It's that time of year again — time for the nation's top journalists and newspapers to take a collective bow, time for Americans to pause and consider what we owe these people and institutions for their hard work and dedication to the principle of a free society and informed citizenry, time for me to make some lame joke about how I was passed over once again for the Pulitzer Prize.
Yes, they handed out the Pulitzers last week for the 90th time and, no, my name wasn't on the list. But I refuse to take it personally. If the bastards can't appreciate brilliant, insightful commentary — screw 'em! Besides, I'm maintaining a local tradition. No journalist or newspaper in South Carolina has won a Pulitzer since 1925. That one went to the old Charleston News and Courier, for editorial writing. Since then, the great state of South Carolina is 0 for 81.
This year, the Times-Picayune of New Orleans and the Sun Herald of Gulfport, Miss., shared the Pulitzer Prize for public service for their coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The Times-Picayune also won in breaking news for its Katrina coverage.
Having a crisis on your doorstep is always a good opportunity for a newspaper of little note to step forward and do something extraordinary. It's worth noting that the two local dailies, the Evening Post and the News and Courier, had such an opportunity in 1989, when the region was slammed by Hurricane Hugo. But the newspaper which actually provided the most distinguished service during those perilous hours and days was not one of the local favorites, but The State, 120 miles away in Columbia.
Not only did The State (where I was reporting at the time) allow the Charleston papers to print out of their Columbia plant during the days while power was out throughout the Holy City; The State provided better coverage of the storm and its aftermath than the Post/Courier papers. At least that was the opinion of the Pulitzer selection committee, which informally named The State as a finalist that year. But The State lost its best chance for a Pulitzer a few weeks after Hugo, when a devastating earthquake rocked the San Francisco Bay area. That year, the Pulitzer for general local reporting went to the San Jose Mercury News for its coverage of the October "World Series Earthquake"; the Oakland Tribune won for spot news photography. Condolences went to The State.
The two Charleston newspapers of the 1980s have been united within the Evening Post Publishing Co. to create the Charleston Post and Courier. A lot of personnel have come and gone along with the old mastheads, but the singular mediocrity of the news organization remains. One can only suspect that this mediocrity is attached to the longtime owners of the paper, rather than to any writers, editors, or even publishers.
The Manigault family has owned the publishing company for more than a century and theirs is one of the last family-owned metropolitan newspapers in the country.
Before it was sold in 1980, the Los Angeles Times was owned by generations of the Chandler family. Otis Chandler, the last family member to serve as publisher, died in February, sparking a flurry of praise for the way he had turned that newspaper into one of the best in the nation.
When Chandler succeeded his father as publisher in 1960, The Times was literally a joke. Humorist S.J. Perelman wrote that he once asked a railroad porter to bring him a newspaper and the poor man, being hard of hearing, brought him the Los Angeles Times.
Chandler was embarrassed by his family newspaper's reputation for mediocrity and provincialism. "We were voted by Time magazine as one of the 10 worst papers in the country," Chandler said. "So my competitive juices and my desire for excellence began to come up ... I wasn't going to be in the bottom 10. I was going to be at the top."
Chandler overhauled the old paper, brought in new talent, created new bureaus and, in his 20 years at the helm, won nine Pulitzers and turned his newspaper into one of the most respected in the country.
Two years ago, Peter Manigault, chairman of the board of the Evening Post Publishing Co., died, and was replaced by his son, Pierre. It was briefly hoped that Pierre might invest in his family newspaper the kind of personal and community pride Otis Chandler placed in his. Alas, that dream has died. Through its newspaper, the Manigault family retains its death grip of provincialism on Charleston, its culture, and its politics.
Will we ever see a change of mentality at the Post and Courier? I will probably win a Pulitzer Prize first.