CAMBRIDGE — For many journalists, novelists, playwrights, poets, and composers over the past century, winning the Pulitzer Prize has been a career-capping honor.
For many more who have been nominated but have not won, the Pulitzer has floated just beyond reach, an elusive dream that has given rise to that most nagging of all questions: “What if?’’
So perhaps it’s fitting that Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, is leading a major celebration of the Pulitzer centennial this weekend. As a young investigative reporter at the Chicago Tribune in the late 1980s, Lipinski tasted the disappointment of losing a Pulitzer and the elation of winning one — on the very same day.
While the Pulitzers can be seen today as a symbol of continuity in a time of relentless upheaval in the news business, the speakers and performers lined up this weekend also speak to the award’s multidisciplinary breadth.
At the Nieman-hosted centennial event at Sanders Theatre, which will be introduced Saturday by Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust and is organized around the theme of “Power: Accountability and Abuse,’’ a conversation about holding government accountable will feature Bob Woodward, who broke the Watergate story (with Washington Post colleague Carl Bernstein) that toppled President Richard M. Nixon; documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, who directed the Oscar-winning “Citizenfour,’’ about Edward Snowden and revelations of NSA spying; and New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet.
Composer-trumpeter Wynton Marsalis — whose oratorio “Blood on the Fields,’’ about a couple’s journey from freedom to slavery, was the first jazz composition to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music — will talk about the expressive elements of jazz, such as what he calls “self-projection,’’ and the larger meaning of those elements. “You make a statement and you put your name to it,’’ Marsalis explained in a telephone interview, articulating what amounts to the goal of many other artists, and quite a few journalists as well.
Historian Robert Caro, author of a multi-volume biography of President Lyndon B. Johnson, will delve into questions of “power and the powerless.’’ Novelist Junot Diaz will read from his “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.’’ Playwright Lynn Nottage will introduce a scene from her drama “Ruined,’’ about the struggles and resilience of women targeted during wartime in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In a previously videotaped interview, Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the blockbuster bio-musical “Hamilton,’’ will talk with Lipinski about the ways that dramatists can address history.
Also engaging in what Lipinski calls “very personal talks about their work’’ — and about the values that inform that work — will be such journalistic luminaries as Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson; Julia Keller, a former cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune; Mary Jordan, a national correspondent for the Washington Post; Sacha Pfeiffer, a reporter at the Globe who was part of the Spotlight team that exposed widespread sexual abuse by Catholic priests; Globe associate editor Stan Grossfeld, a two-time winner for photography; and Sara Ganim, a CNN correspondent.
“The Pulitzers are, every year, this kind of snapshot of national excellence, or American achievement, in journalism and the arts,’’ Lipinski says in an interview at Lippmann House, the headquarters of the Nieman Foundation. “You have poets and playwrights and investigative reporters and historians and novelists all being celebrated for their achievements. It just opens up the possibility for conversations that are really rich.’’
On Sunday, the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Pulitzer centennial event will culminate with a performance by the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra of John Adams’s composition “On the Transmigration of Souls,’’ conducted by Federico Cortese and featuring the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and Voices Boston.
All events are free, but separate tickets to each are required.
The Nieman event will be the fourth and final major gathering to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prizes
First awarded in 1917 (for work done in 1916; hence, the centennial), the Pulitzers are administered by Columbia University. The prizes grew out of provisions in the will left by Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The who’s-who of winners include John F. Kennedy, who won a Pulitzer for “Profiles in Courage’’ several years before he became president.
During its long history, the Pulitzers have responded, sometime belatedly, to change. For instance, online-only news organizations became eligible for the prizes in 2009. For many years the music awards went only to composers of classical music, giving the cold shoulder to jazz until Marsalis’s breakthrough in 1997 with “Blood on the Fields.’’
“I didn’t look at it as a kind of validation of jazz or anything,’’ Marsalis asserted in the Globe interview. “Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and all the millions of fans they had all around the world: That was validation. The work itself is a validation.’’
Lipinski agrees with that latter statement. She’s experienced the vagaries of Pulitzer glory firsthand. Back in 1988, she and Dean Baquet — then, like her, a reporter at the Chicago Tribune — had teamed up with William Gaines for a series of stories on municipal corruption. On the day the Pulitzer winners were to be announced, the Trib’s editor told the reporters that an advance list of the winners had been leaked, and they were not on it.
A few hours later, she stood at a colleague’s computer terminal to see the Associated Press roster of winners, but the balky computer was unable to keep up with the list. Suddenly, applause began to ripple throughout the Trib’s newsroom. Lipinski thought to herself: “Is someone retiring today? Is it a cake day?”
Nope. It turned out that the editor’s source was wrong. Lipinski and her two colleagues were Pulitzer winners after all. “I lost and won that day,’’ Lipinski remarks, adding wryly: “Not a comma in [her stories] changed from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.’’ Lipinski would go on to become the first female editor in the Tribune’s history, and then, in 2011, the first woman named curator of the Nieman Foundation.
A lot has changed in the news business since that day in 1988; journalism now increasingly wears a multimedia face. “What’s really complicated, something the board does need to figure out, is how do you hang on to the primacy of the word, and the importance of that, at the same time that you’re recognizing excellence in an industry where the blending of the written and the visual is now sometimes seamless,’’ says Lipinski.
“Where does the written word stop and the video start? And what do you call this piece?’’ she adds. “I think that’s a challenge for the board to figure out in this second century.’’
Tickets to “Power: Accountability and Abuse’’ can be reserved at www.nieman.harvard.edu/sites/the-pulitzer-centennial/tickets.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.