ABC News has never won a Pulitzer Prize, since Pulitzers are not for television. That didn’t stop ABC News president Ben Sherwood from demanding that the awards committee (which doesn’t recognize television) recognize ABC for its role in the reporting that won another (non-television) outlet a Pulitzer earlier this week. Sherwood’s public campaign has already turned ugly.
On Monday, the Pulitzer committee awarded its investigative-journalism prize to Chris Hamby of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit journalism outfit based in Washington, D.C., for Hamby's “Breathless and Burdened” series about the systemic denial of medical benefits to coal miners with black lung disease. In addition to publishing Hanby's writing itself, CPI shared his reporting with ABC News, which in collaboration with Hamby assembled a Nightline segment, anchored by Brian Ross, that aired in October of 2013.
On Tuesday, an aggrieved Sherwood delivered a four-page letter, to both CPI and the Pulitzer committee, in which he demanded the formal recognition of Ross and ABC News reporter Matthew Mosk for their work on Hamby’s series. Sherwood delved into the details of ABC News’ own reporting, and the lack of credit it apparently received, during the network’s year-long partnership with CPI.
Sherwood’s complaint isn’t necessarily invalid, on its face. As his letter noted, several other groups that recognized CPI for Hamby’s reporting—including the Society of Professional Journalists, the White House Correspondents Association, and Harvard’s Shorenstein Center—also recognized and awarded ABC News.
But those various other honors are designed to include television. As Sherwood’s letter acknowledged, the Pulitzers exclusively recognize newspaper and online reporting. Still, the executive spun this into an indictment of Hamby’s own work: “Do you really believe that Hamby and CPI would have been recognized with this honor without the contributions of ABC News?”
Later, he added: “For us, this is a matter of integrity.” Because ABC News is not just a moving-pictures show, but a journalistic enterprise worthy of a big award for words-users, Sherwood also quoted Webster’s Dictionary's definition of “integrity.” (He did not specify whether he was quoting Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, one of its various later editions, or something from among the contending contemporary field of Merriam-Webster’s, Random House Webster’s, Encarta Webster’s, et al.)
He wrapped it all up with a threatening flourish:
We will certainly raise this with the Pulitzer Board. And, in the interest of openness and transparency, we will also raise this with your Board of Directors.
The truth is that ABC did not join the investigation until part-way through, it focused on only one part of a multi-part series, and its reporting was sporadic and almost entirely geared toward the needs of television, not original content for the print series.
Buzenberg will see your threat to go to his board of directors and raise you a threat of his own:
The Center is prepared to show in great detail how little ABC's Brian Ross and Matt Mosk understood about even the most fundamental concepts and key facts and how they repeatedly turned to Chris to advise them or, in some instances, to do their work for them.
ABC depended to a remarkable degree on Chris’ access to sources, documents and data and his expertise on complex issues — all of which repeatedly saved ABC from making embarrassing factual errors in broadcast segments and online stories. ... It is incredibly insulting for ABC to not only fail to acknowledge Chris’ indispensable work solely for ABC’s benefit, but to go even further and suggest that the opposite is true — that the Center is downplaying ABC’s work. ...
The contributions of Brian and Matt do not come close to warranting a byline. We nonetheless inserted their names in the byline fields at ABC’s insistence because we hoped to foster a sense of trust and partnership. It is clear now that ABC’s intent all along was simply to attach their names more prominently to this story for use later in precisely the way you now are: as a weapon to wield in an attempt to claim undue credit.
Journalist-on-journalist carnage is rarely so open, or so bilious, especially when obituary-worthy awards are on the line. Then again, television news has never attracted, or rewarded, humble folk. According to Poynter, an ABC spokesperson repeatedly “threatened [Buzenberg] and the Center saying they would make this very ‘messy’ ... unless they got what they wanted.”
It’s not obvious what happens next. (In a conversation with Gawker, an ABC News spokesperson shot down the possibility of litigation: “Oh, no, no, no, no, no. No.”) The reporter at the center of the controversy, Chris Hamby, has already decamped for BuzzFeed’s investigations team.
“We don’t expect the Pulitzers to change their rules about who’s eligible and who’s not,” the ABC spokesperson added, “but we do think that’s important for the people we partner with to honor and acknowledge what happened.”