The Pulitzer Prize Board surrender – and how the New York Times blew the Ed Kennedy story (Part l)


In the May 19, 1945 edition of the New Yorker magazine, the legendary press critic A. J. Liebling wrote a prescient article on what happened when Edward Kennedy, an Associated Press combat correspondent, defied military censorship to break one of the century’s biggest and most important stories.

His lead said that “the great row over Edward Kennedy’s Associated Press story of the signing of the German surrender at Reims served to point up the truth that if you are smart enough you can kick yourself in the seat of the pants, grab yourself by the back of the collar and throw yourself out on the sidewalk. This is an axiom that I hope will be taught to future students of journalism as Liebling’s Law.” Liebling titled his piece, “The AP surrender,” because AP, caving in to government pressure, led the attack on its own reporter by publicly censuring and then firing him. He cited the New York Times as leading the charge with a nasty editorial blasting Kennedy only two days after it had splashed Kennedy’s story on the front page with huge heads. Kennedy, the editorial intoned solemnly, had done a “grave disservice to the newspaper profession.”

Liebling, a mid-1920s  student at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York City, was presumably aiming his axiom at his alma mater, which was in a building endowed by Joseph Pulitzer, a crusading liberal publisher in New York at the turn of the century.  Pulitzer also endowed the prestigious Pulitzer Prizes, which are housed in the school and administered by a senior member of the faculty.

I especially enjoyed Liebling’s Law as a Columbia journalism graduate (’58) and as a charter member of the committee working to get Kennedy a posthumous Pulitzer prize this year for his story. The axiom was timely because my wife Jean and I were at the journalism school in April to attend my 55th class reunion and the school’s centennial celebration. The event was full of Pulitzer references and remembrances, highlighted by an address by James McGrath Morris, a respected Pulitzer biographer, speaking in the World room, named after Pulitzer's newspaper.

The day after the centennial weekend, the Pulitzer Prize Board announced its Pulitzers and rejected the two Kennedy nominations without comment. One nomination was for his story, the other for a previously unpublished book by Kennedy on his career as a WWII foreign correspondent. The rejections demonstrated a serious flaw in the Pulitzer Prize process.

The point of quoting Liebling today, in May of 2013, is that almost seven decades after his article, the Pulitzer Prize Board and the New York Times have once again left Kennedy out on the sidewalk for doing his job as a reporter who, in a favorite Pulitzer phrase, knew “the  right and had the courage to do it.” Since this is a historic story of military censorship for political reasons, it is as timely and relevant now as it was then, since the Pulitzer Board and the Times still do not get the point.

So let me put the issue in context. Let me start by quoting Liebling’s main arguments and link his full six page piece, written in the heat of the censorship battle.

Liebling, who was himself a distinguished World War II correspondent, wrote,  ”The important aspect of the story of the row, I am sure, is not that Kennedy got his dispatch out of Europe before the SHAEF Public Relations bosses wanted him to but that only three representatives of the American press were admitted to one of the memorable scenes in the history of man, and only on condition that they promise not to tell about it until the brigadier general in charge of public relations gave them permission.

“No correspondent of a newspaper published in the United States was invited to the signing; besides Kennedy, Boyd Lewis of United Press, and James Kilgallen, of Hearst’s International News Service, the official list included four radio men, an enlisted correspondent for the Stars and Stripes, and a collection of French, Russian, Australian, and Canadian correspondents.

“Whether a promise extorted as this one was, in an airplane several thousand feet up, has any moral force is a question for theologians…I suppose Kennedy should have refused to promise anything and thus made sure of missing an event that no newspaperman in the world would want to miss, but I can’t imagine any correspondent doing it.

“I do not think Kennedy imperiled the lives of any Allied soldiers by sending the story, as some of his critics   have charged. He probably saved a few, because by withholding the announcement of an armistice you prolong the shooting, and, conversely, by announcing it promptly you make the shooting stop. Moreover, the Germans had broadcast the news of the armistice several hours before Kennedy’s story appeared on the streets of New York, and Alsie, the OWI’s American Broadcasting Station in Europe, broadcast it in 24 languages, including English, within an hour after.”

Liebling noted that the Russians “had their own surrender show in Berlin, and probably had a better publicity break on it than they would have had if the two surrenders has been announced simultaneously… One unconditional surrender of the Reich a day is as much as the public can absorb.” 

Liebling brought out the crucial political censorship point. “Moreover, the row can do a lot of good if it brings into the clear the whole disturbing question of military censorship imposed for political, personal, or merely capricious reasons and reveals the history of the prodigious amount of pure poodle-faking that has gone under the name of Army Public Relations.” Liebling was right on because it later turned out that a secret agreement between Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill had imposed a 24 hour embargo on the surrender story so the Russians could announce it the next day in Berlin. Kennedy’s story was in effect the start of the Cold War.

Last year, almost 70 years later,  Tom Curley, as president and CEO of AP,  backed up Liebling’s Law and apologized publicly on behalf of  AP. for the way it treated Kennedy. "tt was a terrible day for AP," he was quoted as saying on the AP wire.  "It was handled in the worst possible way,." He wrote a strong  defense of Kennedy in an introduction to a book published last year by the Lousiana State University Press,  titled “Ed Kennedy’s War: V-E Day, Censorship & the Associated Press." The book was a personal account by Kennedy of his career as a foreign correspondent and a detailed account of his side of the controversy. His daughter, Julia Kennedy Cochran, found Kennedy’s manuscript in his papers after he died in a pedestrian accident in Monterey in 1963 at age 58 where he was editing the Monterey Peninsula  Herald. 

Curley wrote that “Kennedy and his editors performed superbly. They delivered one of the most significant scoops in journalism history. They did four things right. A great correspondent was assigned to the story. He kept reporting even after the censors tried to shut him down. The London desk moved the news without hesitation. The correspondent and editors adhered to the wartime rules as they knew them.  Finally, Kennedy wins the argument on a technicality. With the signing of a surrender treaty, there was no longer a war in Europe and not any excuse to submit to censors.”

Curley said “the book matches the best memoirs by World War II combat reporters for the quality of writing and telling detail, some of it gripping.  And in one way it surpasses the others. Not only does Kennedy give his final, thoughtful explanation for what happened on May 7, 1945. In describing his struggles with censorship and bureaucratic red tape and stupidity over many months, not just on May 7, he provides the fullest first-person account we have of the difficulties World War II correspondents encountered every day trying to do their jobs.

“Perhaps in some small way we bring posthumous recognition to an American hero and embrace – too belatedly – what McClean and Cooper (B3: AP executives) and the AP board could not admit. Edward Kennedy was the embodiment of the highest aspirations of the Associated Press and American journalism.” Curley said his account drew upon newly available records held in the Associated Press Corporate Archives.

Curley's co-author was John Maxwell Hamilton, founding dean of the Manship School of Mass Communications at LSU.  He is the editor of "From Our Correspondent," a series of books that features forgotten works and unpublished memoirs by pioneering foreign correspondents and illuminates "the development of foreign news gathering at a time when it has never been more important." Hamilton, once a foreign correspondent himself, is currently the executive vice chancellor and provost of LSU. The book was submitted by LSU Press for a Pulitzer in the book category but the board rejected the nomination and, in keeping with tradition, rejected it without comment.

Following V-E Day, Kennedy was out at AP and the big  mainstream dailies. He became a managing editor for two years at the Santa Barbara News-Press and then edited the Monterey County Herald, later the Monterey Peninsula Herald.   The Herald won lots of journalism awards under Kennedy and he wrote many international commentaries under the initials E.K. He loved his community and he loved his job. .A memorial to Kennedy stands in the form of a sundial in Laguna Grande Park in nearby Seaside. It reads: "He saved the world an extra day of happiness."

Meanwhile, Ray March, editor of the Modoc (Calif.) Independent News  and a former reporter under Kennedy on the Herald, decided it was time to nominate Kennedy for a posthumous Pulitzer prize and help right a historic journalistic and public policy wrong. With the help of Eric Brazil, a former Examiner editor and reporter, he put together a committee and petition.  I signed up immediately when Brazil called me.  And I helped put together the first ever panel anywhere on the Kennedy story for last year’s annual meeting of the California Press Association. It featured as moderator Ward Bushee, the Chronicle editor whose father had been recruited by Kennedy to work on the Herald. (He turned down the offer.)  Ward’s father had earlier won a Pulitzer as editor of the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian for exposing corruption involving the local district attorney.

The historic panel included March, Kennedy’s daughter, and Dave Perlman, a Chronicle reporter at 93, who was in Paris as a reporter at the time of the surrender. Jim Ewert, general counsel of the California Newspaper Publishers Association, drafted  a stirring resolution supporting the nomination and the members approved it unanimously.  It was submitted as part of the nomination package, put together by the Chronicle’s promotion department. March, Brazil, and  Frank McCulloch, former bureau chief for Time magazine in Vietnam who later held top editorial positions at the LA Times, the Sacramento Bee, and the old San Francisco Chronicle, wrote the nomination letter. It stressed that Kennedy had been the victim of military censorship for political reasons.  Meanwhile, the nomination got much media coverage, including the Chronicle, Washington Post, Sacramento Bee, Atlantic Magazine, Portland Oregonian, Editor and Publisher, and many other print and online venues.

When the New York Times announced this year’s Pulitzers, the paper gushed that  it got four Pulitzers, giving it a total of 112 Pulitzers, ”far more than any other newspaper,” as trumpeted in full page promotion ads. Margaret Sullivan, the public editor, was even more glowing in her Sunday column (4/21/2013). Her lead:  “The Times, it is safe to say, had a very good week. On Monday, it won four Pulitzer prizes – “the third most in its history and twice a many as any other news organization this year.”  (She also quite properly gave credit to the Times for its coverage of the Boston bombings and in particular for staying on the safe side of the “Rubicon of inaccuracy” by not reporting that an arrest had been made and a suspect was in custody.) She concluded her appraisal by saying that “The Times is far from perfect.  But last week, in its intelligent and restrained handling both of images and facts, it looked like a newspaper worthy of this year’s Pulitzer glory.”

However,  I and many others weren't as smitten by Pulitzer glory. We were disappointed to see that the Pulitzer Board  not only rejected a Pulitzer for Kennedy, but that it did so without reference or mention of the Kennedy nominations, made no special citation (such as the special citation to the late Chronicle columnist Herb Caen) and gave no reasons nor acknowledgment of any kind for the rejections or to the historic importance of righting a major  journalistic and public policy wrong on one of the most crucial issues of our time:  military censorship for political reasons of news the public needs to know. I couldn’t find any evidence that the Times ever changed its editorial opposition to Kennedy and that it ever properly covered Kennedy’s side of the story. And the Times, unlike AP and so many other papers, didn’t cover the current story of the nominations to award Kennedy a posthumous Pulitzer prize or the censorship issues, before or after the Pulitzer awards were announced. Will it do so now? I am sending this report to the public editor and other Times editors and public  for comment.

I emailed Sig Gissler, the former Milwaukee Journal editor who now administers the a journalism professor. I put the above points to him and asked why the committee “instead of coming down on the side of the free press that Pulitzer and his school and prizes represented, the committee in effect came down on the side of government censorship for political reasons and supported a politically charged embargo agreement that would allow Stalin to catch up on the surrender announcement and hold his own press conference in Berlin.” 

Specifically, I asked Gissler  “was there any discussion on the Kennedy nominations, was there a vote and what was it, who voted for and against, what were the reasons for the rejection, was there any real internal debate on the importance and timeliness of this issue, and anything else that you or the Columbia officials (Outgoing Dean Nicholas Lemann or incoming Dean Steve  Coll, President Lee Bollinger) or the committee chairs or member would like to add. Is there a spokeperson I can talk to?”  I also asked for the names and contact information of the full Pulitzer committee and subcommittees and the appropriate Columbia spokespeople.

Gissler is a good man in a tough job burdened with honoring a dated policy. He emailed me back promptly and thanked me for my “interesting note.”  He said that, “regarding Kennedy, your desire for an explanation is testimony to your earnestness. However, each year the Pulitzer process produces many similar situations. Entrants desire to know why they did not become finalists. Finalists desire to know why they didn’t become winners. Petitioners for special citations desire to know why no special citations were bestowed. The Board declines to provide explanatory details, consistent with its tradition of basically not discussing, debating or defending its decisions.

“I understand your disappointment. However, at the risk of eternal irritation, I can only reiterate that the request for a special citation for Ed Kennedy was duly considered and that we do not issue statements when a request does not result in a citation.” He didn’t send me the names or contact information of the board or Columbia spokespeople. 

To give Gissler every opportunity to explain, I emailed him again and asked more questions: “So, after all these years, are you saying that the Pulitzer Board has no way for anyone (entrants or journalists or the public) to comment on the awards or the contest or the process? If not, why not?” I also asked again how the Kennedy nominating committee and others could make comments this year, right now. I ended by saying there was now much interest in “making the Pulitzer process more transparent, representative, and accountable.” I hope you agree, I told Gissler, and that you “at least present the issue to the board and the proper Columbia officials.”  I got no further comment from Gissler.

The Pulitzer School of Journalism and the Pulitzer prizes are endowed by Joseph Pulitzer. The school has the venerable Columbia Journalism Review magazine with a mission to "encourage excellence in journalism in the service of a free society." And it has the excellent website that "weighs in daily, hosting a conversation that is open to all who share a commitment to high journalistic standards in the U.S. and around the world" and that could, let me suggest,  display the Pulitzer winners properly and host a lively forum for congratulations and comment  on the Pulitzers and the Pulitzer process,  It has a large and distinguished faculty and hosts a wide array of newsworthy panels and programs. It attracts each year an excellent class of students. It has a huge statue of Thomas Jefferson, paid for by Pulitzer, standing as a beacon of press freedom in front of the entrance to the journalism building. It is situated in the media capital of the world and promotes itself as the best journalism school in the country and a source of many of the country’s best journalists. It can do better, much better, with the prizes that the New York Times proclaimed, in its full page ad promoting its four Pulitzers, as “widely considered journalism’s highest honor.” .

And so I recommend that Columbia, the Graduate School of Journalism, and its Pulitzer Prize Board use the rejected nominations of Edward Kennedy, the reporter who was tarred and feathered for the crime of committing journalism, as the catalyst for major Pulitzer reforms. I recommend making the Pulitzer process more transparent, more responsive, and more prepared in our militarized age to fight government censorship and more prepared to promote and defend the First Amendment values of free speech and free press.

I will keep you posted. B3

POSTSCRIPT:  THE RUSSIAN PLAN TO PREEMPT THE SURRENDER STORY:   Ed Kennedy writes in his book that in the turmoil over his dispatch the correspondents overlooked another story almost as big as the surrender story. It came from  "no less august an official spokesman"  than Brig. Gen. Frank A. Allen Jr., the SHAEF commanding officer,  who told the corresponents in a May 8 meeting that "the official announcement might be delayed even further beyond the time set for it--3 p.m., Paris time.  He revealed that the Russians, having induced Washington and London to hold up the announcement, until the hour set for their own ceremony in Berlin, now were asking that news of the real surrender at Reims be suppressed until some hours after the phony surrender of Berlin. HIs disclosure was 'off the record' at the moment but could have been legitimately been reported the following day. It never was. 

"The sole purpose of the Soviet request, it was later established--and even then was obvious--was to convince a large part of the world that the Russians had obtained the surrender of Germany, with but contributory help from the Western Allies, whom they had generously invited to share in the final honor.  The Berlin ceremony was staged purely for Soviet propaganda purposes. Although a Russian correspondent was one of those whom General Allen had invited to Reims to the exclusion of any reporter of an American newspaper, no word of the Reims surrender appeared in the Russian press. So far as I know, none has to this day.

"The Russian action was the inauguration of the propaganda build-up for the course of expansion on which the Soviet Union was shortly to embark in Europe. Its importance as news was that it was the first clue to Moscow's postwar policy.  But it went unreported at that time."

Bruce B, Brugmann, writing as editor at large of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, as editor and co-founder and co-publisher of the Guardian with his wife Jean Dibble (1966-2012, now  retired), as a graduate of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism ('58), as a recipient of  the Columbia Journalism School's  Distinguished Alumnus award (2011), as a former bureau chief of the Korea Bureau of the Pacific edition of Stars and Stripes who encountered milItary censorship  (1959-60), and as a charter member of the Kennedy nominating committee.