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The downside to the Pulitzer Prize

Washington Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli, left, and Gene Weingarten are pictured in the newsroom Monday after the win.

Washington Post

Washington Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli, left, and Gene Weingarten are pictured in the newsroom Monday after the win.

On Monday, the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing was awarded for the second time in three years to Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post. Weingarten is a humor columnist whose work is published each week on Page 2 in Floridian. But the story that won the Pulitzer was a devastating look at parents who forgot their babies and toddlers in cars, causing their deaths, and the agonizing personal and legal trauma that followed. "Fatal Distraction" was excerpted in Floridian in March. • Weingarten led an online chat last week with washingtonpost.com readers. The beginning of that conversation is excerpted here. He describes, as only he can, what it's like to win journalism's highest prize. To read his winning work, go to pulitzer.org. Kelley Benham, Times staff writer

Gene Weingarten: Good afternoon.

Many people might wonder what a typical person might feel like winning the biggest prize in his profession, something that for many becomes a life-changing event. I wonder, too! I can only tell you what a complete neurotic feels like at such a moment. The following is a prioritized catalogue of the emotions that rose to the surface yesterday.

1. Abject shame. I am proud of the winning story for several reasons, the biggest of which is that there is a chance that it will save some young lives. So, on one hand, there is that: Saved babies. But on the other hand, there is this: Several weeks ago, re-reading the story for an anthology of my works coming out this summer from Simon & Schuster, I noticed that in the 81st paragraph, I had written this sentence: "In other types of cases, there is a history of prior neglect, or evidence of substance abuse."

"History of prior neglect" is a dreadful redundancy. That "prior" should not be there. From the moment I saw that, those were the only words in the story that had any meaning for me, and in my mind it was in blinking neon. The headline of the story was no longer "Fatal Distraction," it was "History of Prior Neglect," which suddenly seemed to sum up my life.

I began to pray that this story not win the Pulitzer and thus expose my incompetence to international scrutiny. As the day approached, I felt like Janet Cooke must have felt. When the prize was announced, I became certain that my obituary in the Washington Post will begin: "Gene Weingarten, who once shamed this newspaper by winning a Pulitzer Prize for an article containing an egregious redundancy . . ."

2. Profound Mortification. I resolved to deliver my newsroom speech without notes, which turned out to be a mistake. I'd intended to speak at length about my deep respect for the courage of the 13 parents who agreed to be interviewed for this story — people who had nothing to gain except more humiliation and harsh judgments from a public that demonizes them rather than face the terrifying fact that this could happen to anyone. What I forgot to mention was WHY these people cooperated with me: the noble, frail, beautiful hope that by sharing their shame and pain, they might prevent this from happening to someone else. Without saying this, basically, I seemed to be congratulating them for having the incredible wisdom to share their stories with me so I could nail a Pulitzer.

3. Feelings of Utter Inadequacy. Journalists who have closely followed the Pulitzers (read: all journalists) understand that on some level, it is a bit of a crapshoot. There's a lot of winnowing by committee, and committee work can be imperfect. The majority of winners are deserving, but some works — objectively measured against others that did not even become finalists — seem comparatively weak. In short, deep down we all know that in this process, luck matters. So when you DO win, there is lurking suspicion that maybe you did not deserve it; this suspicion is only compounded by the central irony of the situation — that to others, a Pulitzer is taken as an immutable validation of your talent. As a result, in the center of your being, you harbor the deep suspicion that you are an impostor, a poseur, a craven fraud, a person to be secretly loathed.

I will admit this might not be a completely universal phenomenon; when I expressed this sentiment yesterday to David Finkel and Dana Priest, both Pulitzer winners, they gave each other nervous sidelong glances, as one might do in the presence of a dotty aunt, and slowly backed away. So, maybe it's just me.

4. Paralyzing Remorse. After the Pulitzer newsroom ceremony, there is a champagne party, filled with friends and colleagues joyfully celebrating your achievement in a gracious and collegial fashion. I hate it. I have a dreadful social dysfunction that makes me fear and dread all social events, which means that, basically, I spent an hour in extreme discomfort until I stealthily exited the room with my wife, like that saboteur who has left a bomb behind the sofa, only with a greater sense of guilt.

5. Intimations of Obsolescence, Irrelevancy, and Death. Of all yesterday's journalism winners, I appear to be the oldest. Kathleen Parker, oddly, does not give her age, anywhere, but she LOOKS a lot younger than me. (All the rest of the winners are, basically, children.)

Word for Word is an occasional feature excerpting passages of interest from books, magazines, Web sites and other sources. The text may be edited for space but the original spelling, grammar and punctuation are unchanged.

The downside to the Pulitzer Prize 04/17/10 [Last modified: Saturday, April 17, 2010 2:38am]

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