What's that name again?


Those were some ennobling Pulitzer Prizes in journalism awarded last week. The Washington Post copped six the old-fashioned way: It earned them. It reported the news.

But none was more ennobling than Steven Pearlstein's.

You're wondering who he is. I was wondering the same thing Monday afternoon.

That's when the annual Pulitzer winners were announced. Naturally, I hastily scrolled down the computer screen to see which celebrity political pundit had nabbed this year's most prestigious journalistic prize for commentary, meaning columnizing.

It historically goes to people such as Tom Friedman, George Will, David Broder, William Safire, Cynthia Tucker -- those of supposed political insight who get published in the famous papers and seen on the more serious-minded TV talk shows.

One year Maureen Dowd got the prize for one brilliant line. It was that Bill Clinton's behavior provided grounds for divorce, not impeachment. That summed up the contemporary state of American politics.

One year Paul Gigot of The Wall Street Journal got the award for his once-a-week column, which led a former celebrity recipient, Jimmy Breslin, to write a column suggesting that, if Gigot would write zero columns a week, maybe he'd get two Pulitzer Prizes.

Jimmy is old school. He values productivity and craft over infrequency and art.

But Steven Pearlstein? Who in the heck? It turns out that he writes a column twice a week for that gray business section tucked deep inside The Washington Post. It further turns out that the Post didn't select his column to be among those it formally nominated.

But the business editor of the paper took it upon himself to go to the considerable trouble of jumping through the procedural hoops to prepare a nomination for Pearlstein.

You can hear the esteemed Pulitzer jurors now, sighing as they pore over the scores of ego-driven entries espousing conventional political wisdom, one saying to another, "You might want take a look at these columns by this business guy, Pearl-stine, or Pearl-steen, I don't know. They're interesting."

So this other guy reads them and says, "Hmm. A business column?"

Then, as judges cull loser after loser, they find themselves returning inevitably to these by this Pearl-stine, or Pearl-steen, until, in the end, they were the only ones on the table.

Rejected by his own paper; embraced by the world.

Here's what you can do. Go to pulitzer.org and click on the winners and finalists for 2008. You'll see an icon labeled "works." Those are the columns submitted in the winning entry. Click there and you'll be taken to a Washington Post compilation of the eight columns of Pearlstein's that nabbed the prize.

Be prepared to behold rare prescience and clarity about the looming international financial calamity. Notice how plain and simple he makes the greedy and nonsensical reliance on risky debt in home mortgages and broader investment securities based on those home mortgages.

"What we have here is a failure of common sense," he wrote. "With occasional exceptions, bankers shouldn't make -- or be allowed to make -- mortgage loans that require no money down and no documentation of income to people who won't be able to afford the monthly payments if interest rates rise, house prices fall and the roof springs a leak."

Makes sense when he puts it like that, doesn't it?

For once, the Pulitzer commentary prize offers less a celebration of celebrity and conventional political punditry than a lesson to those of us in the business. It's to find our niche, write what we know and aim for simplicity, clarity and candor.

Hmmm. Interesting. Could this be the ticket to the survival of the newspaper in the technological age?

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.

 

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