Of Leaks, Journalism and the Pulitzer Prize
What to make of the overlooking of Politico's Dobbs scoop
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
Last month, for the second time in two years, the news organization that received the biggest leak of the year failed to be rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize. In this week’s column I want to look at why that may have happened, and what it tells us about the relation between major leaks and the best journalism.
The biggest leak story of 2022 was unquestionably one of the most significant leaks in modern history—that of Justice Alito’s draft opinion for the Supreme Court in the Dobbs decision overruling Roe v. Wade. The leak was to Politico, and it was accompanied by a significant story, authored by reporter Josh Gerstein and Alexander Ward, as well as a sidebar by Gerstein. It was great journalism, and one you knew instantly would receive serious Pulitzer consideration. In the event, it was part of a package entered for the Prize in National Reporting.
What didn’t happen to Politico
According to a report in Vanity Fair, which seems unchallenged, the National Reporting Pulitzer jury, which met in February, was not terribly enthusiastic about the entry, which also included five other stories, while the Breaking News Reporting jury wanted to recognize the Politico package, even though most of it had been published between late June (the day after Dobbs was decided, and more than seven weeks after the initial leak) and December, and did not purport to be breaking news. The work of Gerstein and his colleagues thus became a finalist for the Breaking News Reporting Prize.
After consideration by the Pulitzer Board, an entry from the Los Angeles Times, for a series of stories on leaked racist audios from the Los Angeles City Council, prevailed for the Breaking News Reporting Prize. This shouldn’t have been surprising, as it focused much more closely on emergent news, with six of its seven pieces published within one week. (The third finalist, from the New York Times on the collapse of an apartment building in the Bronx, also consisted of seven stories, six of them published in a 12-day period.)
In National Reporting, the Pulitzer Board made the same decision the jury had apparently made: they preferred a package of seven stories, from Caroline Kitchener of the Washington Post, as the best national reporting of the year on Dobbs and its consequences, and awarded it the Prize. Kitchener’s pieces looked at the effect of the changing law, including on a Texas teenager compelled to give birth to twins.
The Board had the option to move the Politico package back to National, but chose not to do so, even as it did move the book His Name is George Floyd from the Biography book category to General Nonfiction, where it received a prize. (The Board announced this, but you would have known it even if they hadn’t because there were three non-winning finalist books in General Nonfiction, while His Name is George Floyd was also listed as one of two finalists in Biography.) They could also have awarded two prizes in National Reporting, as they did in Local Reporting, but again chose otherwise.
The folks at Politico felt slighted, and I know a bit about how they feel. The biggest leak stories of 2021 were almost certainly those based on a huge trove of IRS data published by ProPublica, which weren’t even named as a finalist. I thought they should have been, and should have won. Of all the work published during my 13-plus years at ProPublica, including seven packages that were honored with Pulitzers, that tax series still seems to me the most important. But reasonable people can disagree about that, and clearly do.
What a leak says abut the reporter who gets it
Why might the most significant leaks, accompanied by excellent journalism, not be judged the year’s best work? First, we should acknowledge that getting a major leak is a big journalistic accomplishment. It almost always means that your other work has come to the attention of the leaker (usually an insider) and impressed them, and it probably also means that the leaker trusts you to protect their identity, whether because you know and won’t disclose it or because you have established systems sufficient to protect the identity of those who leak anonymously.
Whether the Dobbs leak came from a liberal clerk or support staff member (as Alito has implicitly asserted) or from Alito himself or someone acting on his behalf (as some believe, particularly in light of other Alito disclosures and the pathetic investigation conducted by the Court), both the respect and the trust thus evidenced are greatly to Gerstein’s credit.
A big leak, however, is an admission ticket to the prize sweepstakes, not a winner in itself. Yes, stories following major leaks have won Pulitzers, most notably the Public Service gold medal for the New York Times with the Pentagon Papers in 1972, and for the Washington Post and the Guardian for the Edward Snowden surveillance disclosures in 2014.
To win requires great original reporting on top of such a major disclosure. My own view is that the Politico scoop was, as I said earlier, a tribute to the standing of the journalists involved, and an excellent survey of the draft opinion and its legal significance. But Caroline Kitchener’s Post package took the next crucial step, of shedding real light on what overruling Roe v. Wade would mean to American women and in American life. It is a worthy prize recipient.
The impact on politics— and journalism
Finally, there is the issue of impact. There is no question that the Politico scoop had huge political repercussions, possibly changing the Dobbs decision itself (if the leak came from the Alito camp, in order to pressure Justice Kavanaugh not to abandon the majority position for the less extreme position of Chief Justice Roberts, as some have theorized), and surely accelerating the earthquake that has rocked our politics ever since. One example: Kitchener’s centerpiece story on the mother of twins was published four days before the Dobbs opinion, and cited its likely result. That sort of impact is no small thing, although we will not know the true dimensions of it until the identity of the leaker emerges, as it almost surely will someday, even if perhaps not for decades.
I do take issue, however, with the assertion that it was the Politico story that set off the more probing coverage of the Supreme Court as a political institution that we are now seeing, most notably in ProPublica’s amazing stories on the corruption of Clarence Thomas. That trend, I think, only began well after the Dobbs decision came down, and was driven by the Court’s arrogance and overreach—more of which, I am afraid, lies just ahead.
Second Rough Draft will likely be off next week. See you soon.
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As someone who has served as a judge of one of the nation’s most respected journalism awards for nearly half a century I can report that getting from 500+ entries to perhaps 20-25 contenders is relatively easy. Reducing that number to a dozen or so winners can be absolute torture because at that point they are all deserving.
Richard! Thank you for this enlightening observation on the way these awards seem to ignore the most important writing. It’s a shame that these great writers are not given their due respect. Sometimes I really can’t stand what goes on. At least your article makes me see that I’m not alone in thinking something’s way off here.