A Pulitzer Prize Mystery:    What happened to The Washington Post’s “Road to War” series

When the Pulitzer Prizes for journalism were announced last week, the marquee Public Service Award went to the Associated Press, for the work of four reporters, three of them Ukrainians, for “courageous reporting from the besieged city of Mariupol that bore witness to the slaughter of civilians in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

The prize for international reporting went to The New York Times. for “their unflinching coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including an eight-month investigation into Ukrainian deaths in the town of Bucha and the Russian unit responsible for the killings.”

Two reporters for The Wall Street Journal were nominated finalists for “prescient on-the-ground reporting from the shifting front lines of the war in Ukraine that presaged the Russian assault on Kyiv and chronicled the tenacious resistance of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians amidst so much devastation.”

Among the other journalism awards, my favorites were the unusual dual prizes for local reporting conferred on reporters at two institutions in the deep South: Anna Wolfe, of Mississippi Today, of Ridgeland, Miss. “for reporting that revealed how a former Mississippi governor used his office to steer millions of state welfare dollars to benefit his family and friends, including NFL quarterback Brett Favre;” and to John Archibald, Ashley Remkus, Ramsey Archibald and Challen Stephens, of AL.com, Birmingham. for a series exposing “how the police force in the town of Brookside preyed on residents to inflate revenue, coverage that prompted the resignation of the police chief, four new laws and a state audit.”

Maybe none of the stories had the historic heft of imagination and reporting that led to the dual Public Service Awards in 2018 to Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, of the NYTimes; and Ronan Farrow, of The New Yorker, for “explosive, impactful journalism that exposed powerful and wealthy sexual predators, including allegations against one of Hollywood’s most influential producers, bringing them to account for long-suppressed allegations of coercion, brutality and victim silencing, thus spurring a worldwide reckoning about sexual abuse of women.” But 2023 was another good year for American journalism, nonetheless.

Still, at the end of the week, I was bothered by a puzzle. The Washington Post had won three prizes, and been a finalist for a fourth, but what had happened to its landmark “Road to War?” That extraordinary fourteen-part series described the complicated events leading up to the Russian invasion that have become background knowledge for many of us who, at a distance, follow the war. It wasn’t perfect; the event of 2013-14 were omitted. But the stories were news.  A summary and that lengthy series can be found on the web.

The WPost story about its three winners noted that its journalism had been recognized  in five prize divisions this year, including its opioid epidemic series as a finalist in the Public Service category. Those eight honorees represent the largest total for the newspaper since 2002. representing “the kind of intense reporting and commitment of resources that is frequently achievable by the nation’s largest and best-funded news organizations.” The WPost is owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. NYTimes, the Los Angeles Times, and the AP won two Pulitzers as well.

Greatly diminished by the loss of advertising and circulation revenue to the digital realm is the second tier of American newspapers, its major metropolitan dailies: Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, Providence Journal, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Atlanta Constitution, Miami Herald, Cincinnati Enquirer, Louisville Courier-Journal, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, New Orleans Times-Picayune, Kansas City Star, Houston Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, Denver Post, Arizona Republic, Las Vegas Sun, San Francisco Examiner, San Jose Mercury-News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Portland Oregonian. Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Anchorage Daily News.

All these newsrooms contributed talent and diversity of opinion to the Pulitzer chase and its subsequent judging. Twenty years ago, it would have been relatively easy to put together at least a credible version of why WPost’s “Road to War” didn’t make this year’s cut.  Today, the cultures of the newspaper goliaths are much harder to interrogate, except by veterans of one another.  It may be decades before we have a satisfying account of English-language newspaper coverage of today’s war in Ukraine.

But then all wars have their durable secrets. See Orders of Disorder: Who Disbanded Iraq’s Army and De-Baathified Its Bureaucracy?, by Garrett M. Graff, in Foreign Affairs, if you doubt it.

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