Making up Pulitzer stories

I wish it had not been pointed out to me. Now, I feel compelled to warn anyone who might unwittingly step into a horseshit blog item that sits on the backroads of the Internet.

It’s a steaming piece about how Las Vegas freelance writer Steve Friess got cheated out of a paycheck because the Pulitzer committee didn’t pick the Sun.

"I was waiting in the lobby at the Sun at noon today to see what would happen, having asked but been refused access to the newsroom for The Moment," Friess tells us. "Alas, their loss was also mine, as suddenly I had the afternoon free on account of AOL/HuffPo not wanting the feature I had planned on The Odd Little Vegas Paper That Could. Bummer."

Friess suggests that the Sun got screwed out of the top prize by the Pulitzer committee. The winners that aced him out of a few bucks of freelance writing "were the team of Frank Main, Mark Konkol and John J. Kim of the Chicago Sun-Times for coverage of street violence and difficulties getting witnesses to talk. Zzzzz."

Feel free to read the rest of his take Las Vegas journalism. It’s quite predictable. The Sun is good. The Review-Journal is bad. If anything is a "Zzzzz" it’s that untruthful Friess mantra.

Had a hard-working reporter showed up in the Sun’s lobby looking for a reaction story to the Pulitzer, he might have been prepared for the possibility that the Sun might lose. He might have asked a few questions about why the Sun’s editors thought they didn’t win. He might have even asked them about some of the flaws in the Sun’s entry.

Let me be clear about what follows. I admire all good journalism, even when done by a competitor. I was one of the first to congratulate Brian Greenspun two years ago when the Sun won the Pulitzer. And I would have been one of the first to do so this year.

But from my perspective the Sun’s "Oh-My-Gawd!" piece entitled "Do No Harm" never quite measured up to the Pulitzer marketing the Sun hyped it up to be.

Here’s the brutal truth: The Sun is (and has been) out to compensate for its failure as a stand-alone newspaper. It became a section of the Las Vegas Review-Journal because it was the only way the newspaper could find any significant audience. People wouldn’t pay for it. But the Sun’s voice might be kept alive and achieve some kind of readership if it were delivered free inside the Review-Journal.

Relieved of day-to-day journalism, the Sun imports writers and assigns them to what they think are "Pulitzer worthy" ideas. Before these writers even know the freeway exits, they are out trying to tell Nevadans what’s wrong with them, their city and their state. Sometimes the preconceived ideas pan out as righteous. Sometimes the ideas fall short.

In the "Do No Harm" series, the headlines screamed the premise of "murder," "incompetence" and "cover-up" of abysmal health care inflicted on patients by the greedy medical community. The data, however, never quite backed that up. For example, on the same weekend the Sun launched its Pulitzer-seeking piece, the Arizona Republic reported that mystery infections in hospitals were on the rise in Arizona, even prompting the Mayo Clinic to issue a warning.

Were Las Vegans at significantly greater risk in a Las Vegas hospital than Phoenicians were in a Phoenix hospital? How about the poor souls in Des Moines, Atlanta, Billings or Los Angeles?

Aside from this context problem, the killer flaw in "Do No Harm" came early on.

On Day One, the series outlined the premise — "We’re all gonna die at the hands of crappy Las Vegas doctors and hospitals."

On Day Two, however, came an odd afterthought story that essentially said despite what you read yesterday, there is one hospital that is not so crappy — St. Rose Hospital in Henderson.

That, for the unaware, is the hospital that the Sun’s owners helped build and continue to fund and promote. Hummmm.

I’ll bet that didn’t make it into the Pulitzer cover letter. And I’ll bet Steve Friess, who gets a lot of freelance work from the Sun, had no intention of asking Sun editors about it.

So if you run into the Steve Friess piece mentioned above, it’s best to step over it. Actually, that goes for almost everything disgruntled former R-J reporter Steve Friess dreams up in his little money-grubbing head about his former employer.

(For the record: You all likely know this, but let me make sure: I am the past publisher of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the former president of Stephens Media. I’ve lived in Las Vegas 35 years. I love the newspaper and damn near gave my life for her. I’m currently a consultant for the company and continue to write a column for the newspaper. I remain — and will always remain — a fierce advocate for the newspaper, Las Vegas and Nevada. That doesn’t mean we’re perfect and that I can’t recognize good journalism done by others. The Sun’s been doing a lot of it in the last few years. So has the Review-Journal. Here’s the difference: The Review-Journal writers know the freeway exits, are longtime members of the community, and stay with the newspaper after they win an award.)

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