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Wesley Lowery Breaches Pulitzer Etiquette–Good!

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An item in Monday’s Politico Playbook seemed scientifically designed to drive older journalists insane:

Good Monday morning. AND WE HAVE A WINNER … ? Washington Post national reporter Wesley Lowery jubilantly told friends at a party this weekend that he and a Post team (or perhaps the paper institutionally) will win a Pulitzer Prize today; he worked on the team project “Fatal Force,” about deadly police shootings. Pulitzers (to be announced at 3 p.m.) used to be shrouded in secrecy. Lowery explained that Pulitzer sources gave an informal heads-up to some winning organizations so they can order champagne, and then editors told him. Lowery says the N.Y. Times also won.

The party in question was held Saturday night at the Shaw house of Daily Beast deputy social media editor Asawin Suebsaeng, and the guest list, according to screenshots I saw of a private Facebook page for the event, included journalists from Politico, the Washington Free Beacon, and, yes, the Washington Post. The party was called “The Dance-Party & Beer Bong ‘Make America Bae Again’ #YOLOmageddon (2016).” 

Lowery, probably wisely, didn’t reply to a request for comment, but several people at the event confirmed to Washingtonian that they heard him say the same things Playbook reported, and that plans were afoot for celebrations Monday night (though, since the publication of Playbook’s item, those celebrations may take a ruefully meta tone).

Reached by phone, Suebsaeng was reluctant to talk about specific events at the party but did confirm that the Facebook page I saw was legitimate and that he and his roommates distributed “Make America Bae Again” hats. “Yes, Wesley Lowery was there, as were other journalists,” Suebsaeng says. “We made America Bae Again. It was fun.”

So, yay, hats. But to the issue of leaking a Pulitzer Prize win, good for Wesley Lowery. Pulitzer leaks used to be one of the only fun and redeeming things about the annual prizes, which as Jack Shafer wrote last year, are based on criteria that couldn’t be charted by the most sensitive journalism oscilloscope:

How can you honestly judge a piece of journalism against others unless they all cover the same subject? Even then, it would be a stretch. To fully appreciate this arbitrariness, try reading the winning entry from the 2014 “ Explanatory Reporting“ category and then read the two finalists back to back. Is there a feather-measure of quality separating them?

But the Pulitzers cracked down on leaks, and news orgs are usually happy to play along with such rules (at the very least, a head’s up, should it exist, would indeed make sure no one got stuck with a lot of Champagne that tastes bitterly of disappointment). At the Post, Lowery, who has a large social media presence and a habit of actually saying what he thinks, has always been something of a controversial presence–a big change from people who followed the old-school code of conduct, in which journalists aver in public that they hold no opinions of their own. After I wrote about Lowery last year, I heard critiques of Lowery from a number of older Post journalists. The idea of him swanning around breaking yet another Eleventh Commandment at a party at Shaw is sure to play into the narrative that he’s a lightweight, a punk, someone who’s mastered Twitter but still doesn’t get it.

But the interesting thing here is that the Pulitzers are kind of designed as a form of journalistic deodorant. Most years, the prizes make a point of honoring people outside of the big coastal newspapers, honoring the public service of the Charleston, South Carolina, Post and Courier alongside investigations in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, for instance.

So congrats to Lowery and the Post squad, if indeed congrats are due, and to the other winners and finalists. No matter who wins, the Pulitzers tend to honor excellent work. But a group of people who make their living prying secrets out of others have no obligation to keep their own–especially when it comes to the Pulitzers. Because let’s face it, like this breach of etiquette and the story you’re reading, the prizes, and the mystery around them, are pretty much of interest only to journalists. It was gonna get out anyway. Who cares who broke it!

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.