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Eyes on the Prize

J. Hadley Hooper

The shootings at Columbine High School last year caused untold repercussions, almost all of them bad: lost lives, broken hearts, families ripped apart. But for the folks at the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post, there may be a silver lining -- a Pulitzer Prize.

Few staffers at either paper want to talk on the record about this possibility, apparently out of fear that they might seem to be exploiting the slayings for personal gain: For instance, Rocky Mountain News editor John Temple, in a display of timorousness that seems especially calculated considering the staggering number of Columbine articles his paper has printed over the past nine-plus months, did not respond to numerous interview requests on the subject. But while News sources insist that the prospect of Pulitzers has seldom been mentioned in relation to Columbine coverage, reporters there aren't immune to discussing it. As Julie Scelfo wrote in her piece about the News's Columbine reporting, "In Their Backyard," which ran in the July/August issue of Brill's Content, "One of journalism's abiding ironies is that the worst tragedy is also a huge opportunity, and a couple of News staffers say they'd be lying if they denied that, after the initial flurry, thoughts of a Pulitzer Prize didn't cross their minds."

As well it might. First dished out in 1917, the Pulitzer Prize (named for Joseph Pulitzer, the hard-as-nails publisher of the defunct New York World, whose 1904 will included a provision that led to the contest) has long been seen as journalism's most prestigious bauble, and earning one has made many a reporter's career. It won't be long before the next batch of victors learns this for themselves: The deadline for submitting stories and photos for 2000 Pulitzer consideration was February 1, with the announcement of winners expected in April. According to Seymour Topping, who was named Administrator of the Pulitzers in 1993 after 34 years at the New York Times, approximately 1,400 entries were received this year. These will be studied by nominating jurors appointed by the Pulitzer board, a sixteen-member panel that includes heavy hitters such as Doris Kearns Goodwin, Henry Louis Gates Jr., William Safire and Topping; the jurors will then submit their top three choices in categories ranging from "Public Service" to "Feature Photography," and the board makes the final selections.

Topping refuses, in the gruffest imaginable way, to discuss whether the far-reaching effects of Columbine make it any more likely that the Post or News will walk away with a prize. He does concede, however, that while "the principal factors that are involved in making a story deserving of the award are its quality of enterprise, quality of writing, its speed and so on," the size and scope of Columbine "are bound to be looked at by members of the jury."

Recent Pulitzer history bears out this observation even as it implies that the bigger the disaster, the better for the publication covering it.

The News was widely praised for its articles about the 1994 blaze on Storm King mountain, in which fourteen firefighters died, but while it was a Pulitzer finalist in what was then called "Spot News Reporting," it finished behind the Los Angeles Times's reportage following the 1994 Northridge earthquake -- an even more devastating occurrence that took more than fifty lives.

Likewise, the Philadelphia Inquirer's coverage of the confrontation between cops and philanthropist John DuPont after a murder on his estate was bested for the 1997 "Spot News Reporting" prize by Newsday's writing about the crash of TWA Flight 800, in which the body count was far higher.

Maximum cynicism insinuates that numbers may have counted last year as well: The Hartford Courant stories about a state lottery worker who killed four people and then himself (total corpses: five) bested the Jonesboro (Arkansas) Sun's coverage of a school shooting there in which four students perished.

Still, carnage is not a guarantee. No Oklahoma City publication won a 1996 Pulitzer for reporting on the bombing there. The only Oklahoma City-related Pulitzer was earned in "Spot News Photography" by Charles Porter IV, a freelance shutterbug whose shot of a fireman holding a baby was distributed by the Associated Press.

Although Porter's photo became the single image most associated with the bombing, Topping insists that its publication in untold hundreds of newspapers around the globe "wouldn't necessarily have come into play" when the board decided to recognize it. But its omnipresence certainly couldn't have hurt -- which is why many insiders regard News photographer George Kochaniec Jr. to be the Coloradan most likely to bring home a Pulitzer this year. His moving, vivid photo of grieving Columbine student Jessica Holliday traveled far and wide -- a point underlined in the News on June 27, 1999. "The Girl in the Picture," a profile of Holliday by staffer Lisa Levitt Ryckman that served as the centerpiece of that edition, was surrounded by reproductions of newspaper covers from New York, Chicago, L.A., Australia, South China and elsewhere that featured Kochaniec's effort; also included was a sidebar in which Kochaniec talked about snapping the shot. The result was a virtual commercial aimed straight at Pulitzer jurors.  

Handicappers inside the Post and the News see Pulitzer possibilities on the print side as well. At the Post, reporters such as Peter Chronis earn high marks for getting fresh facts early on, as well they should. The paper (whose Columbine coverage was detailed in "Covering the Big One," an article in the July/August 1999 American Journalism Review) led the way when it came to exposing telling info about murderer Eric Harris -- that, for instance, he had been on Luvox, a drug prescribed for obsessive-compulsive disorder, and had been turned down by the Marine Corps less than a week before the rampage. The manner in which Harris and Dylan Klebold got their hands on a TEC-DC9 was another Post scoop.

The News, for its part, is lauded for several large-scale pieces that served as overviews of the slayings, including an April 25 epic by Mike Anton and the aforementioned Levitt Ryckman, plus offerings by Dan Luzadder and Kevin Vaughan.

At the same time, the News has been guilty of overdoing things on Columbine, often using the word itself to justify prominent play and jumbo type even when the material doesn't warrant it. A recent example: Former Denver Bronco-turned-St. Louis Ram Mike Horan wore a Columbine cap during media day the week prior to the Super Bowl on January 30 and talked openly about the tragic occurrences at the school, which is very near his off-season home. But whereas the Post ran its Horan piece in the middle of its sports section the next day, the News elevated its version to top-sports-story-of-the-day status, even hyping it with a photograph and Columbine headline on the front cover. There have also been some notable lapses in taste at the News, like an illustration on the cover of "Fatal Friendship" (a twelve-page special section from August 22) that looked like something churned out by a Harris and Klebold fan club. But presentational issues aren't supposed to govern the Pulitzer committee, and neither is sheer volume; packages submitted for consideration in Breaking News are limited to ten articles, not 10,000.

Editor Temple won't discuss the contents of the News's Pulitzer bundle or any other question along those lines -- a decision that's more than a bit peculiar considering the vigor with which the News plays the journalism-competition game. Practically every major publication (including this one) enters such contests, in part because winning them confers prestige even as it offers valuable advertising potential. But few can compare to the News when it comes to after-the-triumph horn-blowing. For two years running, the Post and the Colorado Springs Gazette refused to participate in the editorial portion of the annual Colorado Press Association competition because of assorted beefs with the organization, but that didn't stop the News, the only publication left in its classification, from crowing about how it "swept" the CPAs those years. That's like a prisoner in solitary confinement boasting about being the handsomest man in the room.

Some observers felt the Post de-emphasized contests during the reign of now-departed editor Dennis Britton, but assistant managing editor Janet Day denies it: "I don't see any change at all," she allows. Nonetheless, it's clear that current editor Glenn Guzzo isn't interested in giving the News a free ride in this regard. He says that the Post entered this year's Colorado Press Association competition "in every category" and confirms that Columbine coverage was put forward for Pulitzer consideration.

Guzzo knows from firsthand experience the impact that winning a Pulitzer can have on a news organization: He was at the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal when the paper was handed the Public Service gold medal for "A Question of Color," a yearlong project on race relations. When the Columbine killings took place, Guzzo had not yet taken charge at the Post, but that doesn't stop him from praising it. He adds, "Over the years, I've been around several editors who would decline to enter contests, but I don't agree with that approach. One positive is that it recognizes your own staff for good work, and a second positive is that if you're fortunate enough to get the peer recognition of multiple awards, more and more you become the type of newspaper that other talented newsmen and -women want to come and work for. And thirdly, you get something that you can share with your community. Major awards are rarely achieved without receiving a response from the community that shows that your reporting had an impact. And we hope ours has."  

He should know in about two months...


Of course, journalism honors aren't always the be-all and end-all, as aerial-traffic wisenheimer Sam Hammer knows all too well. In November, about a week after winning an A.I.R. (Achievements in Radio) award for contributing to AM-950/The Fan's coverage of the Broncos' 1999 Super Bowl victory parade, he was given the sack by Jefferson Pilot Communications, his employer. The ostensible reason was his violation of a policy against having non-employees in a company vehicle. "The fact that it was a gorgeous young blonde had nothing to do with it," says Hammer, who prides himself on being a babe magnet, "but it made the result more worth it."

Fortunately for Hammer, ("Hammer Time," October 7, 1999), this dismissal wound up working to his advantage. After taking a month off for a previously scheduled cruise in the Bahamas, he was hired by Metro Traffic, an outfit that provides traffic updates for the AMFM radio networks stations in the market (the Hawk, Jammin' 92.5, KVOD, etc.) as well as, in Hammer's words, "a couple of religious stations, just to keep me pure." He's also been handling some of the graphics duties for WB2day, Channel 2's screwy new morning opus (its Groundhog Day broadcast featured a disgruntled guy in a gopher suit; the next day, chucklehead correspondent Dan Daru handed out Twinkies to several early-morning passersby who seemed either homeless or hung over). Thus far, Hammer has mainly handled behind-the-scenes duties for Metro Traffic, but he's hoping to be given a permanent on-air slot soon. If it all works out, Hammer says, "I'll be on radio stations that my friends and I actually listen to."

The move can't come soon enough: I haven't heard anyone berated for causing an accident in months.


Here's a new marketing approach: The Fox radio morning show starring Rick Lewis and Michael Floorwax is currently being promoted on KTCL-FM -- sometimes during its own morning program.

Why the hell would KTCL okay ads telling listeners about something happening on another station right at that very moment? The answer has everything to do with corporate kinship. KTCL and the Fox are owned by the giant Clear Channel concern and even share the same program director, Mike O'Connor. Moreover, KTCL's a.m. offering is a ratings also-ran, while Lewis and Floorwax are Clear Channel's best weapons against Howard Stern on the Peak and the popular Alice morning team of Jamie White and Danny Bonaduce, about whom you read in this space last week. And since the Peak and Alice (which were purchased by Clear Channel but must be divested by FCC dictate) are hurt more by L&F than by KTCL, it makes sense to pump up the boys, even if it's at their sister station's expense. O'Connor swears this move is not a signal that Clear Channel is giving up on KTCL: "Since the spots are only running for a couple of weeks, I don't see how we're going to hurt KTCL." But the underlying message is, if you're getting ready to change channels anyway, keep it in the Clear Channel family.

Meanwhile, at KOA, Clear Channel's flagship station, sports talker Dave Logan confirmed last week that potential conflicts of interest often do have an effect. Logan, a University of Colorado grad who coaches high school football (he's moving from Arvada West to Chatfield next fall), generally defended former CU coach Rick Neuheisel throughout his tenure -- but after Neuheisel quit to coach at the University of Washington, Logan began criticizing him for not aggressively recruiting homegrown talent. On February 3, in response to a caller who noted this change in tune, Logan admitted that he hadn't been entirely honest when sharing his opinions about Neuheisel because he didn't want to hurt his players' chances of being recruited by CU.

Logan says current CU head man Gary Barnett is doing a great job convincing Colorado footballers to stay in-state. When Barnett eventually leaves the post, we'll find out if he meant it.

Have comments, tips or complaints about the media? E-mail "The Message" at michael_roberts@westword.com.


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