The Los Angeles Times was awarded the Pulitzer Prize gold medal for public service for revealing official corruption in Bell and the feature photography award for Barbara Davidson’s images of victims struggling to recover in the aftermath of gang violence.
In a series of articles beginning last summer, a team of 20 reporters and editors, led by staff writers Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives, revealed that Bell officials secretly enriched themselves with extravagant salaries and benefits while illegally raising taxes on the city’s residents, who are among the poorest in Los Angeles County.
As a result, criminal charges were filed against former Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo, who received an $800,000 salary and hundreds of thousands of dollars more in perks. He and seven other former city officials have been charged with multiple felonies. The revelations also led to millions of dollars in rebates of illegal taxes for Bell residents and tough new disclosure laws for cities and counties in California.
“The Bell coverage was a classic exercise in gang tackling executed by a newsroom that does this better than anybody,” said Times Editor Russ Stanton after the awards were announced Monday.
Davidson spent two years photographing victims of violent crime in South Los Angeles, Compton and Watts. Her work, the judges said, told an “intimate story of innocent victims trapped in the city’s crossfire of deadly gang violence.” Her images — including a uniformed mother visiting the gravesite of her son who was killed while she served in Iraq — illustrated the human cost of crime, even at a time when the violent crime rate is dropping.
The Bell coverage also received the Selden Ring Award for investigative reporting from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, the American Society of News Editors’ distinguished writing award for local accountability reporting, the Investigative Reporters and Editors’ top honor and the George Polk Award for local reporting.
“The real victors in this are the people of Bell who were able to get rid of — the only way to describe it — a repressive regime and have a real City Council,” said Gottlieb, who took a swig from a bottle of champagne as his newsroom colleagues celebrated around him. In March, citizens in the southeast Los Angeles County city voted in a new City Council.
Gottlieb, 57, recounted the moment he and Vives discovered Rizzo’s inflated salary. They were sitting in a community room in Bell’s Little Bear Park, with Rizzo and nine other Bell officials.
“I said to Rizzo, ‘So how much money do you make?’ And he coughed out, '$700,000.’ And I wasn’t sure I heard him right, and I said, ‘How much?’ And he said, '$700,000.’ And Ruben goes, ‘Jesus Christ!’ ”
Vives, 32, who has been a reporter for three years, added: “At a time when people say that newspapers are dying, this is a day that I think we can say, no not really. I mean, we gave a small town … the opportunity to speak out. And that’s what newspapers do.”
Davidson, 36, said she was “totally stunned.” She thanked the families she photographed “for sharing their private pain and sorrow,” and said she was “humbled by the honor” and hoped it would “raise awareness of the issue of gang violence and its impact on innocent victims.”
The Times has won 41 Pulitzer Prizes. Six of those are public service medals, more than any other newspaper.
The New York Times also won two prizes this year. Ellen Barry and Clifford J. Levy won in international reporting for what the Pulitzer judges called their “dogged reporting that put a human face on the faltering justice system in Russia.” Economics columnist David Leonhardt won the commentary prize for his “graceful penetration of America’s complicated economic questions.”
The Washington Post was awarded the prize for breaking news photography for its Haiti earthquake coverage. Times photographer Carolyn Cole, a Pulitzer winner in 2004, was a finalist for her “often haunting images” of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The nonprofit investigative news site ProPublica earned the national reporting prize for coverage of the nation’s economic meltdown by reporters Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein. It was the first Pulitzer given for reporting that appeared only online, not in print.
The Boston Globe’s art critic, Sebastian Smee, won the criticism prize for what the judges called his “vivid and exuberant writing about art.” Jonathan Gold of the LA Weekly, who won the category in 2007 for his eclectic restaurant reviews, was a finalist.
Joseph Rago of the Wall Street Journal earned the editorial writing prize for his “well-crafted, against-the-grain” editorials challenging President Obama’s healthcare reform legislation. It was the first Pulitzer Prize for the Journal since it was acquired by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in 2007.
Several newspapers had multiple finalists. The New York Times had five, and the Wall Street Journal and Chicago Tribune each had four.
The Pulitzer board did not give an award in the breaking news category.
“After serious consideration, no entry received the necessary majority [of votes] required for the prize,” said prize administrator Sig Gissler, who announced the awards at Columbia University.
In the letters, drama and music categories, Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad” won for fiction. Siddhartha Mukherjee won in general nonfiction for “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.” Eric Foner won for history for “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.” Ron Chernow won for biography for “Washington: A Life.” Kay Ryan won for poetry for “The Best of It: New and Selected Poems.” Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park” won for drama. Zhou Long won in the music category for “Madame White Snake.”
Times staff writer Hector Becerra contributed to this report. Abcarian reported from Los Angeles and Baum reported from New York.