San Diego’s Forgotten Pulitzer Prize

On a September afternoon in 1923, the moon blotted out the sun, if only for a moment, and a 29-year-old San Diego journalist chronicled the moment for posterity.

“Night is upon us,” reporter Magner White wrote in the San Diego Sun. “What is this fear we can’t keep down? The hint of the infinite night — a world with no sun.”

White had spent a month studying astronomy at the library just in case he got the coveted assignment to write an essay about the solar eclipse, the first here in 120 years.

White lucked out. He got to cover the story, and it won a Pulitzer Prize, making him the first journalist west of the Mississippi River to win the award. Only three Pulitzer Prizes have gone to San Diego journalists ever since.

In 1924, when White won in the reporting category, the Pulitzer board awarded $1,000 newspaper prizes in four categories. On Monday, in contrast, the Pulitzer committee will award $10,000 prizes in as many as 13 news categories along with a gold medal for public service.

White’s award was front-page news in the May 12, 1924, issue of the San Diego Sun, which lauded his story as a “splendid piece of writing.”

To modern readers, the winning article is a bit flowery and over the top. But it’s notable for its vivid imagery and a description of a Tijuana temporarily bereft of its “wickedness,” as the bars emptied and “painted ladies” looked skyward, perhaps for the first time.

White lived for another 56 years, working at newspapers across the country before he died in 1980.

The scrappy San Diego Sun, meanwhile, made the national news once again in 1932, when beat reporter Max Miller wrote “I Cover the Waterfront,” a landmark exploration of the characters who lived and worked by the bay.

“I Cover the Waterfront” — which began with the words “I have been here so long that even the seagulls must recognize me” — became a movie and, oddly enough, a Billie Holiday song.

But the Sun was eventually eclipsed by its competition, the San Diego Union and Evening Tribune. It published its last edition in 1939.

In the Pulitzer Prize’s 92-year history, there have been three local finalists for the Pulitzer Prize: Ralph Bennett, Jonathan Freedman and Lynne Carrier of the Evening Tribune for editorial writing (1984); Ralph Bennett and Jonathan Freedman of the Evening Tribune for editorial writing; and the (Escondido) Times-Advocate for its coverage of a postal shooting (1990).

The four local Pulitzer Prize winners are: White of the San Diego Sun; the staff of the Evening Tribune for its coverage of the 1978 PSA airplane crash (1979); Jonathan Freedman of the Evening Tribune for editorial writing (1987); and The San Diego Union-Tribune and Copley News Service for their uncovering of the Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham scandal (2006).

— RANDY DOTINGA

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