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Do Pulitzer Prizes lean left?

Post by Cheryl Tucker on April 15, 2010 at 2:26 pm with 8 Comments »
April 15, 2010 2:26 pm

Author/blogger Diana West thinks so, and she makes a pretty good case in this column. Even this year’s Pulitzer for commentary to conservative columnist Kathleen Parker is somewhat tainted, West writes, because Parker furthers the liberal agenda by occasionally bashing social conservatives including – most prominently – Sarah Palin.

Here’s her column:

By Diana West

Just as the Pulitzer Prizes come around every year, a conservative columnist comes around after them, dusting off the hard fact, as measured in an ever-expanding set of tally marks, that conservatives rarely get to pop a champagne cork over one of their own.

Take the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. Since George F. Will won in 1977, William Safire (1978), Vermont Royster (1984), Charles Krauthammer (1987), Paul Gigot (2000) and Dorothy Rabinowitz (2001) have won as well, and good for them. But that’s six conservative columnists in 33 years.

This year’s winner, Kathleen Parker, is sometimes seen as Rightish, but, with a penchant for smacking down social conservatives, she is perhaps too enlightened, Pulitzer-ainly speaking, to count. As Parker herself put it: “It’s only because I’m a conservative-basher that I’m now recognized after 23 years of toiling in the fields, right?”

Hard to say. But it fits the Pulitzer pattern.

The best to way to win a Pulitzer still seems to be by “pleasing liberals with stories that advance their agenda,” as L. Brent Bozell III wrote in 2007. The chosen winners “demonstrate again the stranglehold that liberals and leftists enjoy when it comes to garnering recognition,” as George Shadroui put it in in 2004. It is “the main business of the Pulitzer committees to hand out the Prizes to other liberals, both in the press and in the arts,” noted the New Criterion in 1992. And the conservative grumbling goes back farther than that.

With good reason. According to the conditions set by press baron Joseph Pulitzer himself when he created his eponymous awards a century ago, it turns out that we — meaning we conservatives — was robbed. That is, according to Pulitzer’s intentions, these prizes should really be going to conservatives.

I stumbled onto this scoop quite by chance after first leafing through an old essay by the great American writer Kenneth Roberts, author of a remarkable series of historical novels including “Northwest Passage” and “Oliver Wiswell.” Roberts was discussing what was already in the early 1930s an enduring mystery to him: why the Pulitzer Prize for novels (later fiction) was consistently awarded to books “that would have seriously affected Mr. Pulitzer’s blood pressure if he were still alive.”

Intrigued, I continued reading. According to the World Almanac Roberts consulted (a Pulitzer property, he notes), Pulitzer wanted to honor “the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.”

Wholesome? High American standards? Writing at a time of proletarian chic, Roberts went on to list a series of prize-winning books that had little wholesome or even American about them.

I found that the original playwriting criteria were similar. According to a 1918 New York Times report on early Pulitzer winners, the drama prize was meant for the New York-produced play that “shall best represent the educational value and power of the stage in raising the standard of good morals, good taste and good manners.”

The current Pulitzer Web site makes some note of its board “growing less conservative over the years in matters of taste,” adding: “In 1963 the drama jury nominated Edward Albee’s ’Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,’ but the board found the script insufficiently ‘uplifting,’ a complaint that related to arguments over sexual permissiveness and rough dialogue. In 1993 the prize went to Tony Kushner’s ‘Angels in America: Millennium Approaches,’ a play that dealt with problems of homosexuality and AIDS and whose script was replete with obscenities.”

Well, as long as it was “replete.”

Regarding editorial writing (the commentary prize didn’t kick in until later), the original criteria were more nebulous — “the test of excellence being clearness of style, moral purpose, sound reasoning, and power to influence public opinion in what the writer conceives to be the right direction.”

Maybe some of the first Prize winners, a pair of 1917 editorials from the Louisville Courier-Journal, can clue us in to what that “right direction” was. Written in support of U.S. involvement in World War I, one is called “Vae Victis” — Woe to the Vanquished — and the other, “War Has Its Compensations.”

I think it’s safe to say the Pulitzer Prize wasn’t dreamed up for Lefties.

Meanwhile, Kenneth Roberts somehow garnered his well-deserved Pulitzer — two months before he died in 1957.

Diana West is the author of “The Death of the Grown-up: How America’s Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization,” and blogs at She can be contacted via

Leave a comment Comments → 8
  1. derekyoung says:

    I wonder if the “bias” is towards quality journalism instead of a particular political direction. Taking the Commentary Award for example, The Buckleys and Safires of the Right seem fewer and farther between. That’s not to say they don’t exist, they just seem to be more hackish than their liberal counterparts these days. Maybe a few years in the wilderness will bring out some conservative intellectual giant. So far it seems to have had the opposite effect.

    Then again, Friedman won it so that pretty much throws out my theory that it’s got something to do with quality writing. That guy barely uses complete sentences.

  2. geeterpontiac says:

    I have always thought Parker was a marvelous writer and on a par and/or surpassing the quality of other Pulitzer prize winners, some of whom, are barely coherent. So, the quality of her work is not a question.

    But, in my mind, she was not awarded a Pulitzer for the quality of her work, but rather her willingness to backstab conservatism at a critical moment during a presidential race. One can make a case for or against Sarah Palin. That is not an issue. But, Parker’s choice of the when, the where, and the how, was clearly designed to garner attention that would beg to be rewarded. She endeared herself to the liberals who control the reward system intentionally.

    For Parker, a Pulitzer represents the pinnacle of success. Those are her words of choice.

    I think it was J.R. from the old “Dallas” who coined the phrase that went something like, “once a man sacrifices his integrity everything else is a piece of cake.”

    Parker paid a high price for her Pulitzer. Everything else she has now is just a piece of cake and can be purchased cheap.

    Enjoy your Pulitzer Ms Parker

  3. geeterpontiac says:

    derekyoung, a couple of suggestions on conservative writers.

    Pulitizer prize winner Paul Greenberg of the Arkansas Gazette is excellent in my opinion. One of his strongest qualities is his tremendous range of topics from politics to everyday life.

    also, Thomas Sowell, a very analytical, articulate approach to issues,

    but, if you want to do some checking out of your own, you might examine this site and see what you think.

  4. Do Pulitzer Prize winners lean left? Of course they do. Newspaper syndicates are run by liberals, and their editorial opinion prevails. Name one conservative editorial writer other than George Will who has one. For that matter, name another nationally known conservative print journalist. for derekyoung: you obviously don’t read Thomas Sowell, Dick Morris or any other conservative columnists. There’s a world of information beyond the New York Times and the AP.

  5. derekyoung says:

    Geeter, thanks for the suggestions. I’ve actually never heard of Greenberg and will have to check him out.

    Sowell I actually would have included in my shortlist of great conservative writers had I thought a minute more about it. He’s everything I like about minds that I disagree with. Logical, consistent, and honest. For example, unlike most other Republicans he’s in favor of legalization of drugs. Not sure I agree with that but he’s not afraid to say it and has a legitimate argument to make.

    So often today we have people who are just cheerleaders for their party that would say the opposite if the other “team” was in favor of it. Same reason I like Paul Krugman. He doesn’t hesitate to criticize other liberals, particularly if their name is Robert Reich. We need more bright people being intellectually honest.

  6. nwcolorist says:

    The appearance of being “fair and balanced” has become more important to the MSM, and the media have been carefully cultivating Ms. Parker to become their token “conservative”.

    She is more of a “maverick” liberal than a conservative. She may have written a few right-ish columns, but no traditional conservative could survive 6 months in the hothouse of liberalism that is East Coast politics.

  7. tubbythetuba says:

    Let’s face it, kneepads are pretty much needed to win any of those awards these days…..

  8. geeterpontiac says:

    You’re very welcome derekyoung.

    Greenberg is my personal favorite. I have never seen any meanness, name-calling or vile commentary in one of his columns and I have been reading him for years.

    Wish there were more like him, both in quality of commentary and approach.

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