• U.S.

Press: Philadelphia Stories

3 minute read
Richard Zoglin

Journalists, a cynical lot by nature, are often skeptical of press awards. As prizes have proliferated, they note, so has a certain genre of newspaper story: the multipart series that takes on a big subject, pursues it with crusading zeal and seems to run on forever. Such journalistic tomes frequently seem created as much to please award judges as to satisfy readers. “We’re thinking about putting the following helpful advisory over them,” syndicated Humor Columnist Dave Barry wrote this month. “‘Caution! Journalism Prize Entry! Do Not Read!’ “

Still, these projects often are examples of daily journalism at its best: dogged, committed reporting that illuminates local problems and helps bring about change. Several such stories were honored last week with the newspaper world’s most coveted award, the Pulitzer Prize. The Philadelphia Inquirer, in an unusual coup, won two in the same category, investigative reporting. One went to John Woestendiek, whose day-to-day coverage of the prison beat led him to probe the case of Terence McCracken Jr., a teenager convicted of murdering an elderly man during a holdup. Woestendiek’s yearlong investigation, which included interviews with several witnesses who placed McCracken elsewhere at the time of the crime and a re-examination of forensic evidence that had helped convict him, resulted in the case’s being reopened. McCracken is now out on bail, awaiting a new trial.

The Pulitzer judges also cited an Inquirer series called “Disorder in the Court,” which exposed an array of abuses in the Philadelphia court system. Three reporters, Daniel R. Biddle, H.G. Bissinger and Fredric N. Tulsky, spent more than two years pursuing the story. Their findings led the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to assume control of the troubled local court system last April. The gold medal for public service went to a series by Pittsburgh Press Reporters Andrew Schneider and Matthew Brelis that exposed inadequate FAA screening of airline pilots for drug abuse and other medical problems.

The Inquirer, which has developed into one of the nation’s leading papers under Executive Editor Eugene Roberts, led the field with three awards. (Its third was for a feature story by Steve Twomey about life aboard an aircraft carrier.) The New York Times won two: one for its coverage of the aftermath of the space shuttle Challenger disaster and another for reporting by Alex S. Jones on the breakup of the Bingham family’s Louisville newspaper empire. The / Los Angeles Times also took two prizes: for Michael Parks’ reports from South Africa and Richard Eder’s book criticism. Charles Krauthammer, a Washington Post columnist and TIME essayist, won the commentary award for his newspaper columns, and Berke Breathed, creator of the Bloom County comic strip, got the nod for editorial cartooning.

After declining to give an award for drama last year, the judges honored August Wilson’s Fences, a play about a black family in the 1950s. In doing so, however, the Pulitzer board overruled a recommendation by its three-member nominating jury, whose choice was Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound. Peter Taylor, 70, an acclaimed short-story writer, won the fiction prize for his first novel in 36 years, A Summons to Memphis.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com