Before the Pulitzer

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Former Spirit editor Michael Rothfeld wins journalism’s top prize for Wall Street Journal coverage of Trump hush money payments


  • Michael Rothfeld (center, holding microphone) reacts to winning the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in the Wall Street Journal newsroom. Photo: Stephanie Aaronson/The Wall Street Journal

  • A 1997 Rothfeld cover story on a treatment center for sex offenders near a West Village elementary school.

After Frank McCourt won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for his memoir “Angela’s Ashes,” this newspaper — then known as the Manhattan Spirit — republished a number of McCourt’s columns that had appeared in these pages a decade earlier.

The Spirit’s editor at the time of the McCourt series, which ran under the banner “Before the Pulitzer,” was a 25-year-old journalist named Michael Rothfeld.

Twenty-two years later, Rothfeld has earned a Pulitzer of his own.

Rothfeld, now an investigative reporter with the Wall Street Journal, was a lead contributor to coverage of President Donald Trump’s hush-money payments that was recognized last week with the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. The Wall Street Journal’s investigation exposed Trump’s direct involvement in secret payoffs during the 2016 presidential campaign to suppress the stories of two women who claimed to have had affairs with him.

“It’s been a pretty amazing run,” Rothfeld said, describing the “jubilant” atmosphere in the Journal’s offices following the April 15 Pulitzer announcement. “The support was overwhelming in the newsroom.”

Rothfeld and his colleagues detailed Trump’s potentially criminal orchestration of payments to cover up alleged affairs with former Playboy Playmate of the Year Karen McDougal and former adult film actress Stormy Daniels, which involved Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen and tabloid publisher David Pecker. “It’s been a fun story to cover because there are a lot of colorful characters involved,” Rothfeld said.

“This is not the typical cast of characters that you find in the Wall Street Journal’s pages,” he added. “It was a great opportunity to cover that kind of story, and especially one that leads straight to the president.”

Before his journalism made waves nationally, Rothfeld honed his craft as a reporter and editor for the Spirit from 1995 to 1997.

Traveling around the West Side by bicycle, Rothfeld covered the hot issues of the day — including the battle over the future of Pier 40 and community opposition to Trump’s Riverside South development — as well as topics of enduring local importance, like excessive noise from helicopters and rowdy bars.

Tom Allon, the Spirit’s publisher and editor-in-chief at the time, described Rothfeld as a “fearless reporter” and remembered his wide-ranging coverage of the neighborhood, noting in particular his cover story on a pedophile treatment center located across from a West Village elementary school and his Aug. 1996 report on “Pedestrian Hell” — the hazardous intersection of Broadway and 23rd Street, which had been the site of over 90 collisions over the preceding three years.

Another Rothfeld cover story explored the last remaining furriers holding out in the Garment District amid slowing sales and attacks from animal activists — still relevant now, Allon noted, in light of legislation introduced last month by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson that would ban fur sales in the city. “Even over 20 years ago Michael was ahead of the curve on that one,” said Allon, who is now publisher and president of City & State.

Rothfeld joined the Spirit in 1995 as an unpaid intern, eventually rising to become the newspaper’s editor before departing for the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 1997. He did a bit of everything along the way, from reporting feature stories to writing editorials and restaurant reviews to editing Ed Koch’s film reviews.

“It was a really great starting job for me to learn how to get out there and interview people and what makes a story,” Rothfeld said.

Rothfeld and his Journal colleague Joe Palazzolo are currently working on a forthcoming book to be published by Random House that will expand on their Pulizer-winning coverage. Tentatively titled “The Fixers” and scheduled to be released by early next year, the book will explore Trump’s dealings with Cohen, Pecker and other trusted facilitators.

“It starts several decades ago as the relationships developed between these people and show how everything comes together in 2016 during the campaign when these deals were made,” Rothfeld said. “It takes the stories we’ve been reporting on and puts them in this larger context and landscape.”

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