Politics & Policy

Katie Fraud Meets Katiefreude

Look at me, I'm a journalist!

Little Rock, Arkansas – Have you heard about the juiciest scandal to hit Texas since J. R. was shot? This time, the smoking gun is a Katie Award — or, rather, ten of them — and the suspect is the ex-president of the Dallas Press Club, which makes a big deal every year out of the Katies. It’s like the Oscars for journalists in the southwest. Or the Pulitzers for journalists who don’t live on the coasts.

So have you been following this soap opera?

Well, that depends. If you’re a journalist, especially one here in Katie Country, of course you have.

If you’re not a journalist, of course you haven’t. Because nobody (read: real people) cares about journalism awards except journalists. And, yes, that includes — heresy of heresies! — the Pulitzers. (Ask the guy next to you at the gas station to name last year’s Pulitzer winner for Public Interest. Or this year’s winner for . . . anything. See?)

But when it comes to us media types, nothing gets our attention like (a) winning a big, fat, wholly forgettable award that we can lord over our peers, (b) watching a peer win a big, fat, etc., that clearly should have gone to us instead, or (c) finding out that said awards were a big, fat fraud. Which appears to be the main problem with last year’s Katie Awards — that is, they may not have been awarded by a distinguished panel of judges so much as, ahem, maybe rigged by one overly greedy ex-journalist with a checkered past.

The latest development in the Curious Case of the Questionable Katies happened last week when the Press Club of Dallas sued its former president — one Elizabeth Albanese, a.k.a. Lisa Albanese — for allegedly faking the judging of the Katie Awards.

Why? It seems somebody got suspicious when ex-Prez Albanese, formerly the Dallas bureau chief of New York-based The Bond Buyer, kept winning awards at a rate that would even embarrass the New York Times. Since she got involved in the judging in 2003, Albanese had racked up 10 Katies — including four last year. She even won the most prestigious Katie of all: best investigative reporting by a major-market newspaper.

Not bad. Especially when one considers that Albanese was competing against high-circ Texas papers like the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Albanese’s triumphs are even more impressive when you consider that she was writing for The Bond Buyer — self-described as the Daily Newspaper of Public Finance. Had there been real judges, wouldn’t they have gravitated toward the human-interest-style stories that typically win these things? If a writer for a finance pub really did sweep all these awards, then the judges are to be commended for rewarding substance over style and emotion. Yeah, right. All the more reason to be suspicious.

And what kind of strategy was this for gaming the system? At least spread out the ill-gotten booty. Take two awards one year, two the next, maybe one in a big-deal category, not four in one grand haul.

Alas, Miss Elizabeth/Lisa may have bigger problems than a closetful of Katies. According to the Dallas Morning News, she has a pattern of bad behavior, once having been found not guilty by reason of insanity on a forgery charge. Also according to The News, a court psychologist in that case said she exhibited symptoms “clearly indicative of a bipolar disorder.”

Anyway, press-club folks finally asked Albanese to produce a list of judges for the awards on her watch. So far, the club hasn’t been able to confirm that the names of the judges were judges or even names. One e-mail address and phone number for a competition judge led to St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis.

It gets curiouser and curiouser.

Of course journalists love this story. It meets all the requirements of media overkill: It’s about us. It’s about scandal. It’s about us. It’s about awards. It’s about us. And, best of all, it provides a perfect excuse for why the rest of us didn’t win: We wuz robbed!

Granted, it’s kind of a drag if you were one of the winners of the now-disputed Katies. But it’s not your fault. Hey, you might have won anyway. You certainly deserved to.

Full disclosure: I was nominated for a Katie during the Disputed Judging Era. And fuller disclosure: I attended the awards ceremony at a fancy hotel in Dallas, feeling every bit the part of nervous nominee on the red carpet at Oscar night. (Look at me! Where is Joan Rivers when you need her?)

How to describe the event? Imagine prom meets game show meets comedy-troupe parody of an awards banquet. No, that makes the whole thing sound way too entertaining and real. The Katies are more like the toupé of banquets. Even the award itself is a bad dye-job of an Oscar, forever tempting wisecracking-in-their-cups journalists to pick up Miss Katie by her gold-plated legs and scream, “You like me! You really like me!”

But enough about the winners, the jerks. You should see the los — excuse me, the other finalists at these things when their names aren’t called out. You’ll find more sincerity among the Oscar runners-up, with their pasted-on smiles cracking their wind-tunnel facelifts just long enough to satisfy the camera.

Yes, ’tis true, the self-congratulatory ways of journalists rival our self-flagellating ways. But neither can hold a cliché to the market-cornering jealousy that overwhelms us when somebody else wins OUR award, no matter how small or insignificant.

No wonder real people don’t like us. We don’t like us.

All this cheesiness and schadenfreude and yet . . . I desperately wanted a Katie to call my own. What is it about journalists and awards? Is it all just about validation? Is it really that we’re all so naturally insecure that we cherish every slight recognition and bruise at every perceived slight?

The dirty little secret of journalism awards is that newsies spend way too much time and effort trying to win prizes when they know, better than anyone, what a cheesy distraction they can be. And isn’t that kind of cynical for beacons of truth? It’s easy now to sneer at poor Katie, but where were the sneers when reporters and columnists were writing glowing nominating letters for themselves? (Again, count me among the guilty.)

Most awards contests — and I’ve entered and won my share, so this is absolute hypocrisy speaking — do journalism a disservice. Too many papers have folks writing stories for the sole purpose of winning awards. I suspect the readers are on to us. They get a lot more out of stories that uncover corruption at City Hall or expose a piece of end-run legislation than a 4,000-word tear-jerker that should run with the disclaimer: Not for Reading, Contest Entry Only.

My old newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, uncovered wasteful spending at the capital city’s taxpayer-funded tourism bureau. It was dry, old-fashioned, number-crunching, document-sifting, straightforward news reporting; not a heartstring pulled. And the letters from grateful readers poured in for months.

Here’s what I’d like to see: A national, high-profile, stand-alone award for beat writing. Call ’em the Scoopies. Give a real reporter a shiny award and an account-fattening check of, say, $50,000 for covering the heck out of Topeka city hall and actually making a difference in people’s lives. You get reporters to do more of that, and you’ll see more people reading the newspaper.

Failing the creation of a Scoopie, an editor friend once had a good idea. His secret plan for improving any newsroom was to call a staff meeting and inform the reporters that nobody would enter any more awards competitions. Ever. Period. No ifs, ands, buts, or Katies.

Far as I know, he never did enact that secret plan. He probably went on to win a Pulitzer.

– Kane Webb is a writer in Little Rock who wants to know where his Katie Award is.

Just Can’t Get Enough? How can you read about the Katies and not about Katie Couric? Here’s Myrna Blyth on the CBS anchor. The perkiness puts Kathryn Lopez to sleep. Tim Graham watched way too much of The Today Show.

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