Lanosga on Researching Columbia University's Maria Moors Cabot Prizes

04 Apr 2017 6:54 PM | Dane Claussen (Administrator)
(Editor's Note: Prof. Gerry Lanosga presented his research-in-progress, “The Dean, the Diplomat, and Democracy: Exporting American Values Through the Maria Moors Cabot Prizes in Journalism,” at the AJHA convention in October 2016 in St. Petersburg, Florida. The Intelligencer asked Dr. Lanosga to tell us more about how and why he became interested in the Maria Moors Cabot Prize, and why it is interesting and important.)

By Gerry Lanosga

Indiana University

For many years I have had a fascination with journalism prizes, but my interest in them started out in a very narrow way. Initially, I was simply seeking a means of documenting the extent of investigative reporting in American journalism during the first half of the twentieth century. I found what I was looking for in the little-examined administrative records of the Pulitzer Prizes, which contained details not only about prize winners but about thousands of non-winning entries going all the way back to 1917.(1)

In that limited approach, I was following the lead of others who have used prizes in a strictly instrumental fashion. Before long, however, I began thinking about prizes on their own terms, with a history of their own that could offer a unique vantage point to study journalism’s professional culture. As my research expanded beyond the Pulitzers, I came to realize that journalism prizes don’t exist in a closed system. Rather, they are susceptible to external influences and likewise can make an impact beyond the journalistic professional sphere.(2)

That is certainly the case with the Maria Moors Cabot prizes, the subject of my research-in-progress presentation at the AJHA conference in St. Petersburg last year. The Cabot prizes were launched in 1939 by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, home of the Pulitzer Prizes. Named in honor of the diplomat John Moors Cabot’s late mother, the prizes were the first international awards for journalism, established with the official aim of recognizing journalism that “advances public understanding and sympathy among the peoples of any two countries in the Western Hemisphere.” 

The first Cabot prizes were given to two South American newspapers, whose leaders were feted during a weeklong celebration in New York. The official story of the awards was told in grand speeches with lofty rhetoric about international friendship, mutual aid, and journalism as a tool of public education. But behind the press releases and speech transcripts there is an intriguing origin story of a top journalistic institution that worked closely and secretly with the U.S. State Department on the prizes at a time when the United States was wary of developing security threats south of its borders. The prizes were shaped in important ways by top foreign policy officials, and in turn they played an important role in promoting American journalistic and political norms in Latin America.

This compelling back story emerges from the letters of Columbia’s first journalism dean, Carl Ackerman, a prominent but somewhat-neglected figure in early twentieth century journalism history.(3) The official school files at Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, as well as Ackerman’s personal papers at the Library of Congress, contain correspondence that details an extensive collaboration between the dean and various diplomatic officials over the course of more than two decades of Cabot prizes.

At the time of the prize founding, John Moors Cabot was assigned to the American legation in the Netherlands, but he would go on to serve as ambassador to four Latin American nations and also as assistant secretary of state for Inter-American affairs. Cabot came up with the idea of the prizes and recruited his father, industrialist and philanthropist Godfrey Cabot, to help endow them.

Cabot, of course, figures prominently in the correspondence files, but Ackerman also had numerous and detailed contacts with other State Department officials, including Secretary of State Cordell Hull, various under-secretaries, and ambassadors to a number of Latin American countries. While Cabot and Ackerman’s early letters suggest a reluctance for the program to become “semi-official,” it is clear from the overall record that the State Department played more than a casual role in the prizes. Correspondence reveals Ackerman met with Department brass throughout 1937 and 1938 seeking advice and sub rosa endorsement of the prize idea. He called Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle an advocate for “final approval” of the prizes. Once the competition was established, he routinely communicated with “friends” in the Department about the choices for prize winners. He also sought guidance from top journalists of the day, at least some of whom were also closely connected with State Department officials.

U.S. foreign policy toward at the time was becoming increasingly preoccupied with German and Italian penetration in Latin America, as well as the beginnings of Russian activity in the hemisphere. Ackerman was eager to provide backing for a defense of democracy and American journalistic values. He even described the prizes as a “journalistic Good Neighbor program,” embracing the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s official policy toward Latin America. At the same time, this alignment with government officials and policy was not for public consumption. For instance, Ackerman wrote to Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler in 1938, “From the beginning of my conversations with the Cabots and with Latin American journalists I have emphasized that this is an educational project – not the byproduct of any governmental enterprise. Therefore, my present intention is not to make any reference to the private action of Dr. Cabot in obtaining the “okay” of the State Department.” Naturally, Ackerman’s own back-channel communications with the Department were also kept under cloak of secrecy.

The Cabot prizes present a fascinating case that sheds light on journalistic acquiescence in the government’s post-World War I project of spreading American political ideals. Margaret Blanchard has demonstrated how the press joined hands with the government in “exporting the First Amendment.”(4) My study uncovers a similar effort to promote American journalistic principles that also helped support U.S. geopolitical priorities in the face of increasing totalitarian influence in Latin America. 


(1) Lanosga, Gerry. “New views of investigative reporting in the twentieth century,” American Journalism 31, no. 4 (2014): 490-506.

(2) Lanosga, Gerry. “The power of the prize: How an emerging prize culture helped shape journalistic practice and professionalism, 1917-1960.” Journalism 16, no. 7 (2015): 953-967.

(3) A recent study examines how Ackerman secretly worked with foreign policy officials during World War I. See McCune, Meghan Menard and John Maxwell Hamilton. “‘My object is to be of service to you’: Carl Ackerman and the Wilson administration during WWI.” Intelligence and National Security, online first publication,

(4) Blanchard, Margaret A. Exporting the First Amendment: The Press-Governance Crusade of 1945-1952. White Plains, N.Y.: Longman Inc (1986).

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