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Pulitzers for Nothing

eye on the news

Pulitzers for Nothing

The award says more about the state of mainstream journalism than about the NYPD. April 18, 2012

The Pulitzer Prizes made more than their usual share of news this year. The literary and publishing world erupted in fury on Monday when the committee announced that, for the first time in 35 years, it had not selected a winner for fiction. “Perhaps it is the end of the world,” MTV Books tweeted, only half in jest. Newspapers and other mainstream publications were also stunned by the awarding of the coveted prizes to reporters for the Huffington Post and Politico, two online outlets—signs of the altered media scene.

But this year’s awards were anomalous for a more important reason: the Pulitzer jury’s decision to bestow its prize for investigative journalism on four Associated Press reporters for a year-long series of articles that allegedly revealed what the news agency called “wholesale surveillance of places where Muslims eat, shop, work and pray” by the New York Police Department as part of its counterterrorism program. The AP’s own story on the prize credited its four reporters—Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman, Eileen Sullivan, and Chris Hawley—with revealing that Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly had built “an aggressive domestic intelligence program after the Sept. 11 attacks that put Muslim businesses, mosques and student groups under scrutiny.”

In more than 30 articles, the AP claimed to have “documented” that police “systematically spied on Muslim neighborhoods, listened in on sermons, infiltrated colleges, and photographed law-abiding residents.” The NYPD, the agency asserted breathlessly, had spied on “individuals and groups” even when there was “no evidence they were linked to terrorism or crime.” The department had built its program with aid from the Central Intelligence Agency, whose former chief of operations had helped design and implement it, along with a former senior CIA operative. The subtext was that the NYPD’s monitoring was illegal, unconstitutional, and unnecessary—an infringement on Muslims’ civil rights and an outrageous example of religious and ethnic profiling.

But the series itself failed to document such illegality or over-the-top conduct. Moreover, the department’s assertions that its surveillance efforts were legal and its explanations about how the program worked were invariably given short shrift, buried in the AP’s flurries of unsupported allegations. Never mind that the series failed to find a single individual whose professional or religious life had been harmed by the police department’s efforts to protect the city and its residents from another catastrophic terrorist attack. Of course the threat of terrorism is no excuse to run roughshod over civil liberties, and questions should be asked about how the NYPD’s program has been implemented and overseen. But the AP articles offer no evidence that the NYPD’s efforts to understand communities in which terrorists are more likely to hide and recruit have violated anyone’s civil rights.

Attorney General Eric Holder has abetted the AP in what the New York Post calls its “year-long, non-stop hit-job” on the NYPD. Holder said that he was “troubled” by the news agencies’ allegations—but he wasn’t troubled enough to pick up the phone and discuss the program with Commissioner Kelly or Mayor Mike Bloomberg, both of whom have adamantly defended the program and the department’s conduct. A Department of Justice “review” of the NYPD program prompted by 34 congressional requests is apparently turning up little. Ditto the CIA’s internal inquiry, prompted in part by the AP’s constant requests for comment on its own stories. The CIA review concluded that the agency hadn’t broken any laws and hadn’t engaged in domestic spying. Its sole criticism was that the agency had failed to supervise adequately an officer assigned to the NYPD. Shocking!

Say one thing for the Pulitzer jury: its timing was exquisite. As its prizes were announced, the trial of three homegrown Muslim militants accused of trying to carry out the most serious assault on the city since 9/11 got under way in a federal courthouse in Brooklyn. On Monday, one of the confessed terrorists, Zarein Ahmedzay, testified that the three young men, all former classmates at a high school in Queens, had considered bombing movie theaters, Grand Central Terminal, and Times Square before deciding in 2009 on a suicide mission in the subway. On Tuesday, Najibullah Zazi, the plot’s mastermind, told the court that he had grown to believe that the force behind 9/11 was “America itself.” The third member of the group—Adis Medunjanin, the only one to deny the charges—says that he didn’t want to carry out a suicide mission in the subway; he only wanted to defend innocent Muslims from American soldiers fighting abroad. Medunjanin, who attended Queens College, had been active in the Muslim Student Association, by the way—one of the organizations that the AP criticized the NYPD for monitoring.

Even the Pulitzer panel could not bring itself to echo the AP’s baseless suggestions of NYPD illegality. In its citation, it credited the AP with “spotlighting” the NYPD’s “spying program,” noting that it had resulted in “congressional calls for a federal investigation, and a debate over the proper role of domestic intelligence gathering.” That’s not the way most New Yorkers see it. A recent Quinnipiac poll showed overwhelming support for both the NYPD’s efforts—which have helped thwart 14 terrorist plots against the city, police say—and its methods. The poll shows that 58 percent of New Yorkers disagree with the AP’s claim that the NYPD “has unfairly targeted Muslims.” Over 80 percent call the NYPD “effective in combating terrorism.”

Most New Yorkers saw the AP campaign for what it was: manufactured news that played to left-wing stereotypes about police and law enforcement excesses. And as the New York Post suggested, the prize says more about the state of mainstream journalism than about the NYPD. Fortunately, New Yorkers don’t depend on either the AP or the Pulitzer jury to keep their city safe.

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