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Contest Disputes

The Pulitzer Prize may be journalism’s highest honor, but it has also been the subject of scandal and dispute

By Britney Tabor
Illustration by Cana Cameron

Vote change
According to a 1984 The New York Times article, the Pulitzer Prize jurors and board in 1941 voted Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls its winner for the fiction category. The Columbia University president and ex-officio board chairman found the book offensive and “forced the board to change its vote.” Hemingway would go on to win the Pulitzer in the fiction category over a decade later for The Old Man and the Sea.

Sore loser
Sinclair Lewis declined the 1926 Pulitzer Prize for his novel, Arrowsmith. According to The New York Times, Sinclair declared “that such awards seduced a writer into forsaking the quest of literary excellence and into catering to the whims of a ‘haphazard committee.’” According to the Times, people believed Sinclair resented that his novel Main Street was snubbed for the award in 1921. The Pulitzer Prize in the novel category went to Edith Wharton for The Age of Innocence, representing a “wholesome atmosphere of American life.” Originally, rules stipulated that the winning novel must “represent the whole atmosphere of American life,” but were reworded.

Nobody wins
In 2012, the Pulitzer Prize committee announced that for the first time since 1977, there would be no winner for the fiction award. The board couldn’t reach a majority vote. People expressed their disapproval on Twitter, and some jurors (who read about 300 novels before deciding on three finalists) were also outraged. In the same year, no editorial winner was named even though jurors selected three finalists.

According to a 1967 article in the Columbia Daily Spectator, the winner for the international reporting award was disputed. The award winner, R. John Hughes of the Christian Science Monitor, was selected for “thorough reporting of the attempted communist coup in 1965 and the purge that followed.” A jury recommended work by Harrison E. Salisbury, an assistant managing editor at The New York Times, for correspondence in North Vietnam. The Pulitzer Advisory Board overrode the recommendation in a 4-to-1 vote and announced Hughes as the winner.

Crossing the line
Kevin Carter won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography for a New York Times photo of “a starving Sudanese girl who collapsed on her way to a feeding center while a vulture waited nearby,” according to pulitzer.org. Carter came under fire for the photo and for not helping the girl. Two years after winning the Pulitzer, Carter died of an apparent suicide, the Times reported.

She made the whole thing up
Janet Cooke, a former reporter for The Washington Post, received the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for her article “Jimmy’s World,” the story of an 8-year-old heroin addict. It was later concluded that the story was fabricated. Cooke resigned, and the Post returned the award. The Pulitzer was later awarded to Teresa Carpenter of The Village Voice.

Banned book
John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize. While beloved by many now, the book initially was controversial, criticized and “publicly banned and burned by citizens” for promoting communist propaganda, according to the National Steinbeck Center website.

Too risqué
The drama jury nominated Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for the prize in 1963 but according to pulitzer.org, “The board found the script insufficiently ‘uplifting,’ a complaint that related to arguments over sexual permissiveness and rough dialogue.”

No angels
Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennial Approaches, a play about homosexuality in the initial days of the AIDS crisis when not much was known about transmission or “effective treatment,” was awarded the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for drama. The play included strong language, which would have cost prior playwrights the Pulitzer Prize.

The Pulitzer Prize may be journalism’s highest honor, but it has also been the subject of scandal and dispute
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