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L.A. Times wins Pulitzer Prizes for art criticism, immigration reporting

Christopher Knight and Molly O'Toole
Pulitzer winners Christopher Knight and Molly O’Toole.
(Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles Times has won two Pulitzer Prizes, for art critic Christopher Knight’s watchdog coverage of plans for the new Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and reporter Molly O’Toole’s audio story about U.S. asylum officers’ discontent with President Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy.

The prizes were awarded Monday in the criticism and audio reporting categories. O’Toole and The Times shared the audio prize with journalists from “This American Life” and Vice.

The Times was also a finalist in three other categories:

In breaking news reporting, for the staff’s coverage of the Conception boat fire, which killed 34 people off Santa Barbara in September. The Pulitzer board cited “dynamic coverage that expertly blended multimedia components, frequent updates and rich narrative.”

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In commentary, for Steve Lopez’s “purposeful columns about rising homelessness in Los Angeles, which amplified calls for government action to deal with a long-visible public crisis.” It marked the fourth time since 2012 that Lopez has been a finalist for his columns.

In explanatory reporting, for “a deeply researched examination of the difficult choices Californians must make as climate change erodes precious coastline.” The project, which included an interactive game showing the threat posed by rising seas, was produced by environmental reporter Rosanna Xia, graphics and data journalist Swetha Kannan, and news application developer Terry Castleman.

The Times has won 47 Pulitzer Prizes, the first coming in 1942.

The Pulitzer judges cited O’Toole and Vice freelancer Emily Green for “The Out Crowd,” broadcast on NPR’s “This American Life,” for “revelatory, intimate journalism that illuminates the personal impact of the Trump administration’s ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy.”

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O’Toole, 33, had covered immigration and border security for a decade and decided to look closely at a new policy targeting asylum seekers, not just people who had illegally crossed the border.

She found veteran asylum officers deeply troubled by directives that effectively forced them to push many Mexican and Central American immigrants back to deadly violence in their home countries.

“The officers felt very strongly about refugee asylum and the idea of the U.S. as a safe haven,” she said. “Now they were taking part in a policy that they felt was wrong, morally and legally. But they had few choices, either continue being part of this administration or quit and lose their career.”

Audio reporting is a new Pulitzer category in 2020.

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In honoring Knight, the board cited his work “for demonstrating extraordinary service by a critic, applying his expertise and enterprise to critique a proposed overhaul of the L.A. County Museum of Art and its effect on the institution’s mission.”

Knight, who had been a Pulitzer finalist three times since he joined The Times in 1989, first noticed that most of the coverage of the project focused on the museum’s architecture and aesthetics with no regard for the purpose it was supposed to serve.

“The building design was going to have a profound effect on how the campus was going to operate in the future,” Knight said. “No one was discussing that.”

Knight, 69, noted a dramatic loss of exhibition space, and that the new layout would have curators working in a building across the street from the museum, separated from the art. Then there were the gallery walls.

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He wrote a May column that began:

How do you hang paintings on concrete walls?

“With great difficulty” is the joke answer.

“With great difficulty” is the serious answer too. Hanging paintings on cast concrete isn’t easy.

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But that’s apparently what the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has in mind, beginning in four or five years, when a controversial $650-million structure opens on the Wilshire Boulevard campus. ... The gallery walls will be made of the stuff.

Times Executive Editor Norman Pearlstine congratulated Knight and O’Toole for their prizes during a video staff meeting, rather than the traditional champagne celebration in the newsroom — an accommodation for coronavirus restrictions.

“I also want to note that we were finalists in five different categories,” Pearlstine said, “which to my mind was an extraordinary reflection on all of the good work that was done last year under what — until this year — I would have called extraordinarily difficult circumstances. But really, through all of the year, the one thing that was constant was the commitment to great quality journalism and I think everyone in the organization did extraordinary work on extraordinary stories.”

In other categories, the prestigious public service prize was awarded to the Anchorage Daily News, with contributions from ProPublica, for a series revealing that a third of Alaska’s villages had no police protection.

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The New York Times took home three prizes, including one for investigative reporting, for an exposé of New York City’s taxi industry showing “how lenders profited from predatory loans that shattered the lives of vulnerable drivers.”

Lalo Alcaraz, a Los Angeles resident and creator of the daily comic strip “La Cucaracha,” which appears in The Times, was a finalist for editorial cartooning “for his irreverent and poignant cartoon commentary for local and national issues from a distinctly Latinx perspective.”

“Ear Hustle,” a podcast about life behind bars produced by inmates of San Quentin State Prison, was a finalist in audio reporting. It was created by Nigel Poor, an artist who volunteered at the prison, and inmates Earlonne Woods and Rahsann Thomas.

In the arts, “The Central Park Five,” by Anthony Davis, which premiered at the Long Beach Opera, won for music.

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Author Colson Whitehead won the fiction category for “Nickel Boys,” a “spare and devastating exploration of abuse at a reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida that is ultimately a powerful tale of human perseverance, dignity and redemption.”

A special citation was given to Ida B. Wells, the freed-slave turned investigative journalist and civil rights activist who helped found the NAACP, “for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.” Wells died in 1931.

The citation comes with a bequest by the Pulitzer Prize board of at least $50,000 in support of her mission, the board announced.

Dana Canedy, administrator of the Pulitzers, noted the logistical difficulties in getting top journalists and critics together to make this year’s selections.

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“In the past, we have announced the prizes from Columbia University’s journalism school,” she said. “This year, of course, is different. I’m speaking to you today from my living room.”

Since 1942, The Times has won 47 Pulitzer Prizes, six of which were gold medals for public service. 2020: Criticism Times’ art critic Christopher Knight for work that demonstrated “extraordinary community service by a critic, applying his expertise and enterprise to critique a proposed overhaul of the L.A.


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