The Magazine

Prize and Fall

Apr 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 31 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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You may have noticed that Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution won this year's Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Commentary. I might not have noticed it myself, except that a waggish friend sent me an email on the day of the announcement, reminding me of the last time Cynthia Tucker, the Pulitzer Prize, and I had crossed paths.

But first, as we say, two caveats. The first is to declare that I'm pleased Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Commentary. The second caveat is more complicated, but may be boiled down to one simple proposition that most casual observers would consider obvious: The Pulitzer Prizes are a singularly corrupt institution, administered by Columbia University and the management of the New York Times largely for the benefit of the New York Times and a limited number of favored publications and personalities. Any citizen who thinks that the annual distribution of awards has something to do with quality probably believes that the Oscar for Best Picture goes to the most distinguished film of the year. If you're a connoisseur of unrestrained self-praise, may I recommend the citations when the Times awards itself the Pulitzer Gold Medal for Public Service.

Does anyone detect a note of cynicism, perhaps even biliousness, in my tone? Well, maybe. For the sad fact is that once upon a time I was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Distinguished Commentary, and (so I was informed) considered the jury's favorite for the honor. But because the Washington Post had fallen short of its quota that season (so I was informed), the Pulitzer Board, which makes the final decisions, moved Jim Hoagland of the Post from the International Reporting category to Distinguished Commentary for his second--and no doubt richly deserved--Pulitzer Prize.

Which brings us to Cynthia Tucker. In 1995 I was a Pulitzer juror for Distinguished Commentary, and the Times-appointed chairman of our five-person panel was the late Gerald M. Boyd, of subsequent ill-repute as Howell Raines's hatchet man at the Times and patron of Jayson Blair, the lying reporter.

The deliberative process is simple. Jurors sit together in a little room at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, reading the entries; on the final day each, in turn, suggests a couple of finalists. Lively discussion ensues, of course, and most chairmen serve as interlocutors. To our surprise, Gerald M. Boyd took a different approach: He began by insisting that Cynthia Tucker had to be one of the finalists. My muted response, as I recall, was that Cynthia was a nice person and ubiquitous TV talking head but, on the whole, comparatively young and inexperienced. She would no doubt win the Pulitzer Prize someday, I added, and counseled patience.

Now, Gerald M. Boyd was not the most affable fellow I had ever encountered, and since both he and Cynthia Tucker were black, I had no desire to introduce the subject of race in discussions where it didn't belong. Boyd was adamant on the subject of Cynthia Tucker, but so were my fellow jurors, who seemed offended both by Boyd's arrogance and his racial ham-handedness. Since my private strategy in these sessions was devoted to thwarting the prospects for Molly Ivins, I gladly left it to my colleagues to argue with Gerald M. Boyd about Cynthia Tucker.

In the end, I am pleased to report, I succeeded beyond my modest expectations. Not only did I manage to maneuver Molly Ivins out of contention--who, miraculously, never did win the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Commentary before her death this past January--but succeeded in promoting Paul Gigot of the Wall Street Journal as a finalist as well.

As it happens, Gerald M. Boyd finally surrendered on the Cynthia Tucker front; but in order to mollify his wounded feelings, we agreed on another black columnist, Carl T. Rowan, Boyd's second choice, as a finalist. Rowan, of course, was a consummate hack, puerile stylist, and longtime fixture on the Washington cocktail scene; but better a laughingstock, in my view, than Molly Ivins or Gerald M. Boyd's personal dictation. (The Pulitzer Board awarded that year's prize to the third finalist, a Newsday columnist named Jim Dwyer.)

In due course, Boyd was fired from the Times, along with his patron Raines, in 2003 for their relentless promotion of Jayson Blair, and he died last November with an office at the Columbia Journalism School. An interesting story, and except for Cynthia Tucker, not a happy one.