The Putrid Pulitzers that Please Putin

By: Cliff Kincaid
Accuracy in Media


If anything proved beyond doubt that the Pulitzer Prizes are a self-congratulatory display whereby the media pat each other on the back and share in the congratulations, it was the coverage of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize announcements. There was nothing from inside the Columbia University journalism building where Pulitzer Prize administrator Sig Gissler tried to justify the honors, known as Gold Medals, for the anti-NSA stories based on the espionage activities of Edward Snowden. My give-and-take with Gissler is the main topic of this column. I saw this process from the inside and am reporting on it here, for the first time. It was a sad and disgraceful day for the journalism profession.

These prizes are usually called “prestigious,” but few people know that they involve a process whereby some people in the media nominate other media for awards, to be decided upon by still other media. It’s a racket.

Ironically, the awards for stories about secret government programs were decided by juries which conducted their discussions in secret. New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, a four-time Pulitzer juror and a former member of the Pulitzer board, notes that “…jurors and board members pretty much have to swear an oath, signed in the printer’s ink that still flows through the veins of some, to live in a cone of silence about how business gets done.”

You might conclude that the Pulitzer selection process is more secretive than the NSA programs designed to monitor anti-American terrorism and espionage.

Typically, the entries are accompanied by praise, with no hint that they may have been tainted by questions about their legitimacy.

Even worse, 82 years after the fact, the Pulitzer board has still not revoked the award given to Walter Duranty of The New York Times for covering up Stalin’s mass murder of seven to 10 million Ukrainians during the period of 1932 to 1933.

Meanwhile, thanks to Snowden and his Russian patrons, the Ukrainians are once again suffering.

When awards are given for “journalism” that damages U.S. national security and facilitates foreign aggression, as the Snowden disclosures have done in the case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we are looking at something unprecedented in history for American journalism.

The Guardian US and The Washington Post got awards for the Edward Snowden stories, hyped in advance by outlets such as POLITICO, whose executive editor Richard Berke was a member of the “jury,” in the field of “public service” journalism, that made the nominations.

You can search in vain in POLITICO’s stories for any mention that its own executive editor was a member of the jury making the nominations. The publication had a conflict of interest in covering the awards and never disclosed this conflict to its readers.

Sig Gissler is to be congratulated for taking questions. But all of the critical questions came from me. I counted at least 10 camera crews at the event, one of them from Fox News, and not one other reporter even attempted to ask for the justification of the first-ever Pulitzer Prizes for espionage.

At the end of our final exchange, Gissler looked at the people in the room, wondering if members of the press had been able to ask all of their questions and were happy with the answers. “You don’t look happy,” he said, as he stared at me. I responded, “I bet Snowden’s happy.” He replied, “I don’t know.”

Of course, Snowden is happy. He has claimed vindication.

Technically, the awards went to the publications themselves—the Guardian US, where Glenn Greenwald worked at the time on behalf of Snowden, and The Washington Post, which also published some Snowden stories. But Greenwald, Laura Poitras and their ilk will claim personal credit.

Gissler thanked everyone for coming and noted that this was his last year as administrator of the prizes, and that he was retiring. I applauded his service. He was in a tough spot this year.

As the reporters in the room dispersed, a camera crew from Japanese television channel Nippon Hoso Kyokai (NHK) came up and interviewed me about my criticism of the prizes to Snowden’s co-conspirators. Several journalism students in the room also wanted to talk with me. It was exhilarating. We had a debate going on.

But the debate did not extend to the American media.

The Fox News senior producer, Kathy Ardleigh, didn’t want to include any criticism of the prizes and left with her cameraman. This was all too typical of the major media coverage of the announcements. Sadly, as we have reported in the past, Fox News personality Eric Bolling has been one of Glenn Greenwald’s cheerleaders in the media, pleading with the anti-American “journalist” to give Fox News one of Snowden’s leaks.

Gissler tried to soften the blow, in terms of the impact of the awards based on espionage activity, by saying that the stories “went beyond leaked documents” supplied by Snowden, had stirred public discussion, and that Joseph Pulitzer believed in the “watchdog” function of the press. That was a perfect set-up for my first question:

“You said Joseph Pulitzer would approve of these NSA stories because he wanted the press to be a watchdog. He also said he wanted the press to be a moral force that would promote public virtue. What about the argument that these NSA stories are based on espionage activity by somebody who stole documents who is in the custody of a foreign government committing aggression abroad. Do you think Joseph Pulitzer would approve of that?”

Gissler replied: “I don’t know whether he would or not. But the focus of these stories was really on the information that was made available to the public. It really wasn’t focused on Mr. Snowden.”

I countered: “But he was the source of the documents for the stories, correct?”

Gissler: “And that’s acknowledged in the stories. But what is important here I think is not only the provision of the information but also the fuller understanding and context that allow people to have the important discussion of where you draw the line on this very important activity. That’s the democratic process.”

This exchange then ensued:

Kincaid: “Is this the first time in history—Pulitzer history—that prizes have gone, in the case of these NSA stories, based on a source that fled to a foreign country, a hostile country?

Gissler: “Possibly. I don’t know. We did give the Pulitzer Prizes to the Pentagon Papers that involved Daniel Ellsberg.”

Kincaid: “But he never fled. He always stayed in the United States.

Gissler: “Yeah. It’s probably true. I think so. But I’m not positive.”

I later asked if anyone had resigned from the Pulitzer Board in protest over any of this year’s awards, and he said, “Not to my knowledge.”

What has happened to the patriotic press? Why is there no debate, even on Fox News, over this dangerous trend in American journalism? Where is the rest of the conservative media on this?

  • In an absurd footnote to this Pulitzer fiasco, the Moscow-funded propaganda channel Russia Today (RT) features Snowden politely asking Putin if his regime engages in mass surveillance of its citizens and Putin replies, of course not. It was another great show, courtesy of the Russian “active measures” apparatus, with Snowden playing his assigned role.

Cliff Kincaid is the Director of the AIM Center for Investigative Journalism and can be contacted at View the complete archives from Cliff Kincaid.


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2 thoughts on “The Putrid Pulitzers that Please Putin

  1. The way of judging/thinking as quoted in the article appears to be quite remarkable (keeping in mind the discussion’s subject). It may yet another time signify the ongoing self-destruction of the values-based society:
    “I don’t know.”
    “I don’t know whether he would or not…”
    “Possibly. I don’t know. ..”
    “It’s probably true. I think so. But I’m not positive.”
    “Not to my knowledge.”

    So “democratic process” – for what?..

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