Walt Bogdanich on His Third Pultizer: 'A Thrill'

Yesterday, the Pulitzer Prize administrator, Sig Gissler, told a group of reporters, “The old cliché is that when you win a Pulitzer, the first line of your obituary has been written.” Yes, but what if you win three?

Yesterday afternoon, The New York Times investigative editor Walt Bogdanich won his third Pulitzer Prize, and his second in four years. He won for his discovery that China was importing medicine to countries like Panama that was full of toxic and deadly ingredients. His reporting has led to crackdowns in both China and the U.S., and brought the paper a Pulitzer in the investigative category.

“It was a great thrill and it’s a great thrill to win at a paper like the New York Times,” said Mr. Bogdanich in an interview.

Mr. Bogdanich was also enough of a reporter to have figured out that yesterday was a day for wearing a full suit to the office; he wouldn’t say who tipped him off to the fact he was a winner, though, since the Pulitzer winners are supposed to be a big secret. (That wasn’t enough to keep the Washington Post newsroom from knowing they’d won six of the awards, and which ones they were.)

At a little after 3 p.m. he was toasted by Bill Keller and a group of reporters on the third-floor newsroom, the first-ever celebration in the paper’s new tower.

The way Mr. Bogdanich found his way into his bombshell investigation can serve as an object lesson to the virtues of investigative reporting. In the fall of 2006, he heard about dozens of mysterious deaths in Panama, which apparently were caused by poisonous cold medicine. So he dusted off some old notebooks from his days working for “60 Minutes” (where he was a producer) and read some old clips and about similar deaths in Haiti in the 1990’s. Back then, many of those deaths were eventually sourced to China. Could it be happening again?

“What was happening in Panama seemed to fit the pattern with what I was seeing in Haiti,” he said. “If it turns out to be that China is involved? Then we have a heck of a story.”

It did. By May 2007, the first story in their series began, and five stories later they had a package. The installment can be found here. Mr. Bogdanich is sharing the Pulitzer with the paper’s reporter-researcher out of Beijing, Jake Hooker. Mr. Bogdanich’s editor on the piece was Matt Purdy, the leader of the investigations cluster at the paper (by title, Mr. Bogdanich is an assistant editor but assistant editors are essentially player-coaches; they do reporting and editing).

“In these tough times that we’re going through it’s important to do investigative reporting,” said Mr. Bogdanich. “This is the way we’re going to survive.”

It’s how he’s made a living. He won the Pulitzer in 2005 with the Times for National Reporting on a series of stories examining the safety record of the U.S. railroad industry; he won in 1988 for a year-long series that appeared in The Wall Street Journal on substandard medical laboratories.

Mr. Bogdanich is 57 years old, and yesterday Jon Friedman documented a trend where some former Pulitzer winners admitted to an existential crisis after victory: After reaching the profession’s top prize, what’s left to do? The New York Times is on the hunt for buyout candidates, so is Mr. Bogdanich about to hang it up?

“Ha! No. No,” he said.

Walt Bogdanich on His Third Pultizer: 'A Thrill'