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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Who Was This Pulitzer

He Invented Modern Newspapers

The Pulitzer Prizes were announced yesterday. The awards are an annual and much anticipated part of modern journalism, literature, history, poetry and music. The journalism prizes are, in many ways, the Academy Awards for ink stained wretches. They bring with them prestige, bragging rights and, one would suspect, champagne corks popping in a few newsrooms.

The prizes were endowed and named after the Hungarian Jewish emigre who did nothing less than invent the modern newspaper. And, just in time for the announcement of the prizes comes a fine new biography of Joseph Pulitzer entitled – Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print and Power. The author is James McGrath Morris.

Talk about your self-made man. Pulitzer came the United States at 17 with little more than the clothes on his back. He immediately lied about his age and enlisted in the Union Army and saw combat in the Civil War. Afterward he established himself in St. Louis, got involved in newspapering and politics, became a leading citizen of the German speaking community, served in the state legislature and became a major national figure in Democratic politics. In keeping with his many contradictions, Pulitzer started his political career as a “liberal” Republican, but came to despise President Grant and switched parties.

In the cut throat newspaper world of New York City at the eve of the 20th Century, Pulitzer stole key employees from his younger brother’s paper – they never got along – and established the New York World as a new type of newspaper – brightly written, interesting, controversial, afflicting the comfortable. He made a bundle, reported on bribes made to influence the construction of the Panama Canal, saw his health decline as a result of his obsessive work ethic, went blind and died on his fabulous yacht in 1911.

Oh, yes, there was the circulation war with William Randolph Hearst that ushered in the era of “yellow journalism.” At the height of his influence, Pulitzer’s New York World had a circulation of 600,000 daily, the largest in the world at the time. He was the Rupert Murdoch of his day, but with an element of public interest that seems quaint today and so un-Murdoch-like. Hence Pulitzer’s legacy.

The Hungarian-born, German-accented Jew who all his life longed for acceptance, created a lasting legacy; the prizes that carry his name as well as Columbia University’s School of Journalism that he bankrolled. Ironically, the newspaper king who invented the popular press created the enduring awards celebrating quality journalism and did much to establish higher standards for the craft.

Joseph Pulitzer died almost a hundred years ago. His brand of aggressive journalism may also be a dying. The prizes that carry his name are a fitting legacy for a demanding, aggressive, courageous, egotistical newspaper tycoon. It remains to be seen whether American journalism will long remain equal to the prestige of Pulitzer’s prize.

Pulitzer once said that the survival of popular government depended upon a disinterested, public spirited press. By contrast, “a cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself.” Pulitzer’s nightmare seems to be coming true.

American newspapering – indeed the craft of journalism – faces a crisis of survival. The cynical and the mercenary – FOX, MSNBC, Glenn Beck and Rachel Maddow – demand large audiences for what passes these days for real journalism. What they do really does debase the people and their government. Pulitzer, with all his faults and excesses, would have seen right through the current trends.

Consumers of news have a duty here. Demand excellence and reward the disinterested and public spirited. The Republic depends upon it. Really.

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