In journalism, like every other profession, once you've climbed to the top of the mountain, it can be hard to muster the enthusiasm or find the inspiration to do it all over again.
James Risen, a New York Times reporter based in Washington, won a Pulitzer two years ago for exposing the Bush administration's secret spying program.
But after Risen, who co-wrote the Times stories with colleague Eric Lichtblau, had finished accepting congratulations and making the talk-show rounds, he experienced a substantial case of what he now calls "psychological burnout."
Risen isn't alone. I've spoken with Pulitzer winners over the years who say that they, too, suffered from the same type of inescapable letdown. Perhaps it can be inevitable for competitive, driven people to fret that they might soon run out of challenges.
A blessing and a curse
Still, Risen, 52, is a newsworthy example. When I interviewed him on this subject -- first, in person last summer in Washington and recently over the phone -- he was remarkably frank about his post-Pulitzer melancholy.
"It took me a long time to get back to working," he said, chalking up his inertia to the difficulty of reacting to "the intensity of the experience."
But don't imagine that Risen had become a modern-day Jack Nicholson in "The Shining," either. When I jokingly asked him if he had suffered a similar meltdown, he laughed loudly.
"No, I was always working and I didn't just sit at home," he noted. "I just wasn't as productive as I wanted to be."
Now, Risen has overcome his lethargy and talked enthusiastically about writing more major stories for the Times as well as taking on a new book project. "I really feel energized now," he said.
He drew strength from both an obvious source, Penny Risen, whom he met when they were classmates in the graduate program at the Medill School of Journalism. He also drew inspiration from a rival.
"My wife, Penny has played a big role in supporting me and helping me," he added. "Professionally, I also have to say that watching Dana Priest of the Washington Post do such brilliant work on Walter Reed so soon after winning a Pulitzer for her CIA coverage was a great example."
In addition to the attention and acclaim from receiving the Pulitzer, Risen was recovering from the media glare that accompanied his turn as an author. He wrote the controversial "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration."
Finding a fresh challenge became difficult. It was exacerbated when Risen had to answer critics. President George W. Bush attacked Risen's sources, calling them traitors. (Risen, for his part, subsequently told me that he thought his sources were "patriots").
Journalists -- especially the folks who don't appear on television news shows -- aren't accustomed to being the focus of stories. Most of us would prefer to break news, not make news. Sure, we write with great bravado but a lot of us are basically insecure people. You could call us shy egomaniacs.
So, when we suddenly find that we have become famous (or, even weirder, infamous), it can be a shock. When you're like Jim Risen, an introspective, investigative reporter who typically works alone for years on a single project, the process of attaining fame can be surreal.
Plus, Pulitzer winners -- like Oscar recipients -- may have a nagging worry that they were nothing more than one-trick ponies who found themselves in the right place at the right time when everything came together.
Fame can be fleeting in any field, no matter how glamorous. In the movies, nearly a quarter-century ago, F. Murray Abraham won a Best ctor award for his performance in "Amadeus" -- and has seldom been heard from again.
A celebrity of sorts
"I actually feel kind of guilty for letting the burnout get to me as much as it did," Risen said. "I felt stupid."
There were some lighthearted moments that reminded Risen that he had become a celebrity of sorts, someone he had always distrusted. One night, he and his wife went out to dinner in Manhattan when something happened that he'll never forget.
As the Risens were getting into a cab in SoHo to head back uptown, the driver turned to stare at him. When the man recognized his passenger, he narrowed his gaze and said: "Hello, Mr. Risen. Are you here hiding from Mr. Gonzalez?" (Alberto Gonzalez was the U.S. Attorney General at the time).
Risen still chuckles at the memory. "That was great," he says.
While Risen urges the journalists who receive Pulitzers to enjoy their moment of triumph, he cautions them to remain on an even keel.
"The problem is," he said, "you're never really as good as people say you are when you win a Pulitzer."
There was a lot of big news last week so you probably didn't notice it when the New York Knicks hired Donnie Walsh to replace Isiah Thomas, who had failed miserably as the team president. The team pledged to improve its media relations, a long overdue gesture. In my brief experience of dealing with the Knicks, I was treated with exceptional callousness. I can imagine that the team's beat writers are happy to hear about a change of heart by the organization.
to about Ron Paul's media savvy:
Predictably, Ron Paul's very vocal supporters happily weighed in when I wrote about him in Friday's column and said the media had missed the interesting story of his uncanny ability to mobilize ardent backers. Of the hundreds of responses, these two below neatly captured their feelings succinctly:
"Very good article, Jon. Forgive me for being surprised you had the insight and the grit to put the story out there." -- Mick Taylor
"I can only quote from a quote of yours but with a slight change: Thank God and Jon Friedman that finally a person of influence talks about Ron Paul." -- Helmut Wolf
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By Jon Friedman