Degradation in Black and Print
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, April 18, 2006
It’s journalism’s annual paradox: the worst news is prized for its best renditions. The past year was equally bleak and fertile in scandals and repulsions, with this unhappy distinction: the United States, or rather Bush’s Estates of spying, rendition, repression, corruption and incompetence, stood as a city on the edge of a precipice for all the world to rue and mourn. The bleak and the shameful were as American as General Motors (and as encouraging as GM’s prospects). The year’s Pulitzers reflect the Great Degradation.
But first, forgive the self-referencing. It’s vile and unbecoming, but once in a while a bout of Norman Mailerisms can’t hurt. And so you read it here first. On November 18 in these pages (or to be precise, in the Notebooks’ pre-historic incarnation), I wrote the following: “The mystery of Dana Priest’s brief disappearance from the pages of the Washington Post following her revelation of the CIA’s little gulag of ‘black sites’ on Nov. 2 was resolved this morning with her latest revelation: Not that she’ll win a Pulitzer Prize for public service next year, which she will, or should, but that the CIA has been operating (and funding) ‘joint operation centers in more than two dozen countries where U.S. and foreign intelligence officers work side by side to track and capture suspected terrorists and to destroy or penetrate their networks.’ The agency Graham Greene called ‘one of those services so ineptly called secret’ and Daniel Patrick Moynihan smelled out for its habitual ‘malfeasance’ has richly lived up to bleak expectations before and after September 11…” And the Pulitzer committee has lived up to Dana Priest’s due: She won today—“for her persistent, painstaking reports on secret ‘black site’ prisons,” the committee wrote, “and other controversial features of the government’s counterterrorism campaign.” (See the original story here).
You have to love that self-conscious restraint in the committee’s explanation. It could just as well be writing about some public park Frederick Law Olmsted designed instead of the fucked up criminalities of the Bush junta. Others will have to do the nomination’s style justice. (The 19-member committee this year included Thomas Friedman, his inclusion there being the only way to prevent him from winning a fourth Pulitzer, when only the first two were deserved). In other prizez, it was good to see the Rocky Mountain News’ Todd Heiser win for photography (not to push the prophetic tooting too far, but his pictures were also featured here on April 8 and April 10).
Everyone could have predicted the Times-Picayune of New Orleans winning for its coverage of the year’s great domestic fuck-up by the Bush junta. The Post again for the investigative reporting of the Abramoff scandal. And of course the New York Times, for the James Risen story about Bush’s domestic spying, not just because the Solar System would unhinge itself if a year passed without the Times winning its Pulitzers, but because the committee couldn’t but complete the circle of junta shames. In all, a Nobel-like performance by the Pulitzer committee, sticking it to the Bush Administration prize after prize. The medals must have awarded themselves this year.
Speaking of shame (my own?): This morning’s post about the Washington Post’s profile of My Left Wing and the left-wing blogosphere was devoted to discrediting the reporter’s work for laziness and transparent condescension toward his subject. Naturally, David Finkel, the reporter in question, won his Pulitzer today, though not quite for his clear-eyed view of the blogosphere. Rather, for his reporting on a more distant but equally beguiling subject: democracy in Yemen. Remember reporters: you’re only as good as your last story, and Finkel’s last remains, alas, a whiff.
In other categories it would be surprising only to those who haven’t read her Nine Parts of Desire that Geraldine Brooks, the former Wall Street Journal reporter in the Mideast, could win this year’s fiction prize (for March). And why the hell not push the self-referencing an obscene bit further? The very first book review I managed to sell to a newspaper worth its masthead—to Newsday, as I recall, or maybe the St. Petersburg Times—was of Brooks’s Nine Parts. Here’s one gem of a juxtaposition from the book: “In the town of Burayda, not far from Minsaf [in Saudi Arabia], men rioted in protest at the opening of the first girls’ school in 1963. At around the same time as the United States was calling out its National Guard to enforce racial desegregation of schools in the American South, King Faisal had to call out the National Guard to keep the Burayda school open by force, For a year, the only pupil in the school was the headmistress’s daughter.” [p. 147 of the Doubleday edition, 1995].
Just as pleasing from the Pulitzerites was Thelonius Monk getting a “special citation,” along with the great historian Edmund S. Morgan, who, in the pages of the New York Review of Books a few months ago, had this to say about Henry Adams’s great History of the United States in the Jefferson and Madison Administrations: “Are the Histories the nonfiction masterpiece of the nineteenth century in America? Probably. Are they the masterpiece of historical writing in America in any century? Certainly.” (The whole essay by Morgan is worth a read.) Adams, incidentally, got his Pulitzer in 1919, but for The Education of Henry Adams. That he is so little read these days explains, in large part, why the likes of Bush and his junta are listened to, and why this year’s prizes are, all told, marks of great journalism, but about the worst that America has to offer. Don’t expect the paradox—the biggest story of this year’s Pulitzers—to make the papers.