The 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Public Relations

The envelope, please ... and the Pulitzer goes to -- Environmental Defense!

And in echoing Environmental Defense's misstatements about how supposedly inexpensive and unobtrusive it would be to tear down the O'Shaughnessy Dam that created the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, the Bee violated tenet two. It's not difficult to find experts with knowledge of the Hetch Hetchy system -- and with no particular political ax to grind -- to explain, in crushing detail, why draining Hetch Hetchy would, in fact, be a very complicated and expensive undertaking.

Given that the spreading of pseudo-news and the successful planting of exaggeration are hallmarks of a good publicist, we believe Witherspoon deserves nothing but praise. Sadly, the Pulitzer committee hasn't seen fit to credit her.

Philp's series began with an August 2004 editorial, building on information included in a 2002 opinion piece, that cited a technical-sounding treatise making the exaggerated claim that draining Hetch Hetchy would be cheaper and less obtrusive than commonly thought. The reservoir holds water from the Tuolumne River in the lower Sierra Nevada and has supplied water to San Francisco since the 1920s under federal license.

Subsequent editorials explored the premise that San Franciscans are environmental hypocrites for not draining the valley; the Beepieces also invented an imaginary conversation with naturalist John Muir, in which he discusses restoring the valley. News sections in the Sacramento Bee and Modesto Bee, both owned by Philp's employer, McClatchy Newspapers, meanwhile provided an echo chamber for Philp's editorials, publishing stories with headlines such as "Study Says Hetch Hetchy Can Be Restored: Critics Pounce." Those stories in some cases contained "news" that consisted of reactions to the "events" of the Bee's series and the Environmental Defense PR campaign. Philp then echoed those stories with editorials describing an "emerging debate" on Hetch Hetchy, without mentioning that it happened to be taking place mostly in the offices of the Bee and Environmental Defense. Next came the unsigned editorial "The Pendulum Shifts," which suggested that the PR campaign, news stories, and editorials were gaining traction in the public sphere at large, which is certainly an arguable thesis. The Bee wrapped up the series in February with an editorial titled "Hetch Hetchy feasibility grows -- so does resistance."

In reality, there hasn't been any real discussion about tearing down the O'Shaughnessy Dam in either San Francisco or Washington, D.C., the sites where relevant decisions about the Hetch Hetchy reservoir and water system would have to take place.

Since the Hetch Hetchy campaign and Beeseries began a year ago, among public officials with a say in the issue, discussion "is less alive. There is less public conversation about it," says San Francisco Public Utilities Commissioner Adam Werbach, who happens to be a strident supporter of tearing down the O'Shaughnessy Dam.

When a national publication such as the New York Times commits the sin of overenthusiasm in campaigning for a cause, as during Raines' Augusta National jag, the whole country notices and pokes fun. That series involved "blowing embers on the story, hoping it would ignite," as the online magazine Slatenoted. The Augusta episode was cited, in journalistic autopsies that followed his resignation last year, as a prime example of Raines' excess.

But when a paper in an out-of-the-way burg like Sacramento indulged in such self-referential harangues -- and misrepresented reality to boot -- Pulitzer judges seemed to have given the benefit of the doubt, assuming that the Beehad its facts straight, and that the supposed hubbub the Bee news hole claimed the series had raised was in fact real.

Given journalists' tendency to report on prizes they give one another, the Pulitzer awarded to Philp and the Sacramento Bee may make the so-far illusory debate over the fate of Hetch Hetchy real.

"I just got a letter from Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense, to all major donors, about the Pulitzer," says Werbach, former Sierra Club president and current executive director of the nonprofit group Common Assets. "So it's going to make a difference. You'll see the journalistic pack mentality. Since it struck in that space, now it's going to strike very many times."

And for that, Jennifer Witherspoon should be very, very proud.

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