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Times wins Pulitzer for series on ocean pollution

Times Staff Writer

A Los Angeles Times series describing the profound degradation of the world’s oceans won the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting Monday, the 38th time the newspaper has been awarded journalism’s top honor.

The five-part “Altered Oceans” project, headed by environmental reporter Kenneth R. Weiss, revealed how mankind has choked the oceans with trash, nitrogen, carbon and other pollutants -- killing sea life, making some coastal residents sick and effectively turning evolution back to a primeval epoch when primitive organisms reigned.

Reporter Usha Lee McFarling and photographer Rick Loomis teamed with Weiss to create the stories, photo galleries, animated graphics and videos (posted at latimes.com/oceans) that evoked a broad and emotional response from citizens and political leaders.

“We cling to this notion that the oceans are too big to change. But it turns out they are not. The oceans are suffering from an accumulation of assaults,” said Weiss, who grew up surfing and scuba diving in his native California. “We need to be much more careful what we are pulling out of the ocean and what we are dumping into the ocean.”

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Southern California had a second winner Monday, as LA Weekly restaurant reviewer Jonathan Gold won the Pulitzer for criticism for his “zestful, wide-ranging restaurant reviews, expressing the delight of an erudite eater.” It is the first Pulitzer for the Weekly and reportedly the first time the criticism prize has gone to a restaurant writer.

No one publication dominated this year’s journalism prizes, although the Wall Street Journal made a strong showing by winning two: the international reporting citation for its stories about the adverse effects of China’s booming capitalism and the award for meritorious public service, for its expose of top business executives who manipulated stock-option grants to give themselves massive payouts.

The Journal’s stories on so-called option backdating were just one of several examples of the invaluable watchdog function served by newspapers in 2006, said Pulitzer administrators at Columbia University.

“When newsroom budgets are being reduced and the news media facing so much criticism, the winners and finalists this year show that there’s still high-quality journalism being produced across the country,” said Pulitzer Prize administrator Sig Gissler. “When you think about it, who would be doing this work if we didn’t have newspapers?”

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The Pulitzer panel praised the Wall Street Journal journalists -- including Charles Forelle, James Bandler and Mark Maremont -- for a “creative and comprehensive probe.” Academic research had speculated that corporate executives might be manipulating the dates on stock options to increase their value -- a lead that special projects editor Maremont brought to his colleagues.

Forelle, a Yale math major, suggested a probability analysis to assess the likelihood that options would have fallen by chance on extremely advantageous dates. Dozens of stories followed, leading to internal or outside investigations of at least 264 companies.

Among the many executives caught up in the probe was UnitedHealth Group Inc. Chief Executive William McGuire. McGuire, the head of one of the nation’s largest health insurers, lost his job. Along with a colleague, he was forced to give back more than $390 million in options compensation.

“It’s gratifying as newspaper reporters to have such a wide impact and clean up such a dark corner of corporate America,” Maremont said. “And I think capitalism is better for it. People shouldn’t be cheating.”

Other Pulitzer winners holding public institutions and officials accountable were:

* Brett Blackledge of the Birmingham (Ala.) News, the investigative reporting winner for his “exposure of cronyism and corruption in the state’s two-year college system,” which led to the dismissal of its chancellor.

* New York Daily News writers Arthur Browne, Beverly Weintraub and Heidi Evans, who won the editorial writing prize “for their compassionate and compelling editorials on behalf of ground zero workers whose health problems were neglected by the city and the nation.”

* Miami Herald reporter Debbie Cenziper for reports on “waste, favoritism and lack of oversight at the Miami housing agency that resulted in dismissals, investigations and prosecutions.” The prize was the first in the new local reporting category.

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* Boston Globe reporter Charlie Savage, the winner in the national reporting category, “for his revelations that President Bush often used ‘signing statements’ to assert his controversial right to bypass provisions of new laws.”

The award submissions demonstrated the efforts of traditional media organizations to transition into a new era in which many viewers are not reading their print editions. Two years after the Pulitzers began accepting online content in all categories, as many as one-fifth of the entries for work in 2006 included audio, video, graphic or print elements from newspaper websites.

The Oregonian of Portland, which won the breaking news award, used video and other online features to tell the story of a family missing in the mountains. All three of the finalists in the editorial cartooning category, including winner Walt Handelsman of Newsday on Long Island, submitted animated cartoons along with their print entries.

Other journalism winners were Andrea Elliott of the New York Times, the feature award winner for her portrait of an immigrant imam in America; Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for her commentaries; Oded Balilty of the Associated Press in breaking news for his photo of a lone Jewish woman defying Israeli security forces in the West Bank; and Renee C. Byer of the Sacramento Bee for feature photography, a series on a single mother and her young son as he loses his battle with cancer.

Almost from the time he began covering the oceans for The Times five years ago, Weiss said he was struck by the similarities in the research of many scientists.

“All their charts and graphs looked the same, whether it was fish or coral reefs or habitat areas -- they all fell off precipitously sometime in the 1980s or ‘90s,” Weiss said. “The drop is so dramatic they call them waterfall charts. Some of these veteran scientists began to study that pattern. I just followed their lead.”

His reporting took him up the Pacific Coast and around the world, along with photographer Loomis. Their reports showed how “industrial society is overdosing the oceans with basic nutrients -- the nitrogen, carbon, iron and phosphorous compounds that curl out of smokestacks and tailpipes, wash into the sea from fertilized lawns and cropland, seep out of septic tanks and gush from sewer pipes.”

The effects were systematic -- 80% of the corals in the Caribbean wiped out, 75% of California’s kelp forests destroyed -- and intimate. The “Altered Oceans” reports drew readers in by detailing the suffering and ultimate death of a California sea lion named Neuschwander (after the lifeguard who rescued her); depicting Australian fishermen losing not only their skin but their livelihoods to a venomous weed that can cover an area the size of San Francisco Bay; and sharing the travails of a Florida family driven from their home by the toxic breeze blowing from a noxious ocean algae bloom.

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Pulitzer administrator Gissler praised The Times’ use of “a very sophisticated package of online material,” which included video editing by John Vande Wege. In the fifth part of the series, McFarling, who left the paper last year, detailed how increasing acidity portended catastrophic changes for the bottom of the food chain. The project was overseen by Assistant Metro Editor Frank Clifford and Assistant Managing Editor Marc Duvoisin.

The triumph of the Weekly’s Gold was notable as a breakthrough not only for a restaurant critic but for an alternative publication that had never before even had a Pulitzer finalist. When the news of Gold’s victory came just after noon Monday, Weekly staffers sprayed the 46-year-old food writer with champagne.

Gold began his “Counter Intelligence” column in 1986, continued it during a six-year interlude with The Times in the 1990s and then returned it to the Weekly, where his witty and evocative reviews have been a mainstay for more than a decade.

Fans have described his columns as a joyous and subversive rebuttal to mainstream reviewers, with the critic ranging from a Pasadena gelato cart to a Beverly Hills steakhouse to a Cypress Park taqueria, where last year he found a dish so large and evocatively proportioned that the critic dubbed it “the porno burrito.”

Gold said Monday he was happy at the thought that he had opened up new corners of Los Angeles to his readers.

“When I was at The Times, there used to be a joke that huge parts of L.A. only got written about if somebody got shot or I was writing about a restaurant there,” he said. “And I would like to think that I helped a little bit to make it feel like the city wasn’t so much that way anymore.”

Gold won in a category in which two Times writers -- classical music reviewer Mark Swed and art critic Christopher Knight -- were also finalists. The Pulitzer board commended Knight for pieces “that reflect meticulous reporting, aesthetic judgment and authoritative voice.” It praised Swed “for his passionate music criticism, marked by resonant writing and an ability to give life to the people behind a performance.”

Among the other finalists for the journalism prizes were The Times’ Baghdad writers, who won praise for their “courageous chronicling” of the increasingly fractious landscape in Iraq. Cited for their coverage were Bureau Chief Borzou Daragahi and reporters Louise Roug, Megan Stack, Solomon Moore and Shamil Aziz.

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james.rainey@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

2007 Pulitzer Prize winners

JOURNALISM

Public Service: The Wall Street Journal, for coverage of a 2006 stock-options scandal that rattled corporate America.

Breaking News Reporting: The (Portland) Oregonian for print and online coverage of a family missing in the Oregon mountains.

Investigative Reporting: Brett Blackledge, the Birmingham News, for his exposure of cronyism and corruption in Alabama’s two-year college system. (Moved by the board from the Public Service category.)

Explanatory Reporting: Kenneth R. Weiss, Usha Lee McFarling and Rick Loomis, the Los Angeles Times, for print and online reports on the world’s distressed oceans.

Local Reporting: Debbie Cenziper, the Miami Herald, for reports on waste, favoritism and lack of oversight at the Miami housing agency.

National Reporting: Charlie Savage, the Boston Globe, for revelations that President Bush often used “signing statements” to assert his controversial right to bypass provisions of new laws.

International Reporting: The Wall Street Journal staff, for reports on the adverse effect of China’s booming capitalism on conditions including inequality and pollution.

Feature Writing: Andrea Elliott, the New York Times, for her portrait of an immigrant imam.

Commentary: Cynthia Tucker, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for columns “that evince a strong sense of morality and persuasive knowledge of the community.”

Criticism: Jonathan Gold, LA Weekly, for his “zestful, wide-ranging” restaurant reviews.

Editorial Writing: New York Daily News editorial board, for editorials on behalf of ailing ground zero workers.

Editorial Cartooning: Walt Handelsman, Newsday, for his “stark, sophisticated cartoons and his impressive use of zany animation.”

Breaking News Photography: Oded Balilty, the Associated Press, for his photograph of a lone Jewish woman defying Israeli security forces in the West Bank.

Feature Photography: Renee C. Byer, the Sacramento Bee, for her portrait of a single mother and her dying child.

**

ARTS

Fiction: “The Road,” by Cormac McCarthy (Alfred A. Knopf).

Drama: “Rabbit Hole,” by David Lindsay-Abaire.

History: “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation,” by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff (Alfred A. Knopf).

Biography: “The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher,” by Debby Applegate (Doubleday).

Poetry: “Native Guard,” by Natasha Trethewey (Houghton Mifflin).

General Nonfiction: “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” by Lawrence Wright (Alfred A. Knopf).

Music: “Sound Grammar,” by Ornette Coleman.

Source: Associated Press


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