In 1965, the Pulitzer Prize music committee voted to award not a full Pulitzer, but a special “Miss Congeniality”-style citation to Duke Ellington for his exceptional body of work, but the full Pulitzer board vetoed their decision. It was an ugly, possibly racist episode that goes entirely unmentioned in Kirk Simon’s ridiculously sanitized puff piece, The Pulitzer at 100, which screens during DOC NYC 2016.
It is doubly ironic that Simon whitewashes the Ellington snub because nearly every other journalistic story, play, and novel discussed in the doc addresses one subject: American racism. Yes, the legacy of slavery is evil and still very much part of our national psyche. However, if you thought the American traditions of religious liberty and freedom of the press also partly define our national character than Simon and his talking heads beg to differ with your racist preconceptions, you knuckle-dragging cretin.
P@100 has about fifteen minute’s worth of interesting material regarding Joseph Pulitzer and his more democratic, blue collar approach to journalism. It is also nice to hear from music winners Wynton Marsalis and John Adams. Unfortunately, the history of the awards is conspicuously selective. In addition to ignoring the Ellington insult, Simon sweeps under the rug the notorious Janet Cooke affair, in which the Washington Post staffer was awarded a Pulitzer for a wholly fabricated story about a child drug addict.
Arguably, the deliberate omission of Walter Duranty controversy is even more pernicious. Despite cravenly denying the very real horrors and famine of the Stalinist era USSR, Duranty won a Pulitzer for his dispatches from Soviet Russia. Today, the New York Times no longer stands behind his reports, but they have taken the perverse position they will only return his Pulitzer if the awards committee revokes it. To date, that has not happened.