Bill Keller: Why Is This Pulitzer Different From All Other Prizes?

Yesterday, as the news of the Pulitzer Prizes drifted out into the media, the mood at the New York Times was relatively somber. True, the paper had won a prize, for Andrea Elliott's series on an imam in Brooklyn, but had not turned up as the winner in any other category—which, for a paper that's grown accustomed to multiple awards over the years, must have been a bit of a sting. In fact, it kind of was. In a speech to the newsroom after the awards were announced, Bill Keller had the following to say:

About once a year, on this day, I find myself wondering why we treat this particular prize with champagne and speeches, while other accolades are celebrated with beer and e-mails. Shouldn't the Polk Award Lydia Polgreen accepted last week for her courageous and incisive coverage of Darfur fill us with the same pride as the honors handed out today? How is it that Tyler Hicks was voted Newspaper Photographer of the Year by a jury of leading American picture editors, but neither Tyler nor any of our amazing photo staff is a finalist for today's prizes?

I don't mean to sound ungrateful. I'm just saying prizes, like newspapers, are put out by human beings.

No, Bill, you don't sound ungrateful at all. Not at all. The full text of Keller's speech, plus speeches by metro editor Joe Sexton and Pulitzer winner Andrea Elliott, after the jump.

Bill Keller's Speech:

This is the last time we'll be having the annual Pulitzer gathering in this place. By next April we will be settled into a new home, and, presumably, whining and kvetching about the facilities. We will have a new Pulitzer wall — in the corridor outside the 15th-conference rooms. The move comes just in the nick of time, since we had pretty much filled up the hallway up on the 11th floor.

Before we get to the good news, I'd like to say what I say every year, come rain or come shine. Prizes are not the reason we do what we do, and they are not the most important measure of what we do. They are nice to get and very nice to get, but there is a long honor roll of world-class journalists — some of them standing in this room right now — who have not been singled out for a Pulitzer — at least, not yet.

This year the resourcefulness, intelligence and artistry of our journalists has been acknowledged with a cascade of prizes — the Polk, the Overseas Press Club, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, professional associations of business editors and sportswriters, photographers and graphic artists, and so on.

About once a year, on this day, I find myself wondering why we treat this particular prize with champagne and speeches, while other accolades are celebrated with beer and e-mails. Shouldn't the Polk Award Lydia Polgreen accepted last week for her courageous and incisive coverage of Darfur fill us with the same pride as the honors handed out today? How is it that Tyler Hicks was voted Newspaper Photographer of the Year by a jury of leading American picture editors, but neither Tyler nor any of our amazing photo staff is a finalist for today's prizes?

I don't mean to sound ungrateful. I'm just saying prizes, like newspapers, are put out by human beings.

Okay, that's enough cloud. On to the silver lining.

This year we had three Pulitzer finalists — two of them emanating from that engine of excellence known as the Metro Desk.

In the explanatory category, The NYT Staff was a finalist for our national wake-up call on the epidemic of diabetes. Sonny Kleinfield, Richard Perez-Pena, Marc Santora and Ian Urbina kicked off the year with an eye-opening series, and throughout the year we had contributions from other departments, accompanied by great video narratives and slide shows that brought the problem vividly to life.

In the commentary category, Joe Nocera was a finalist in his first full year as a Times business columnist. Joe's tough-minded and richly reported columns have made him a destination for those in business, those interested in business, and anyone who just love a good, thoughtful story, beautifully told.

Our Pulitzer winner this year, in the feature-writing category, is Andrea Elliott. Andrea won for taking us into a Brooklyn mosque and illuminating the life of an imam in America. Her series was a thrilling piece of journalism — an intimate tour of a world we ought to know better. Her writing was clean and clear without glossing over the complexities. It was humanizing without being romantic. And I doubt that many people who started it put it down without reading every last word.

Last Saturday one of the guest columnists on our Op-Ed page, Robert Wright wrote that the most treacherous fault line in America is the one between Muslims and non-Muslims. "Americans," he wrote, "have already done things abroad that are helping to make the 'clash of civilizations' thesis a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let's not make that kind of mistake at home."

We won't, if more journalists follow Andrea's example.

Joe Sexton would like to pile on, and I don't blame him. Before he does, two more notes of pride within our extended family. Our friends and colleagues up in Boston won the national reporting Pulitzer for exposing those presidential signing statements, in which President Bush apparently set out to reinterpret legislation sent to him by Congress. And Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff won one of the literary Pulitzers for their fine book on reporting of the civil rights era in the South. Congratulations to them — and to all the other winners today.

Joe Sexton's Speech:

Arthur, Bill, Jill, John, thanks for the freedom and confidence and encouragement, and for creating and protecting, even in some awfully challenging times, an atmosphere in this newsroom of great ambition and appropriate modesty, of perspective and adventure and humor.

For the last couple of years, Metro has had a half dozen or more reporters engaged in long-term project work. There ain't many papers left that are able or willing to make those kinds of investments.

It's sad and scary to say that; but it is also a blessing to say that this paper is still one of them.

I'd like to thank Glenn Kramon, who has been an inspired consultant and co-architect of much of Metro's most ambitious work. He opened his heart to Andrea's series, and championed and bettered it every step of the way. And he is a prince of a person.

I'd like to thank Susan Edgerley. None of Metro's enterprise realized this past year would have got done had she not said, over and over again, that simple but daring word, "Yes."

Andrea — I know — will have lots to say about the irrepressible and irreplaceable Jim Estrin.

But I wanted to say a special thanks to Michele McNally and Meaghan Looram. They gave Jim unbelievable latitude to work his magic, and then layered on their own genius. And all that was enhanced yet further by a team at the Web, including Lisa Iaboni, Samantha Storey, Grant Burningham and Juliet Gorman.

It would be a crime if I got to stand here in celebration and did not salute the work of others.

So, I'd like to give some serious props to Tim Golden and Michael Moss and Debbie Sontag and Lydia Polgreen and Sabrina Tavernise and Michael (Wines) and Sharon (LaFraniere) in Africa and the amazing Mr. Chivers and the indestructible Mr. (Ed) Wong and Mr. (Jim) Glanz, and the extraordinary foreign picture editor who has directed her brave photographers in one war zone after another, keeping them alive and loved.

A shoutout, too, to the national desk and its defiantly stubborn commitment to covering Katrina's legacy, to Laura Chang's clear-eyed and tender look at challenging children, to Mr. Sifton's ever more entertaining and gutsy section, to Pete Thamel's exclusives, and to Larry Ingrassia's experiment with the future that is now.

Okay, just one more bit of business before Andrea. I know her parents are wondering, hey, what gives with this guy?

But the work on diabetes by Sonny and Ian and Marc and Richard, and spearheaded masterfully by the unrivaled Kevin Flynn, was some kind of model for powerful and professional partnership across the paper. And Bill Glaberson's serious beat down of New York State's system of small town justice — done in expert collaboration with Patrick Farrell — made for one of the more jaw dropping exposes of what are known as outrages hiding in plain sight.

You know, the Pulitzer people make you write up the impact achieved by any submitted body of work. It's a fun and validating experience. But often only the judges get to fully appreciate that scope of impact.

Here's a flavor then for the record books:
one reader of the diabetes series donated $6 million to reopen a clinic;
The NYS Health Foundation dedicated tens of millions to diabetes work.
Mr. Spitzer has promised to overhaul he way the state handles chronic diseases.
The National Conference of State Legislatures said the series inspired it to begin monitoring diabetes in all 50 states.
And the U.N. passed a resolution recognizing diabetes as a global threat, the first time a non-infectious disease has triggered such an action.

As for Bill, well his work only managed to produce more reform than had occurred over the last century, and, since there are no secrets anymore to the Pulitzer process, it's worth saying his work was among the final bunch in two separate categories. The state's top officials are now spending several more months studying the possibility of some more radical changes — like, oh, well, requiring that judges actually be lawyers. It will be interesting to see if the governor has half the political and personal courage he says he does.

Ah, now Andrea. You know, at the heart of her series on Sheik Reda Shata was this idea that, as he made his way in the west, the sheik had to make certain adjustments and accommodations. Well, he'll likely have to make another one when he tries to get his head around the fact that the idea for the series on the life of an American imam began in a dive bar off Times Square.

But it was there that Andrea decided the paper had neglected long enough the notion of covering Muslims in America after 9/11. She already had a head of intellectual steam and a list of story ideas, and, after several Bud Lights over which I pretended to add my own incredibly astute thoughts, I just got out of her way.

And it's a good thing to get out of her way. I have rarely been in the presence of a reporter who quite so literally vibrates with intensity — an intensity of interest, an intensity of purpose, an intensity not just to know things but to really actually understand them.

She would ultimately produce a series that, for me and others, was from start to finish built one utterly novel sentence after another.

But it was others who had the most eloquent responses. One board member of the sheik's mosque, a man who had said all he ever wanted was a fair picture for once, said: "The series marked a new era for Muslims in the country. It's like 9/11. There was before and there was after."

And so it is. You know, the sheik, in Day 2 of the series, talked about what had accounted for the often ignorant and hostile relationship that existed between Muslims and the wider world of America. "I once read a Spanish proverb," he said. "The wall of hatred was asked, "'How were you built?'" And the reply was, 'From the stones of insult.'"

Well, if today that wall of hatred has some number of fewer bricks, it is in no small part because of Andrea's series.

So, at long last, here she is.

Andrea Elliott's Speech:

I came to The Times at a tough moment for the paper. It was May of 2003. In all the tumult, I didn't expect much of an orientation. But I was hardly prepared for my second day of work, when my new boss Jon Landman said, "Oh. You should come to this Town Hall meeting we're having."

It certainly didn't feel like the most promising start. But from the beginning, my path here has been filled with the kind of great luck that anyone has to have to win one of these things. And I'm really honored and humbled to be standing here today.

My first stroke of luck came in the form of Joe Sexton. I must admit, after the Town Hall meeting, it took me about a month to work up the courage to walk over to his desk and pitch a story. I was so relieved when he didn't cuss me out.

We all know that Joe has a big personality. But what fewer people know is what a remarkable listener he is. He searches out the deepest parts of a story. And as masterful an editor as he is, he clearly hasn't tamed his inner reporter. He thought nothing of trekking out to Bensonhurst, midway through my reporting on the imam series, to meet the Sheik. For all of his boisterous passion, he can also be calm and steady and even quiet in his devotion to a project. His wisdom and patience on this one were priceless. Joe, thanks so much. It's been a huge privilege.

I had been working the Sunday shift in Metro for two years when I pitched the idea of this series to Joe. And the thing I feel most at this moment is enormous gratitude, to both him and this newspaper, for just letting me run with it. I was like so many reporters out there who have stumbled on a great story, and wanted to do right by it. And the thing about The Times is it doesn't matter if you've been here for twenty years or two. This is a place where your ideas can take flight.

I really believe that almost no other newspaper would have made this story possible. We spent thousands of dollars on Arabic translators. I worked on this series for months, disappearing from the paper. I remember at one point getting a letter from my dad that read, "Andrea, I am puzzled as to what you've been up to."

But as we finally started to get there, Joe was not alone in embracing this. Glenn Kramon was an incredible champion of the series, and all of our work on Islam, as were Bill and Jill. And I'll never forget walking up to my desk after the imam series ran and seeing this handwritten note of congratulations on my keyboard. It was signed Arthur. That just blew me away.

Another incredibly lucky break for me was to work with Jim Estrin. Long before we set out to cover Islam in America, we wound up together on the Sunday shift, cruising around looking for stories. It tells you something about our synergy that one story to which we both gravitated immediately involved a financial analyst who was giving out free hugs in Washington Square Park.

I have never met anyone with such relentless curiosity as Jim. It was Jim who learned that immigrant imams were being trained in pastoral counseling, which was one of the first tips I had that there was something great here. His imprint is felt throughout the stories we did, far beyond those spellbinding photographs. We really stopped working as writer and photographer, and became two journalists who were telling the same story in different mediums. Which is how it should be. Thank you, Jim.

And then I had the great fortune of finding Sheik Reda Shata. It's hard to fathom the courage it took for him to let us inside his mosque and home and life. As remarkable a person as he is, Sheik Reda is really unremarkable in terms of the experience he represents. He's like so many other Muslims in this country who have endured a tough journey in the years since Sept. 11, who feel they are living in a hostile land, and who have closed their doors to journalists out of fear. And yes, a lot of people wouldn't talk to me, but the only reason that some of them did was because they craved understanding, and wanted so much to be rendered with fairness and depth. And so I hope that, if a story like this has helped open their doors, we keep them open.

I want to thank Jon Landman for plucking me out of Miami and bringing me to The Times, and Susan Edgerly for embracing this beat when she was metro editor. I also want to thank the brilliant Christine Kay for working with me on the series about Muslims in the military. And I need to thank "the imam team," as we came to call it: Meaghan Looram, Michael Kolomatsky, Samantha Storey, Jeff Rubin and my translators, Awali Samara and Sadek Ahmed.

I also want to salute my dear friends, Lydia Polgreen and Sabrina Tavernise, both of whom risked their lives for this paper in the last year.

And to my husband, Tim, who is standing here today with my parents. He, like other people in this room, did extraordinary work last year. And at the same time, he was my greatest support.

I'll never forget watching Tim, when we heard the news, hop out of the car and start jumping up and down with me in rush hour traffic.