The Pulitzer's Gentlemen's AgreementHistorians/History
tags: Pulitzer Prize, Roots, plagiarism, Alex Haley
Philip Nobile is an investigative reporter who has written for several national publications. He lives in Scarsdale, NY.
To: The 2017-2018 Pulitzer Board
From: Philip Nobile
Re: The Pulitzer's Gentlemen's Agreements
I am writing the full Board because neither your Chair Eugene Robinson nor your Administrator Dana Canedy responded to my March 30 email and subsequent phone calls to the Pulitzer office seeking comment on my draft of "The Prize That Taints the Pulitzer's Ethics and Honor" posted on the History News Network on April 20.
The article makes the case for reviewing the bona fides of Alex Haley's 1977 special award for Roots just as the 2003-2004 Board reconsidered Walter Duranty's 1932 prize for foreign reporting. Although the Board decided in Duranty's favor, it set a strict standard for revocation: "clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception." Apparently, this was the same (then unwritten) standard for the Board's swift withdrawal of Janet Cooke's 1980 prize for feature writing. "Osborne Elliott, dean of the Columbia School of journalism, which oversees the Pulitzer awards process, said yesterday afternoon that the Pulitzer board, after being polled by telephone, withdrew Cooke's prize and awarded it to the runner-up, Teresa Carpenter of The Village Voice." (Washington Post, "Post Reporter's Pulitzer Prize Is Withdrawn," April 16, 1981)
"To a moral certainty Haley crossed the Pulitzer threshold of deception," I claimed in the HNN article, which includes never before seen documents in Haley's handwriting proving that he faked the existence of Kunta Kinte, his imaginary Gambian slave forebear. "Clear and convincing evidence exists that he deliberately deceived the readers of Roots both in his fiction and non-fiction.Nor is there the slightest counter-evidence anywhere from Haley's family, editors, and associates, or from journalists, historians and genealogists, arguing that he was an honest writer."
In fact, prominent Pulitzer fellows have been outspoken detractors. Even before the 1976-1977 Board announced Haley's award, 1952 history winner Oscar Handlin declared Roots a "fraud" in the New York Times. ("Some Historians Dismiss Report Of Factual Mistakes in 'Roots'," April 10, 1977)
"If we blew the Haley Prize, as we apparently did, I feel bad," Columbia President William McGill, an ex officio member of the Roots Board, declared in my 9,000-word Village Voice exposé. "We were embarrassed by our makeup. We all labored under the delusion that sudden expressions of love could make up for historical mistakes. ... Of course, that's inverse racism. But there was no way to deal with sensitivities like this." ("Alex Haley's Hoax," February 23, 1993)
Former Chair and double prize winner Russell Baker mocked the Roots Board in a letter to this writer by referring to "the Jonsonian comedy of so many vital citizens being so thoroughly hoaxed." (June 22, 1998)
Finally, another former chair, Henry Louis Gates, as general editor of the 2,660-page Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1996), erased Haley's legacy by denying an entry for the first male writer of African descent to gain a Pulitzer.
Nonetheless, despite this negative backdrop successive Boards have tolerated Haley's literary imposture for forty years via a Gentlemen's Agreement, not the sort that excluded blacks from your privileged clique for sixty-plus years, but the inverse cited by President McGill. How else to interpret (a) the unanimous refusal of the 1992-1993 Board to discuss the cascade of self-incriminations in Haley's private tapes and papers reported in the Voice story that Chair Claude Sitton had placed on the annual meeting agenda and (b) the silence of the current Chair and Administrator regarding my HNN draft and follow-up queries.
I have read your Pulitzer biographies noting your towering accomplishments and impeccable professional standing implying a deep bedrock of integrity. In particular, John Daniszewski heads up AP's standards "ensur[ing] the highest levels of media ethics and fairness." Neil Brown is President of the Poynter Institute, whose "Guiding Principles for Journalists" states: "Poynter trains journalists to avoid ethical failings including conflicts of interest, bias and inaccuracy, and to uphold best practices, such as transparency and accountability." As ProPublica's editor-in-Chief, Stephen Engelberg leads a world-class team of investigative reporters. I could go on ... and on.
Accordingly, I can hardly doubt that your collective conscience will be shocked by Haley's still pristine prize, quell your conflict of interest, and put an end to the inverted Gentlemen's Agreement that disesteems your organization.
In sum, if you act appropriately (i.e., ethically and honorably) on the Roots matter, you will at last forsake the Pulitzer's inverted racism and perhaps take the edge off the fact that the Mormons integrated their priesthood a year before the Board did the same for theirs in 1979.
I look forward to hearing from you. Thanks for your consideration.
You may be astonished to learn, as I was, that the Pulitzer's original Gentlemen's Agreement, that is, its long, sad record of barring blacks from the Board, is invisible on the Pulitzer website. Nothing appears on the subject under "Frequently Asked Questions"; searches for "racial discrimination by the Pulitzer Prize Board" and "first blacks on the Pulitzer Prize Board" likewise come up empty. Even the site's bios of Roger Wilkins and William Raspberry, who crossed the color line together on the 1979-1980 Board, contain no mention of their breakthrough. For visual confirmation of the Board's racial evolution compare photos of the last ivory hurrah of 1978-1979 with the next year's slightly ebony cast.
Double-checking on the above information, I emailed the Pulitzer office on June 1: "Would it be fair to conclude that your organization has deliberately covered up its apartheid past? Or am I missing something?"
Three days later, administrator Canedy replied none too expansively: "Thank you for your letter, we have noted its contents. We will add it to the file of your correspondence."
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