What are rewards for?, by Ted Rall

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What are the rewards for? More specifically, what should are they for?

John McWhorter recently argued in The New York Times for a retroactive Pulitzer Prize for Duke Ellington, who was snubbed for the Journalism and Arts Prize in 1965. My encyclopedic ignorance of jazz allows me to have no opinion on this attempt to raise a publish.

One sentence from McWhorter’s essay, however, deserves special attention: “We suppose that the Pulitzers are awarded for work that qualifies for the ages, that pushes the boundaries, that suggests not only intelligence but also genius. “

Do we really assume that?

Should we?

When Pulitzer’s Board of Trustees or the governing body of other major awards like the Oscars, Emmys, Tonys, etc. decides who receives an award, what message is it trying to send?

I agree with McWhorter. A prize for the best of the year must first and foremost reward the best work in this category. A second consideration – in my opinion, obviously – should promote transformative, original, different work. Judging by the lists of previous winners, however, some people disagree, especially those who decide the winners of these contests.

While the media is obsessed with awards and prizes for their elite comrades, such competitions are part of life in all walks of life, from elementary school best citizen awards to 4-H contests to employee of the month merit badges at a fast food joint at your boss’s annual interview. They determine whether or not you get a raise, sometimes whether you keep your job or get fired, and even whether people are shocked or just shrug their shoulders after you kill yourself. Rewards and prizes are key elements of human motivation under capitalism, of which the pursuit of higher relative social status is a main driver, perhaps the main one.

Like most of my fellow doodlers, I’ve spent too much time and energy crippling – still unsuccessfully – attribution decisions for two simple reasons. First of all, earning one can really help your career. When I started, the newspapers were reluctant to take up my cartoons, drawn in a brutalist style that broke with the dominant norm, hatched and ideologically very left of my colleagues. Establishing the imprimatur of the 1995 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award made enough editors feel safe directing my work, which allowed me to quit my day job. Second, we seek to assign ads to get some indication of what kind of work the powers that be expect of us. The conservative cartoonists, who have passed the liberals year after year, do not believe without reason that their work is neither valued nor sought after.

As a judge on several award committees (not the Pulitzers), I have been involved in many discussions about the criteria to be applied in judging the worthiness of award nominees. I also rapturously absorbed countless second-hand accounts of the proceedings inside the hallowed halls of Columbia University’s Journalism Building, where the Pulitzers are administered.

(Earlier this year, Columbia eliminated the Pulitzer for editorial cartooning, merging it with a category so broad that the chance a political cartoonist could win was so drastically reduced that there’s no longer any reason to walk in.)

My experiences as a judge have convinced me that overly human members of award committees are incapable of rendering anything close to a reasonable decision. Very few judges have the in-depth knowledge of the field that they consider necessary to do their job. Almost none have historical context that informs the relevance of what they are looking at. The highest superficial factors – this made me laugh; the art is pretty – on more serious concerns such as: does it make you think? Does it make you think differently? Does it take the shape of a new, exciting and better direction? Does this award encourage smarter work or, as is too often the case, discourage it?

Seymour Topping, former Pulitzer Prize administrator, vetoed my elevation from runner-up to winner on the grounds that “(Rall) doesn’t draw like other editorial cartoonists.” The same year, one of the RFK judges told me that I had won because my drawing style was different. Both decisions were stupid.

So what are the rewards for? They are primarily aimed at reinforcing the status quo. For example, the common practice of judging previous winners of a contest provides stylistic continuity.

Rewards are a dumb idea poorly executed. People win prizes to make up for being left behind in previous years, even if other, younger creators are now better than them. Corruption is endemic. Committees don’t bother to look at some entries. Committee members ask other members to vote for their friends and drinking buddies. Sometimes there is haggling in order to fairly distribute the prizes between the winners affiliated with different employers. Even worse than corruption is the total lack of qualifications of those who make the decisions; among the Pulitzer cartoon makers are a freelance technology editor and editors for newspapers that do not publish cartoons.

Although I have won awards and still apply – you have to play along – I would delete them. Unlike sports like track and field and basketball, where the measurements are simple – either you cross the finish line first, or the ball goes through the hoop, or not – journalism and the arts are subjective. I can disagree with the Motion Picture Academy’s choice of the now-forgotten ‘Ed Wood’ over Tarantino’s Gen X masterpiece ‘Pulp Fiction’ and give Milli Vanilli a Grammy over the other Tone nominees. Loc and the Indigo Girls. But it’s a safe bet that the voters who made those calls are rating the film and the music, and who should be winning awards for it, through different metrics than I do. Even if it were possible to objectively determine what is “best”, raising one person at the expense of an entire field is toxic and disheartening.

But the contests aren’t going anywhere. So we should try to agree on what it means when someone or something is declared the best of its kind.

Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, co-hosts the left-vs-right podcast DMZ America with fellow cartoonist Scott Stantis. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.

Photo credit: AxxLC at Pixabay

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