Weekly Column: Few things in this world are more painful than the realization that an estrangement has occurred between two news organizations who had worked amiably together investigating doctors and lawyers squashing benefits claims of miners dying of black lung, at the behest of the coal industry. That is just what has happened after the Center for Public Integrity won a Pulitzer Prize this week for an investigation into this medical travesty, after other organizations had jointly awarded CPI and ABC News for the report. ABC claims CPI threw its staffers under the bus to soak up all the Pulitzer glory; CPI claims ABC News doesn’t deserve to share the Pulitzer because it only parachuted in periodically on the lengthy investigation, produced “sporadic” reports for television — not print — and repeatedly had to be saved from making embarrassing factual errors on its broadcast segments about the investigation.
Meanwhile, White House Correspondents Dinner organizers took on the air of folks being pushed towards dangerous machinery in which they would prefer not to become entangled. That group already has announced it is giving its Edgar A. Poe Award to CPI and ABC News for the black-lung report, specifically because the two organizations “showed how a true collaboration between media partners can break significant new ground on an already well-reported story.” Joel McHale, who’s been booked to provide comedy at that annual black-tie dinner/celebrity petting zoo, is going to have a hard time topping that one for laughs.
CPI and ABC News had appeared the happy couple when they received other awards for the investigation, including this week’s award by the Society of Professional Journalists. But TV news orgs can’t win the Pulitzer Prize, which honors newspaper and digital reporting. Naturally, in its submission to the Pulitzer committee, CPI sent off the 2,500-word piece that had been written by its Chris Hamby and played up CPI’s role in the overall project. CPI characterized ABC News’ participation as one of stepping in months into CPI’s reporting, and it credited ABC with helping the investigative work reach a much wider audience.
ABC News responded by torching the place. Its SVP Jeffrey Schneider has been quoted saying CPI “showed a stunning lack of integrity and misled the Pulitzer board with its submission, which diminished our work to the point of non-existence.” ABC News chief Ben Sherwood fired off a four-page complaint yesterday to CPI exec director Bill Buzenberg blasting the group for omitting the names of ABC News staffers in the submission to the Pulitzer group. “In your submission to the Pulitzer committee, you omitted the names of ABC News reporters and sought to parse and diminish their contributions, even though their bylines appropriately appear on four of the eight articles submitted by the Center to the committee,” Sherwood wrote, adding, “Surprisingly, Chris Hamby’s byline appears in bold face type in the Pulitzer submissions, although that was not the case when the articles actually appeared online.” “Do you really believe that Hamby and CPI would have been recognized with this honor without the contributions of ABC News?”
Sherwood asked like he meant it to sting — in case anyone is wondering what kind of guy is replacing Anne Sweeney when he becomes co-chairman of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC Television Group on February 1, 2015.
The comment seems to suggest ABC News does not think CPI would have been awarded the Pulitzer without the wider reach of a broadcast network. The Colorado Springs Gazette won the Pulitzer for National Reporting for “expanding the examination of how wounded combat veterans are mistreated” without the help of a broadcast network.
Illustrating Sherwood’s point, however: When Johns Hopkins, which was one of the subjects of the investigation, announced it had suspended its black-lung program, it cited ABC News as the cause, saying “We take very seriously the questions raised in a recent ABC News report about our second opinions for pneumoconiosis including black lung disease, and we are carefully reviewing the news story and our pneumoconiosis service.” In response, CPI has said it stands second to no one in its appreciation of the role ABC played in getting a wider audience on this report. “We aren’t a megaphone for anyone,” Schneider told Deadline.
Working in CPI’s favor: Pulitzer Prize administrator Sig Gissler has written to Buzenberg, saying, “Bill: I’ve reviewed the entry again. It is overwhelmingly Hamby’s work and was entered by the center in conformance with our rules on limited partnerships (SEE BELOW). The rules expressly state that the eligible entity must do the preponderance of the work; specific elements produced by the ineligible entity (such as ABC video) cannot be entered; and if there is a prize it will go ONLY to the eligible organization that submitted the work.”
Reporters who covered the brawl today put on their sad faces. Politico warned the fracas “threatens to tarnish what is perhaps the most high-minded moment in journalism.” Poynter called it a sorry postscript “to a remarkable work of journalism produced by two of America’s most important investigative newsrooms” adding, “it would be a pity if this moment of friction also stops other media organizations from working together to tell stories that need to be told.”
Ratching down the melodrama a bit — how about if broadcasters and print journalists going forward work out pre-nups agreeing how the print partner in the relationships will handle their submissions for the Pulitzer Prize — the lack thereof is, frankly the big surprise of this ABC News/CPI mishigas. Here, for future generations of TV news operations contemplating working with print journalists on investigative reports they hope will win Pulitzers, are the Pulitzer Guidelines on limited partnerships:
Q: Can an eligible news organization enter work that is published in partnership with an ineligible organization, such as a magazine or television station? A: Yes, but only under certain circumstances. Such a partnership is permitted if the eligible organization (1) does the preponderance of the work and (2) publishes the work first, or at least simultaneously. It is up to the entrant to demonstrate convincingly in its entry letter and in the composition of its entry that it primarily conceived and produced the work and that the entry rests on the basic foundation provided by the eligible entity. Specific elements produced by the ineligible entity, such as video, are disqualified and should not be submitted. Eligibility decisions, as necessary, will be made on a case-by-case basis. If the entry wins a prize, it will go only to the eligible news organization that submitted the work.
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