160-year-old newspaper clippings and more than 50 volumes of published works. He rode the river by boat and walked its banks and studied it from high surrounding bluffs. He picnicked with the inhabitants of the village, went with them to church, to the market, to parent-teacher conferences and to weddings, funerals, the post office and the doctor’s office.

Moehringer’s story began:

“She hopes the ferry won’t come, but if it does, she’ll climb aboard. She’ll tremble as she steps off the landing because she can’t swim, and she can’t forget the many times she’s crossed this ugly brown river only to meet more ugliness on the other side.

“But fear has never beaten Mary Lee Bendolph, and no river can stop her. She’ll board that ferry, if it comes, because something tells her she must, and because all the people she loves most will board with her, and because if there’s one thing she’s learned in her difficult life, it’s this:

“When the time comes to cross your river, you don’t ask questions. You cross.” Parks called the story “extraordinary . . . a continuation of our proud tradition of great literary journalism.”

The New York Times, which has won 79 Pulitzers--more than any other news organization by far--was shut out Monday for the first time since 1985.

The paper’s failure to win a single Pulitzer, despite having four finalists, was considered so unusual that Joseph Lelyveld, executive editor of the New York Times, called a staff meeting 30 minutes before the winners were announced to praise his staff for their work in 1999.

J.R. Moehringer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning story on Gee’s Bend is available on The Times’ Web site:

https://www.latimes.com/geesbend


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