Sex Buys the Pulitzer Prize

This year’s Pulitzer Prizes were announced on Monday afternoon, and several of the journalistic prizes caught my attention. I mention four of them.

For “Breaking News Reporting,” the New York Times received the Prize for its reporting of then-Governor Eliot Spitzer’s dalliance with a prostitute, a dalliance that forced him from office.

For “Local Reporting,” the Detroit Free Press received the award for uncovering a sexual liaison between then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and a female staffer. Both were jailed for perjury.

In other words, intense press attention on the private sexual lives of public officials, however ill-advised—attention that led to the tremendous turmoil that inevitably accompanies expulsion from office in mid-term—such attention was rewarded with the highest form of recognition a journalist or a newspaper can receive.

Where have I seen this before?

Oh yes, when a former US President, engaged in a similarly ill-advised dalliance with a female staffer, was subject to impeachment proceedings for perjury. Said President, while consumed with this trial and his own defense, was rendered incapable of engaging North Korea at a time when it first began the new round of nuclear mischief in which it is still engaged today. I recall the publication of Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s Report in the New York Times, a report notable most for its own voyeuristic perversion, with singular embarrassment and disgust today.

Do such things really deserve such rewards?

Compare these awards to two others also announced on Monday.

For “Public Service Reporting,” the Las Vegas Sun received the award for its reporting of large numbers of construction-related deaths in the city, deaths directly or indirectly tied to budget cuts and lax regulation.

And for “Investigative Reporting,” David Barstow of the New York Times won the award for unmasking the latest innovation in the old Eisenhower-era “military-industrial complex”: namely, retired generals who were put to use by the Pentagon to sell its Iraq policy before and during the war.

The decline of print media has been much in the news of late. Many newspapers are closing their doors, unable to compete with the new electronic media and the rapid pace of electronic news. Those newspapers that can survive, mostly through consolidation, are also cutting back. And one of the lowest returns is in investigative journalism, the kind of reporting that takes enormous amounts of time and patience. One invests in the future and uncertain returns. So when a newspaper is forced to cut back, foreign desks and investigative reporting are among the first things to go.

In such a time, sex sells, both in the paper and at headquarters. Now, it even buys a Pulitzer Prize. Sex scandals are easy to report, because we hold them to such a low level of journalistic scrutiny. How many times must I listen to a nightly newscaster tell me in hushed tones that “this shocking story”—of teen sex parties, or prostitution, or sexual slavery—will be seen later tonight?… if I will dutifully watch the commercials and stay up until the last segment of the news. Sex sells.

A free society needs a free press, of that the Founders were certain. Investigative reporting is the true fifth column, a crucial further “check and balance” on the relentless consolidation of power in the electronic age. But with increasingly scarce resources, isn’t it important that investigative reporters are working to save lives, both at home and abroad, rather than titillate us with more news of sexual scandal, stories which are always two parts gossip to every one part fact?

To be sure, we get the stories we want, the stories we will pay for, the stories we buy, the stories we deserve. And perhaps there is truth to the old chestnut that there is a curious Puritan schizophrenia lingering in the cultural basement of North America.

The way it plays out is elegant and simple: we saturathrough the media with sex, sex, sex. And then we tell ourselves that we should be ashamed. The real commodity produced by such an industry is guilt.

Perhaps. And perhaps all newspapers must participate in that schizophrenia precisely because they are a part of this culture and this society. But we do not need to reward such stories. A sense of quiet dismay should suffice.

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