Since the Pulitzer Prize was first established in 1917 there have been 63 occasions in which it hasn’t been awarded. A shortage of worthy winners? No. In most cases there were too many good entries. According to the rules, if a competitor in any category fails to get a majority of the votes from the judges, the award may be withheld.
The only, and perhaps most controversial, exception to this rule happened in 1974. American writer Thomas Pynchon’s war novel Gravity’s Rainbow won the fiction category, with jurors picking it unanimously. But the prize board rejected the selection as some of its members thought the novel “obscene”.
Dubbed as ‘China’s Pulitzer’, the National News Awards have run since 1991, with nearly 300 prizes awarded annually to journalists. They too have criteria for disqualifying potential candidates. An entry is not eligible for the most prestigious awards should judges find a single typo. And if there is more than one grammatical error – even a redundant comma – an entry faces disqualification. As a result, eight of the top prizes for the 24th National News Awards were left without a winner when the results were announced recently.
“We have to pick from hundreds of millions of news items every year. It is completely unacceptable if an entry carries any flaw,” the president of All-China Journalists Association (ACJA) Tian Congming told Guangming Daily.
Tian was reacting to criticism that the National News Awards are less a recognition for journalistic excellence than for grammatical perfection. But surely the award-winning articles must be good enough to attract the attention of the nation’s budding reporters? On the contrary, journalism schools don’t even use them as lecture materials. This was revealed last year by a chief juror, who called for changes to the rules, warning that most of the accolades go to monotone pieces from state media.
The remark put the ACJA into the spotlight but it seems unperturbed, and this year awarded an overwhelming majority of the 283 prizes to state-controlled media outlets (again). None of the more market-oriented or outspoken media sources such as Century Weekly, 21CN Business Herald or Southern Weekend were included for consideration.
True to form, the four most prestigious “special prizes” were scooped up by media outlets reporting directly to the Party. One was an editorial by the People’s Daily titled “Safe-guarding the lifeline of the people’s Party”. And alongside that riveting read, a TV award went to state broadcaster CCTV for its flawless coverage of President Xi Jinping’s visit to Guizhou.
At least the photojournalism gongs were awarded for pictures that a few people might actually remember. Top prize went to Xinhua, for a photo featuring Xi in which the Chinese president is seen inspecting flood-stricken Wuhan, carrying his own umbrella and with his trousers rolled up above his ankles.
The runner-up is a photo of the disgraced Bo Xilai in handcuffs and under escort by two tall police officers (see WiC210).
The two shots aren’t likely to merit much of a murmur from the world’s top photographers. But as the Washington Post has noted, they provide a calculated view of “how modern China wants to present itself”.
That is, Bo has become a symbol of the culture of corruption that Xi – clearly a man of the people in ankles-and-umbrella terms – is trying to eradicate.
Further south in Hong Kong the winning photo got attention too, making a splash on social media. There, it was doctored by pro-democracy protesters, with Xi’s umbrella photoshopped into yellow to match the image that activists have adopted as their icon since occupying city streets in September.
“It’s a subtle twist on a subtle political message,” the Washington Post reckons.
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