The circumstances under which a story is reported are a factor in determining whether or not the story is worthy of a Pulitzer Prize. If it were a separate category, Mike McAlary would have taken home two Pulitzers this year, friend and colleague Jim Dwyer says.
On August 11, 1997, the day an anonymous cop left a tip that led the New York Daily News columnist on a chase that resulted in seven front page columns on the alleged sodomy assault on Haitian immigrant Abner Louima, McAlary had been to his oncologist for chemo-therapy. Just a few days before the Pulitzers were announced, he had surgery to remove an intestinal blockage.
The doctors who diagnosed McAlary, 40, with colon cancer in November 1996 have given him no guarantees. In his tightly wound account of the Louima series in Esquire, McAlary said he debated with his wife over following up on the tip. Not because of his illness, but because he had promised himself he would write books and leave reporting behind.
McAlary wrote that his wife told him he should get the story. " 'If this happened and you ignore the tip, you will never be able to look at yourself again,' " she said.
"It is what I do," McAlary said days after winning the Pulitzer for distinguished commentary. "If you are a doctor or a lawyer, you take the case. If you're a reporter, you write the story. I didn't think about being sick."
Dwyer, a Daily News columnist who won a 1995 Pulitzer for commentary while at Newsday, says the Louima columns alone would have gotten McAlary the prize.
"I don't think I've ever written the word 'inspirational,' because it's so hackneyed," Dwyer says. "But what McAlary did was inspirational. He's sick. He's got a very tough illness. This is a Pulitzer that tells us something about him. He wasn't trying to win a Pulitzer — he was trying to get his job done."
The job included an exclusive bedside interview with Louima, who told McAlary police officers had forced the wooden end of a bathroom plunger up his rectum after they arrested him during a brawl outside an East Flatbush lounge.
Remarkably, Louima's family had been unsuccessful attracting attention from various news outlets in New York, while Louima lay in a Brooklyn hospital in crit- ical condition with a torn bladder.
Even more remarkable was McAlary's ability to slip past a police guard outside Louima's door, smuggle in a photographer and get back to the Daily News without being detained.
McAlary followed his first scoop, with the headline "Tortured By Cops," on August 13, with six more columns over the next nine days, including an exclusive interview with Justin Volpe, an officer in Brooklyn's 70th Precinct accused of violating Louima's civil rights. Four other cops were also indicted in connection with the attack.
The series prompted an NYPD housecleaning and the formation of a city task force to study the relationship between the police department and minority communities. For a time, Abner Louima became the code name for a discussion of police brutality all over the country.
"This story was necessary," Dwyer says. "The city administration here is very good at smothering stories. But you put a man who has been sodomized on the front page, manacled to his bed, and it was impossible for them to take even baby steps back from that."
Debby Krenek, editor in chief of the Daily News, says the Pulitzer was a kind of career achievement award for McAlary, who earned a reputation for unsparing reporting of New York Police Department scandals as well as compassion for cops as day-to-day heroes.
"Mike is the kind of columnist who is always out on the street," says Krenek. "He has terrific sources and a way of getting people to open up to him. He is our eyes and ears on the street."
The award is also a rebuke to some of McAlary's critics who, in spite of his record for investigations that have led to officers' indictments, say he is a cop lover, according to Dwyer. "He's taken some heat for lionizing cops, but the major police scandals over the past 10 years have been broken by Mike," he says. "He has a very firm sense of right and wrong. It isn't a calculation in his head that he should do a good cop story to offset a bad cop story. It's a sense of what is right. One of his many gifts is that Mike can't be bought by access, schmooze and spin."
Commenting to the Daily News staff in accepting his Pulitzer, McAlary singled out Krenek, the editor in charge on the day the Louima story broke, for her courage in putting his column on the front page. Some in the newsroom had qualms about the piece. "Was there a lot of strife over it?" says Krenek. "No, but we had a tough story going out on page one, and we needed a lot of questions answered. In the end, we answered everything and then went with our gut."
McAlary, whose idols include Jimmy Breslin, Murray Kempton and Pete Hamill, isn't afraid to share the secret of his success with young reporters who complain in the newsroom that there's no news happening. "I tell them, you're damn right there's nothing going on in here. It's all out there. You have to go and get it.
"It's the story that's most important, not the accolades. If I've shown the people in this city anything, it's that I'll knock on doors, listen to stories and not be intimidated."
It was one of his heroes, Hamill, who as editor of the Daily News convinced McAlary to stay on. "I wanted him to continue the column, but I also wanted him to have a health insurance plan," says Hamill. "I didn't want him cast adrift in freelance-ville. I, for one, hope Mac continues to work on the paper. I hope he doesn't quit after getting his Super Bowl ring. The Pulitzer isn't the end of a career. You go back to work the next day."
Columnist Mike McAlary of New York's daily News wins a Pulitzer.