Pulitzers recognize the public watchdogs

A five-part Los Angeles Times series on the futility of government efforts to quell the growing threat of wildfires won a Pulitzer Prize on Monday, and the New York Times claimed five of journalism’s highest awards in a year that recognized the watchdog function of the press even as newspapers struggle to survive.

The Las Vegas Sun won the coveted public service medal for exposing lax safety standards that led to construction workers’ deaths on the Strip.

Many of this year’s winning entries focused on exposing corruption, waste and abuses of power -- a time-consuming, often expensive form of journalism increasingly endangered as news organizations slash staffs and close bureaus. At least one of Monday’s winners was laid off this year.


As papers scale back, the danger of official abuse going unchecked increases, Pulitzer Prize administrator Sig Gissler said as he announced the winners at Columbia University. “Sometimes I think we take for granted the watchdog role of newspapers,” Gissler said, referring to the array of winners cited for investigative work.

In their wildfire articles, reporters Bettina Boxall and Julie Cart reported that costly aerial drops of water and retardant often were ordered against firefighters’ better judgment because they “make good television” and helped win political points for local officials. The series took 15 months from conception until publication last summer. It took seven months alone to get the results of a Freedom of Information Act request to the U.S. Forest Service that provided details on the effort to quell the so-called Zaca fire. The 2007 blaze burned a quarter-million acres in the Los Padres National Forest outside Santa Barbara.

The details ranged from the innocuous -- the lip balm used by the firefighters -- to the costs of aerial drops. The tab for one day of firefighting was more than $2.5 million. Despite such expenses, the series showed, fire protection policies were not working, and bigger, deadlier fires were raging.

“Calculating how the money was spent gave us a window into explaining how these escalating costs came about,” Cart said. “Then you can look at all the component parts and ask, ‘Are they necessary?’ and, most importantly, ‘Are they effective?’ This is taxpayers’ money.”

“We are delighted to get the award at a time when the Los Angeles Times has gotten a lot of bad news,” Boxall said. The Times’ parent company, Tribune Co., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in December and has cut hundreds of jobs in the last year.

Editor Russ Stanton noted that fewer papers across the country still do in-depth reporting but said that The Times “will always be one.”

Judges called the reporting a “fresh and painstaking exploration.” Frank Clifford, then The Times’ environmental editor, launched the reporting in 2007 before leaving the paper, and the series was edited by Marc Duvoisin. Duvoisin and Clifford also helped guide The Times to a 2007 Pulitzer for its “Altered Oceans” series.

The most medals won Monday went to the New York Times. It was honored in the breaking news category for coverage of Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s downfall amid revelations of his involvement with a prostitute. The newspaper also was awarded the investigative prize for “tenacious reporting” by David Barstow that revealed the Pentagon’s use of retired generals -- working as radio and TV analysts -- to make its case for the war in Iraq. In international reporting, the New York Times won for coverage of U.S. military and political challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The newspaper also won for Holland Cotter’s art reviews and for Damon Winter’s “memorable array of pictures deftly capturing multiple facets of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.”

The newspaper holds the record of seven Pulitzers in a single year, for coverage of the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Two papers shared the local reporting prize Monday. The Detroit Free Press won for uncovering a “pattern of lies” that led to jail time for Mayor Kwame Kirkpatrick. And the East Valley Tribune of Mesa, Ariz., was cited for reporting on how public safety was compromised by a sheriff’s obsession with chasing illegal immigrants. One of the two reporters on the winning Arizona team, Paul Giblin, was laid off in January when the newspaper slashed 142 jobs. The reporter who worked with Giblin, Ryan Gabrielson, said it took them six months to complete the project. “This is about the only word to describe it -- unbelievable,” Gabrielson said when he learned of the Pulitzer, the Tribune reported.

The East Valley Tribune is a free community newspaper. It cut back publishing to four days a week in January to reduce costs and will go to three days May 15, but operates seven days a week online.

Patrick Farrell of the Miami Herald won the breaking news photography prize for his work in Haiti, focusing on the humanitarian crisis in the wake of major storms. The San Diego Union-Tribune’s Steve Breen won a second Pulitzer for his editorial cartoons, and Mark Mahoney of the Post-Star of Glens Falls, N.Y., won for editorial writing.

Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post was cited for his commentary on the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign.

The story of a grossly neglected girl adopted into a new family garnered the feature-writing prize for Lane DeGregory of the St. Petersburg Times. The newspaper also won for national reporting for its fact-checking examination of more than 750 claims during the presidential campaign.

Las Vegas Sun reporter Alexandra Berzon was cited by the Pulitzer judges for “courageous reporting” that led to changes in conditions for constructions workers. “We spent basically a year on this story,” said Berzon, according to the Associated Press. “To see things change as a result, that is really a satisfying thing.”

Of the 1,028 journalism entries submitted, 65 came from online only publications. It was the first time such outlets had been able to submit entries. None won, but was a finalist in editorial cartooning.


Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein in Los Angeles contributed to this report.



The 2009 Pulitzer Prize winners

Public service: The Las Vegas Sun, notably Alexandra Berzon, for exposing the high death rate among construction workers on the Las Vegas Strip.

Breaking news reporting: The New York Times for its coverage of a sex scandal that resulted in the resignation of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

Investigative reporting: David Barstow of the New York Times for reporting on how some retired generals had been co-opted by the Pentagon to make its case for war as radio and television analysts.

Explanatory reporting: Bettina Boxall and Julie Cart of the Los Angeles Times for exploring attempts to combat Western wildfires.

Local reporting: The Detroit Free Press, notably Jim Schaefer and M.L. Elrick; and Ryan Gabrielson and Paul Giblin of the East Valley Tribune in Mesa, Ariz. The Free Press was cited for uncovering lies by Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick -- including denial of a sexual relationship with an aide -- that eventually led to jail terms for the two officials. The Tribune won for revealing how a popular sheriff’s focus on immigration enforcement endangered investigation of violent crime and other aspects of public safety.

National reporting: The St. Petersburg Times for PolitiFact, a fact-checking initiative during the 2008 presidential campaign.

International reporting: The New York Times for coverage of U.S. military challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Feature writing: Lane DeGregory of the St. Petersburg Times for coverage of a neglected girl and her adoption.

Commentary: Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post for columns on the 2008 presidential campaign.

Criticism: Holland Cotter of the New York Times for art reviews.

Editorial writing: Mark Mahoney of the Post-Star, Glens Falls, N.Y., for editorials on local government secrecy.

Editorial cartooning: Steve Breen of the San Diego Union-Tribune for a style that engages readers.

Breaking news photography: Patrick Farrell of the Miami Herald for photos of the aftermath of disastrous storms in Haiti.

Feature photography: Damon Winter of the New York Times for photos of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

Los Angeles Times prize finalists: Paul Pringle in investigative reporting, for exposing financial abuses by the head of California’s largest union; and Carolyn Cole in breaking news photography, for photos of political violence in Kenya.

Source: Associated Press