It happens every year at this time. Columbia University hands out the Pulitzer Prizes, journalism’s highest honor, and I make my annual corny joke about not receiving one. I will forgo the joke this year. In light of the condition of the newspaper industry today, there is hardly any place for levity.
I will note that, as a journalist in South Carolina, I do not feel particularly neglected by the Pulitzer committee. This was simply the 84th consecutive year in which no journalist or newspaper in this state has won a Pulitzer. Not since 1924, when Robert Lathan of the old Charleston News and Courier received the prize, has a Pulitzer for journalism graced the Palmetto State. (Julia Mood Peterkin took a Pulitzer for fiction in 1929.)
That said, I will hasten to add that there was some very fine journalism in the state in 2007, especially in that little patch we call the Holy City.
Here at Charleston City Paper, we picked up awards for business reporting, general news photography, and the Best of the Best award in beat reporting for weekly newspapers with over 4,000 circulation.
It was a very good year for The Post and Courier, heir to the aforementioned News and Courier. With the death of nine firemen in the Sofa Super Store fire and the collapse of celebrity economist Al Parish’s Ponzi scheme, 2007 was a big year for news in Charleston, and the P&C was all over it. In recognition, the South Carolina Press Association gave the venerable old paper its Public Service Award for Daily Newspapers last month.
First place reporting in-depth honors went to Ron Menchaca, Glenn Smith, Tony Bartelme, Robert Behre, David Slad, and Doug Pardue for their stellar coverage of the sofa store fire and the failures that led to the disaster. The second place reporting in-depth award went to Kyle Stock and Schuyler Kropf for their ongoing coverage of the Al Parish embarrassment.
Menchaca and Mindy B. Hagen received the Taylor/Tomlin Award for Investigative Journalism, in recognition of their series of stories on the unsafe condition of the state’s 6,000 school buses. The series kicked the General Assembly into gear, forcing legislators to pass a law to replace the oldest of the state’s decrepit school bus fleet.
In the category of enterprise reporting, the P&C swept the field. Bartelme took first place; Smith and Menchaca (again!) took second; Prentiss Findlay took third.
And the P&C swept for feature writing. Smith took first place and Brian Hicks took second and third.
So much for the kudos. Now for a big raspberry. On Feb. 26, 2008, Yvonne Wenger, the P&C‘s Columbia correspondent, aided by Brian Hicks, had a story titled, “Legislators fear governor has ‘hit list.'”
The story reported that some members of the General Assembly were raising record amounts of money for the upcoming primaries because Gov. Mark Sanford was allegedly recruiting candidates to run against them. It suggested that his agent in this conflict with the legislature was an organization called South Carolinians for Reform.
It was a good story. The problem was that it came four weeks after a similar story, titled “The Hit List,” ran in the Free Times, out of Columbia. Written by Corey Hutchins and Wes Wolfe, the Free Times article reported essentially the same story, though it claimed that the S.C. Club for Growth was allegedly Sanford’s proxy in his war with the General Assembly. Nevertheless, the long list of legislators interviewed in the two stories was almost identical.
It is hard to believe that the P&C story was not drawn from the Free Times story. If it was, a simple one-reference acknowledgment would have been a professional courtesy. As it stands, this looks like a case of journalistic larceny.
Finally, it is interesting to observe the somber and reverential tones with which the P&C observed the 40th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. What a difference 40 years makes!
April 6, 1968, marked the beginning of nearly a week of snotty and cynical editorializing in the old News and Courier by its old editor, Thomas R. Waring. As rioting erupted in cities around the country following King’s assassination, Waring expended buckets of ink denouncing the rioters, using it to besmirch the life’s work of King, ignoring the possibility that the violence might be as much a response to centuries of injustice, as to a single death.
Today, there are new window dressings in the editorial suite at the P&C, but anyone who reads their pages on a daily basis can only conclude that a lot of old ghosts still lurk in the closets.