They handed out the Pulitzer Prizes last week. The ritual was much like it usually is. The New York Times picked up two. The Los Angeles Times won for Public Service, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel won its third in four years. And for the 85th year in a row, no newspaper in the great state of South Carolina received a medallion, although Post and Courier reporter Tony Bartelme was a finalist.
One important change was that, for the first time, reporters from a non-print medium, Pro Publica, received a Pulitzer. We will surely see more of this as traditional newspapers grow smaller and may eventually become extinct.
One change in the industry I do not welcome is the loss of Frank Rich at The New York Times. After 30 years as theater critic and op-ed columnist, Rich is moving on to New York magazine. I hope he is happy there, but his departure — like so many other signs — seems to auger ill for the newspaper business.
Rich and I never met face-to-face, but I first encountered him before he became one of the most celebrated opinionators in print. We were both starting our writing careers. He followed his star to The New York Times. My star, well, my star didn’t rise quite so high.
In 1974, I wrote a 2,000-word story about a demonstration I attended on the Mall in D.C., demanding the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. It was sardonic, poking fun as much at the dysfunctional demonstration with its brawling factions as at the besieged president. On a lark I sent it off to New Times Magazine, a long-defunct, but once-edgy news and feature magazine.
With remarkable swiftness I got a letter back. It was a rejection, but it was so encouraging that it felt almost as good as a sale. The senior editor complimented my writing profusely and urged me to make future submissions. It was signed: Frank Rich. Of course, I didn’t know who Frank Rich was in 1974. I just knew that he liked my writing and that might be a ticket to bigger things. Later, when I started seeing Rich’s name in Time magazine and in The New York Times, the letter meant all the more to me. I still have it squirreled away among nearly 40 years of notes and mementos. Unfortunately, it did not lead to a sale to New Times Magazine.
In Rich’s farewell column last month, he wrote, “For me … the point of opinion writing is less to try to shape events, a presumptuous and foolhardy ambition at best, than to help stimulate debate and, from my particular perspective, try to explain why things got the way they are and what they might mean and where they might lead.”
I couldn’t have said it better. For years I have used this column to try to connect the dots between the past and present, or as Rich said, “to explain why things got the way they are.” For this reason I have used the Civil War Sesquicentennial as a teachable moment for those who are willing to learn. The South will never get four wheels on the road as long as it remains mired in Confederate romance and mythology.
And while I am expounding, let me say that I am not a political activist. I have tried it, and I was never comfortable with the cynicism and amorality that seems to infuse all politics. I will continue to think of myself as a journalist, regardless of how cynical and amoral my critics take me to be.
I write about things I find interesting, and I hope that my readers share my enthusiasm. I receive at least four or five suggestions for columns each week, and I do not wish to discourage them. Friends and associates have given me some great ideas over the years. But I am not here to provide a public service. I am not ready to produce copy for anyone with an ax to grind or a yearning to hold public office. I hate being told to attend public meetings or write about certain candidates by people I do not work for. I really hate having some politico call me up — as one did last week when I was at the library — and scream at me for 15 minutes to cover one of his pet projects. This fool needs to hire a PR guy. Even my editors do not tell me what to write about.
This isn’t The New York Times, and I am not likely to win a Pulitzer spinning out columns on our crazy politicians and dysfunctional state government. But it is a lot of fun, and if it stopped being fun, I would stop doing it. So let’s keep having fun, and I will keep writing.