Pulitzer Prizes: Alaska newspaper, Reuters photos of Hong Kong and writer Colson Whitehead win for 2020

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The Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica won the Pulitzer Prize for public service journalism on Monday for revealing one-third of Alaska’s villages had no police protection, while the photography staff of Reuters won for documenting last year’s violent protests in Hong Kong and Colson Whitehead became the rare author to receive Pulitzers for consecutive books.

The Pulitzer Prizes, the most prestigious awards in American journalism, have been handed out since 1917, when newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer established them in his will.

Monday’s announcement had been postponed for two weeks because some journalists on the 18-member Pulitzer board are busy covering the coronavirus pandemic.

The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., took home the breaking news honour for its coverage of hundreds of last-minute pardons issued by former governor Matt Bevin. The prize for investigative reporting went to the New York Times’ Brian Rosenthal, who uncovered how thousands of New York City’s taxi drivers had their lives ruined by predatory lending.

In normal years, the prizes are announced at Columbia University in New York. On Monday, Dana Canedy, who administers the Pulitzers, delivered the news from her living room via video, after weeks in which board members hashed out the finalists and winners remotely.

“Ironically, the very first time the prizes were presented was June 1917 — less than a year before the 1918 outbreak of the Spanish Flu pandemic,” Canedy said.

“During this season of unprecedented uncertainty, one thing we know for sure is that journalism never stops.”

The Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica series found rampant sexual abuse in rural villages that are largely populated by Indigenous people, where law enforcement was effectively non-existent.
 
The public service award is generally seen as the most coveted of the 15 journalism categories. The Pulitzers are also awarded in seven book, drama and music categories.

‘Deeply memorable’

The Pulitzer Prize for Reuters was the breaking news photography award for coverage of the Hong Kong protests, which grew out of concern that China was intent on curtailing Hong Kong’s freedoms. Many of the photographs depicted the violent clashes between Hong Kong protesters and authorities, including images taken in the midst of skirmishes with tear gas, rubber bullets and hurled bricks.

“Our photographers brilliantly captured the magnitude of the protests in Hong Kong,” Stephen J. Adler, Reuters editor-in-chief, said in a statement. “Their images were beautiful, haunting, illuminating and deeply memorable.”

The Associated Press won the feature photography prize for images made during India’s clampdown on Kashmir, where a sweeping curfew and shutdowns of phone and internet service added to the challenges of showing the world what was happening in the region.

AP photographers Dar Yasin, Mukhtar Khan and Channi Anand snaked around roadblocks, sometimes took cover in strangers’ homes and hid cameras in vegetable bags to capture images of protests, police and paramilitary action and daily life. Then they headed to an airport to persuade travellers to carry the photo files out with them and get them to the AP’s office in New Delhi.

“These journalists’ courage and compelling storytelling show the absolute best of what we do,” AP Executive Editor Sally Buzbee said.

The Seattle Times shared the national reporting prize for its series exposing design flaws in Boeing Co’s 737 Max passenger jet that led to two fatal crashes, as well as a contributing lack of government oversight. ProPublica also won in the category for an investigation into the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet following several deadly accidents at sea.

For the first time, the board gave out an “audio reporting” prize, which went to the public radio show This American Life as well as reporters for the Los Angeles Times and Vice News for an episode examining the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy that has stranded tens of thousands of asylum seekers on the southern side of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Washington Post won the explanatory journalism award for a series documenting the many places that have already warmed by 2 degrees Celsius because of climate change, hitting a threshold that experts warn could be catastrophic if reached globally.
 
The New York Times, which had won a record 127 Pulitzer prizes and citations before this year, received three more on Monday, including the commentary prize for Nikole Hannah-Jones’s personal essay launching the newspaper’s sweeping 1619 Project, which “seeks to place the enslavement of Africans at the centre of America’s story,” in the words of the Pulitzer board.
 
The board also issued a special citation to Ida B. Wells, the African American investigative journalist and civil rights activist. Wells, who was born into slavery in Mississippi in 1862, traveled the Deep South chronicling the use of lynching to oppress black Americans.

The journalism prizes often go to venerable institutions such as the Times or the Post, but they are also won by local publications whose work does not always gain national attention. Jeffery Gerritt, editor at the small newspaper Palestine Herald-Press in Palestine, Tex., won the editorial writing prize for columns detailing how pre-trial inmates died in jail without adequate health care.

Whitehead wins again

Among the awards for letters, music and drama, Colson Whitehead won the fiction prize for the novel The Nickel Boys,   chronicling the horrors of an abusive reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida. He won the same award for his previous book, The Underground Railroad, three years ago.

In a statement issued through his publisher, Doubleday, Whitehead said the news of his winning Monday was “pretty nuts!” 

Author Colson Whitehead has won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel The Nickel Boys, just three years after he won for his last novel, The Underground Railroad. (Madeline Whitehead/Doubleday/Associated Press)

“Obviously I’m very honoured and I hope that it raises awareness of the real-life model for the novel — The Dozier School for Boys — so that the victims and their stories are not forgotten,” he said.

Judges praised The Nickel Boys as “a spare and devastating exploration of abuse” that is “ultimately a powerful tale of human perseverance, dignity and redemption.”

Whitehead, 50, is known for his experimental narratives and immersion in American history and folklore. His previous works include John Henry Days and The Intuitionist. William Faulkner and John Updike are among the previous fiction writers to win more than one Pulitzer, but not for books that immediately followed the other. 

The music award went to The Central Park Five, an opera by Anthony Davis about the five African American and Latino teenagers who were wrongly convicted in the 1989-90 “Central Park jogger” rape case in New York.

The Pulitzer board called the opera “a courageous operatic work, marked by powerful vocal writing and sensitive orchestration, that skilfully transforms a notorious example of contemporary injustice into something empathetic and hopeful.”

Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop, a musical about a man trying to write a musical, won for drama. Jackson, who wrote the music, story and lyrics, centres on an overweight, overwhelmed “ball of black confusion” trying to navigate multiple worlds — white, black and gay — as well as his family’s religion.

The Pulitzer board called it a “meditation on universal human fears and insecurities.” The play was seen off-Broadway in 2019 at Playwrights Horizons. Musicals rarely claim the Pulitzer, with only Next to Normal and Hamilton winning since 2010.

W. Caleb McDaniel won in history for Sweet Taste of Liberty, in which she chronicles how a former enslaved person, Henrietta Wood, successfully sued the Kentucky law enforcement officer who contrived to sell her back into bondage after she had obtained her freedom. 

Benjamin Moser’s Sontag: Her Life and Work, about the late Susan Sontag, won for biography. There were two winners in general nonfiction: Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America and Ann Boyer’s’ The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care.

In poetry, the winner was Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, a meditation on life during a time of mass shootings and police violence. Judges called it “a collection of masterful lyrics that combine delicacy with historical urgency in their loving evocation of bodies vulnerable to hostility and violence.”

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