Washington Post reporter Gene Weingarten, one of the funniest journalists I've ever read, won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing yesterday, honored for a piece in which world-class violinist Joshua Bell played incognito at a DC Metro station and drew little reaction among most of the philistine passers-by.

No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. ...

In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

It's an entertaining piece that's completely unworthy of a Pulitzer Prize because Weingarten engineered the entire stunt after seeing a talented keyboardist ignored in similar circumstances.

He was quite remarkably good, and no one seemed to be noticing him. He had maybe a buck or two in change in his open case.

I walked away kind of angry. I thought, "I bet Yo Yo Ma himself, if he were in disguise, couldn't get through to these deadheads." When I got to the office, I actually tried to reach Mr. Ma's agent.

Life intervened. Time went by, but this story idea always stayed with me. It was my friend Tim Page, The Post's brilliant classical music critic, who eventually suggested Joshua Bell.

Weingarten, who stumbled upon a decent feature story in that wrongly unappreciated keyboardist, made it a better one by recruiting a classical music virtuoso, picking a better location and staging hidden cameras and reporters to better capture reactions. Journalism, meet reality TV.

His story beat two others honored as finalists. Thomas Curwen of the Los Angeles Times wrote about two victims of a grizzly bear attack and Kevin Vaughan of the Rocky Mountain News wrote a 34-part series recalling a Greeley, Colo., school bus-train accident that killed 20 children in 1961.

Curwen did not recruit the bear. Vaughan wasn't born yet in 1961.

Twenty seven years ago, another reporter at the Post, Janet Cooke, won the same prize for a feature story about an eight-year-old heroin addict. Two days after winning she admitted the entire story was phony and there was no Jimmy.

Joshua Bell exists, but in its own way, Weingarten's Pulitzer-winning feature is just as fabricated as Cooke's.

-- Rogers Cadenhead

Comments

At least he was honest about it. Janet Cooke was not. I lived in DC at the time.


 

Sounds like someone might have almost earned a spot on our masthead...


 

You've accused Weingarten of "fabricating" an "unworthy" story, but you have failed to explain what is dishonest or fraudulent about what Weingarten did. You did explain that it was different from the other Pulitzer finalists in that Weingarten set up the situation as a kind of social psychology experiment, rather than merely observing things happening around him.

But you forgot to explain why you think setting up social psychology experiments and then writing about them is similar to lying, and you forgot to explain why you thought they were unworthy subjects to be written about.


 

I didn't say it was dishonest -- the piece makes clear it was set up by The Post and Weingarten did not hide this fact from anybody. I said it was phony. I looked back at past feature writing Pulitzer winners and can't find any that were contrived by the writer to create an interesting situation.


 

so if you couldn't find any others that were contrived, how is this "another" phony pulitzer?


 

It's your ludicrous comparison that's phony. Weingarten was transparent about his methods. His story was thoughtful and learned. It found suspense in sociology. Best of all, it expanded my idea of what newspaper journalism can do. In an age when newspapers are under attack from all quarters, we should be encouraging this kind of dazzling creativity -- not clucking that it's "phony."


 

Way out of hand to somehow suggest that this award is as fabricated as Cooke's. Just nuts. Stop it. Weingarten is a completely worthy recipient of a Pulitzer; I happen to believe that the Joshua Bell story wasn't his best--that distinction belongs to the "Peekaboo Paradox," the amazing feature he wrote about toddler entertainer Eric Knauss. That was among the best features ever constructed.


 

"In an age when newspapers are under attack from all quarters, we should be encouraging this kind of dazzling creativity -- not clucking that it's "phony.""

Oh please, Casey. As the newspaper of record in our nation's capitol, with all of the dark corners that need light shed upon them, I do not want the Post wasting its resources writing diddies about violin players. And you wonder why public trust of the mainstream dinosaur media is dropping like Bill Clinton's pants in an elevator full of pre-pubescent girls.


 

If this was a news story, I could see the outrage. But it's a features piece. It did what good feature writing can do: it illuminated a facet of modern life, that in the midst of all this material and artistic plenty, how few people could stop to recognize beauty when it stuck under their noses. Perhaps next time someone who read this hears music in the subway, they'll take a moment to enjoy it and reflect. Not having read the other stories you cited, it's hard to imagine a retelling of a tragic bus accident or bear attack could have the same effect.

I think you're getting some kind of outrage fatigue. I am seeing increasingly strident reactions to things that don't warrant that kind of treatment.


 

I believe what this author failed to recognize, but the committee did recognize was that this was not just a stunt for purposes of being a stunt. Weingarten expanded the feature into a story about "framing" - bringing back into depate the question of recognizing value outside of where we are supposed to.

The story could have used a Smithsonian painting at an antiques market/yard sale and accomplished the same thing (although it might have been more difficult to let a masterpiece be in the open than a musician). A story about recognizing greatness, however would not have had the same effect without the "stunt." It was a necessary part of the article and drew me in to read and ponder the entire question.


 

I must agree with Hunter above. That this was a stunt was the very premise of the piece, so "fabrication" is hysterical, in the sense of nuttily overinflated. The point is whether the piece transcended the stunt and of course it did. The two other finalists referenced wrote superb stories--I read both authors' work--and I'm not sure I would have gone along with the Weingarten prize. But maybe I would have. Maybe the originality, the spark of inspiration, deserves to be recognized. It was a brilliant idea well carried out that will change how we all think about the ways in which what we see is colored by critical and mass acclaim. the larger point is how little we notice and respond to in life. To bring in janet Cooke is just, excuse me, wayward to the point of perversity.


 

fabricate:

1. to make by art or skill and labor; construct: The finest craftspeople fabricated this clock.
2. to make by assembling parts or sections.
3. to devise or invent (a legend, lie, etc.).
4. to fake; forge (a document, signature, etc.).

It's interesting to see how many people object to the word fabricate being applied to this piece, considering the meanings of the word. Many good things can be said of the article, but it still remains true that it's fabricated. Fake is fake. Janet Cooke's story was secretly fake; Weingarten's was openly fake.

I think journalism loses something by rewarding inventive fakery with this particular Pulitzer Prize, an honor that's been given thus far to reporters who wrote about situations as they found them, not situations they'd like to see occur.

Columbia University, in the widely quoted announcement of the winners, did not reveal that Weingarten engineered the events of his story. They said he won "for his chronicling of a world-class violinist who, as an experiment, played beautiful music in a subway station filled with unheeding commuters," which makes it sound like Joshua Bell's idea. Did they think that revealing otherwise would make it seem fake?

Reporting facts in a compelling narrative as a feature story is difficult. The reporters who do this well should not have to compete with writers who stage events to tell a good story.


 

Instead of giving your last response an air of academic credibility, the citing of the Merriam-Webster definition of "fabricate" simply makes you appear more knuckleheaded than ever. None of those definitions apply to Gene's wonderful story. Yes, it was a social experiment of sorts, and yes, it was conceived by Mr. Weingarten and yes, it was fantastic feature writing.

I'd suggest getting your head out from among the trees and seeing the larger forest. Weingarten's piece was so thought-provoking and innovative that I vividly recall wanting to cry upon finishing. (People say this all the time as a figure of speech but for me, the feeling was quite real.) I've also noticed that so much of the negative reaction has come from folks who seem to be a little ambivalent (bitter?) over the fact that they would have kept walking past Mr. Bell.

Finally, as previous posters have already pointed out, by mentioning Janet Cooke you really sap any validity your cranky post might otherwise have had. ("Wayward to the point of peversity" says it best.) As someone who worked with Jack Kelley at USA Today for many years--and was with him when he wrote a big-ass lie--I can assure you that you're not even in the right universe on this one.

Kudo's to the Pulitzer committee for recognizing a completely unique piece of feature writing.


 

As someone who worked with Jack Kelley at USA Today for many years -- and was with him when he wrote a big-ass lie -- I can assure you that you're not even in the right universe on this one.

Fake is fake even if it makes you cry. In my opinion, Weingarten's violin stunt doesn't comes close to the emotional impact of his feature on the Great Zucchini.

Since you brought Kelley up, I looked for more information and found your blog entry about him, in which you witnessed him faking a quote and, if I understand correctly, didn't rat him out. Here's an excerpt:

I worked with Jack Kelley for many years, and like most folks at USA Today, liked him very much. His aw shucks Opie Taylor personality was instantly disarming. But I was also with Jack when he committed a bold and outright lie, a lie so big that I could only scratch my head in disbelief the next day.

Many years ago, I was with Jack on a cover story about the International Red Cross. The gist of the series was that newly uncovered documents showed that the Red Cross knew much more -- and much earlier-- about Nazi concentration camps in World War II than they had ever admitted. As luck would have it, the head of the Red Cross was in from Switzerland that week, giving a talk at the National Press Club on an unrelated issue. We planned to "ambush" him after the talk to see if he might make a comment.

Hours earlier, in a coffee shop outside the shops at National Place, Jack and I chatted with the public relations officer of the Red Cross. His boss, the president of the organization wouldn't arrive for several more hours. Because of my family interest in the Holocaust, I asked him about the Red Cross and the plight of the Jews. He said something like, Look, it's not like we were the cavalry, riding in to the rescue. Good quote, I thought.

A few hours later, we waited for the Red Cross president's talk to end. As he entered an elevator, Jack asked him point blank about the concentration camps, as I tried to squeeze off a few frames. Clearly steamed, he responded with something like "Absolutely ridiculous," and the doors of the elevator closed. Imagine my surprise then, when the next day, high up in the story, the president of the International Red Cross was going on about--you guessed it--riding in like the cavalry.

Compared to Jack's later fabrications, this may seem like a minor incident, which is pretty much what Jack said, years later when confronted about it. But it shouldn't be dismissed so quickly. Jack's need to spice up an otherwise boring reaction -- "absolutely ridiculous" clearly didn't strike his fancy -- is key.

Where do you think the temptation to spice things up comes from, Matt? Weingarten had a good feature in that overlooked keyboardist and could perhaps have done as much with him as he did an obscure children's entertainer. Instead, he concocted an engrossing bit of celebrity-enhanced stagecraft and won a Pulitzer for it, and I wonder what it says to the next generation of journalists, who are inheriting a profession thoroughly discredited by the charlatans in our generation.

I guess I should regard the transition from secret fakery to admitted fakery as progress.


 

"Since you brought Kelley up, I looked for more information and found your blog entry about him, in which you witnessed him faking a quote and, if I understand correctly, didn't rat him out."

Rogers:

Don't be a smarty pants if you don't know what you're talking about. You do not understand correctly. I DID go to the editors of USA Today the very next day after that fake quote appeared and told them that something wasn't kosher in Jack's story. Sadly though, as I was but a contract photographer at the time and Jack was a superstar, the conversation went nowhere. (USA Today was on a "no corrections" crusade when it happened and ended up telling the Red Cross that they'd guarantee a letter to the editor instead of running a correction. At least that's what I was told.)

I repeat once again: your repeated use of terms like fakery and fabricate (even "stunt" is mean spirited) with regards to Gene Weingarten's fantastic and utterly transparent piece, not to mention your attempt to take an old blog entry of mine about journalistic frauds and turn it into supporting evidence in your favor, is downright silly.


 

I misunderstood what you meant by saying he was confronted "years later." Thanks for clarifying that. It's a shame your complaint was disregarded.

If you're not even going to grant me the word "stunt" -- which Weingarten himself used in the followup chat -- there's really no way I can talk about it at all.


 

Well, so as to not to appear too blowhardish, I will grant you use of "stunt," since, as you say, Weingarten himself used it.

And to end this on a light note, I will tell you a funny Great Zucchini story. Not many people can claim, after all, to have both a Jack Kelley AND a Great Zucchini story in their memory banks.

A couple of years ago I was shooting a wedding. The bride's sister had hired The Great Zucchini to keep the kids occupied during lunch. I knew him by virtue of being at countless kids parties where had performed. But this time it was after the Weingarten story had run and I was asking him how things had changed in the months since the story appeared.

As he started to tell me, the bride's sister--ever-aware of his newfound celebrity--came rushing in and said," Oh my god, Great Zucchini, did anyone get you something to eat?" He said no and off she went. Minutes later she returned with a huge plate of food for him and not a thing for me, as if I was invisible.

I laughed as I realized I had just been turned into chopped liver by none other than The Great Zucchini.


 

Some of you need to calm the eff down. Rogers is bemused, not cranky (if I may speak for him). Relax. It's simple journalistic ethics (you are NOT part of the story, reporter guy, nor should you be), and just because you were entertained doesn't make it Pulitzer-worthy.

It's a good story, and I don't personally have a problem with setting up the premise. But Pulitzer? Honky please.


 

"(you are NOT part of the story, reporter guy, nor should you be..."

Unless, of course, you're writing a really fantastic magazine piece in which you are part of the story. Which rule book are you reading from?


 

I was taught the business by an old, cigar-chomping curmudgeon from the age of lead type, so I may be old-fashioned in that respect. But that was drilled into me and my fellow students and it always made sense. Being part of the story is Geraldo's game, and every time I read a magazine piece, fantastic or otherwise, where the reporter is part of the story I cringe. Journalism, even feature journalism, is best when the writer stays out of it. One's personal opinions and biases are hindrances to objectivity, which is pretty much the whole point of good, and certainly Pulitzer-worthy, journalism.


 

If that article was worthy of a Pulitzer, then so is every Tyra Banks talk show stunt where she puts on a fat suit and sees how "ordinary people on the street" treat her when she's not "model pretty." It also makes every episode of "Punk'd" eligible. It's all the same thing - let's play a prank on the public (or a celebrity).

I'm not saying whether that kind of thing deserves a Pulitzer (it's an award that no one outside of the newspaper world gives a damn about anyway); I'm just saying that the prank genre includes everything from that Wash Post article to "Candid Camera." Distribute awards as you will.


 

No one brought up the most salient point: it doesn't matter what the article's about, it's about how it's written. You or I could have pulled the same stunt with Joshua Bell, but we probably wouldn't have written it as well as Weingarten did.

A good feature writer can take a story about any random person or thing and make it interesting and readable. That's what feature writing is all about. It's the way it's done, not the subject.


 

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