The Magazine

Unwarranted Prize

Apr 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 31 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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"The value of an industry is inversely proportional to the number of awards it gives itself,” humorist and blogger David Burge recently quipped. Naturally, the occasion for this remark was the announcement of the 2012 Pulitzer Prizes. While the Pulitzer committee did recognize some worthy recipients, the few deserving awards were, as usual, debased by a number of baffling and terrible choices. 

Photo of the Pulitzer Prize

If you doubt that the Pulitzers are simply an excuse for orgiastic self-congratulation, consider the following: “The Pulitzer Prizes showcased journalism’s power to shine a powerful light on the forgotten or the unknown, and the awards honored work including stories from The Associated Press revealing the New York Police Department’s widespread spying on Muslims.” Thus begins the Associated Press’s write-up of its own Pulitzer for investigative reporting. To piggyback on Burge’s observation, it’s also true that the humility of an industry is inversely proportional to the number of awards it gives itself. 

In the case of the AP, the hubris is utterly unwarranted. Saying the AP was awarded its Pulitzer for reporting the police were “spying” on Muslims implies that the NYPD was caught doing something wrong. But the AP’s 22-story series didn’t report the NYPD had done a single illegal thing. It’s not news that police departments routinely conduct clandestine surveillance to root out criminal activity. Just three weeks before the AP’s Pulitzer was awarded, NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly lamented, “It’s pretty tough to go up against a wire service that has a certain template that it’s sticking to.” Kelly further presciently complained that the AP was falsely spinning the surveillance program as if it were “somehow spying.” 

The torrent of AP stories did lead to a congressional hearing, which ultimately prompted .  .  . nothing. Attorney General Eric Holder declared the NYPD program “disturbing,” and noted it was “under review at the Justice Department.” Presumably Holder will lecture Kelly on how to conduct proper law enforcement investigations just as soon as he’s done explaining to the rest of us why the Justice Department gave Mexican criminal gangs thousands of guns, resulting in the death of at least one American law enforcement officer. Is it too much to ask that some enterprising media outlet do a 22-part investigative series on that? Or is it not worth doing because there’s no Pulitzer in it? 

As the New York Post noted last week, the NYPD has broken up 14 terrorist plots since 9/11—including a conspiracy of three al Qaeda-trained New Yorkers who are in federal court right now for plotting to blow up Times Square, Grand Central Station, and a number of other targets. Moreover, the NYPD has come a long way from the days of Serpico. Polls show the department has broad public approval. It should be obvious to anyone who has visited New York regularly over the last few decades that the city is much, much safer than it used to be. The NYPD should be lauded for its successful terrorism prevention and crime reduction efforts. In fact, there’s a strong case to be made that no other major law enforcement agency has had a better track record in recent history than the NYPD.

That said, the NYPD, like any public agency, should expect scrutiny from the press. This only underscores, however, why it is perverse to give the AP an award for its politically correct witch-hunt. In a city with nearly 35,000 police officers, not all will turn out to be New York’s finest—some measure of corruption is inevitable. The AP’s relentless and baseless attacks on the NYPD, compounded by its failure to credit the department for doing an exceptionally difficult job very well, are likely to leave both the public and the NYPD less responsive than they should be when the press gets around to reporting any genuine scandals.

Unfortunately, as this year’s Pulitzers demonstrate, there’s little reason to be optimistic about the media’s credibility or their ability to root out wrongdoing. It’s one thing to congratulate yourself for shining a powerful light on the forgotten or the unknown; it’s quite another to actually do it.

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