The Honorable Press Baron
A new biography of Joseph Pulitzer charts his unlikely beginnings and revolutionary impact on American media. Steve Weinberg salutes the man whose name stands for excellence in journalism.
“Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable” is a phrase often uttered by investigative reporters, a breed within the larger craft of journalism, to describe their calling. To practice investigative reporting, the small number within the breed must overcome reservations expressed by the owners of media properties. The owners belong, after all, to a class that by any measure helps constitute “the comfortable.”
Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911) started his life among the afflicted, joined the comfortable at a surprisingly young age, but even after accruing great wealth he rarely discouraged investigative reporting at the newspapers he owned, mostly notably the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the New York World. An excellent new biography of the unusual man known as JP is a reminder of the vital role journalism plays in a democratic society, if only its owners allow the vitality.
Pulitzer was convinced that accuracy built circulation, credibility, and editorial power.
James McGrath Morris’s biography is also a reminder of why well-researched, well-written history is so valuable. It’s also an important reminder to readers of how much certain societal practices change, while simultaneously reminding readers of how much certain society practices stay the same.
Before Pulitzer could purchase newspapers, create an empire, and try to change the world, he had to overcome his status as an impoverished immigrant. The saga of his improbable rise from an impoverished immigrant childhood has been played out millions of times in U.S. history, but rarely has the story seemed so unlikely as it led to him attaining great wealth and influence.
Born in a German-speaking portion of Hungary to a Jewish family that had to face anti-Semitism, Pulitzer seemed to thrive despite for the depression that would develop as he witnessed seven of his eight siblings die from a variety of ailments.
When Pulitzer was 11 years old, his father died. Pulitzer realized he needed to find a way to the United States, where apocryphal streets-paved-with-gold opportunities might allow him to use his intellect. By the time he was 16, he had achieved a height of six feet one inches, extraordinarily tall for that era. Although not of legal military age when he entered the United States, Pulitzer lied his way into the Union Army in the midst of the Civil War, and even found himself a German-language unit because he couldn’t speak English very well. But by the end of the war, Pulitzer was without food or shelter and did not know what he would do next .
He soon found his footing in St. Louis, a German-American enclave along the Mississippi River. He worked menial jobs, and hung out in a library where he could study read German-language publications, teach himself English, and attract attention with chess playing skills developed during the Civil War. The owner of a German-language newspaper noticed Pulitzer at the chess board. Eventually, he would hire him for the Westliche Post, where Pulitzer became a skilled newspaper reporter and accumulated capital so that he could purchase the newspaper.
Morris’ book admirably charts Pulitzer’s remarkable rise and career, relying on some sources unavailable to earlier biographers, but for a review of this length it is perhaps best to draw out some of the most insightful aspects of Pulitzer’s life for understanding the role of news and newspapers today.
First, newspapers and other mass media benefit when their owners rise up from the basement of society, learn journalism through street reporting, pay strict attention to accuracy, and hire other journalists who share those traits. At age 31, Pulitzer purchased the nearly moribund St. Louis Dispatch, turned it into a newspaper with its current-day name—the Post-Dispatch—and transformed it into a guardian of democracy not only within its eastern Missouri-southern Illinois circulation area, but also across the nation (thanks to a legendary Washington, D.C., bureau) and world (thanks to generous international travel budgets). Sure, Pulitzer sometimes protected his friends and targeted his enemies within the political realm—he made no secret about serving as a kingmaker from the city council to the White House. Overall, though, he established an atmosphere of first-rate journalism. The tradition survived his death by about 90 years. Only recently, when the Pulitzer heirs sold the Post-Dispatch to an out-of-state media chain with a reputation for emphasizing financial gain over newsgathering prowess did the quality of the paper noticeably decline.
Second, even in the media capital of the planet, New York City, a determined, intelligent mass media owner can beat the competition through quality journalism. In 1883, Pulitzer purchased the New York World, a newspaper that barely made an impact within the crowded newspaper scene. Within a few years, it became the most successful newspaper in New York City. Readers appreciated how Pulitzer encouraged his news reporters, feature writers, and opinion-page editorialists to speak truth to power, using facts as weapons. As Morris shows, “Pulitzer was convinced that accuracy built circulation, credibility and editorial power. Words could paint brides as blushing, murderers as heinous, politicians as venal, but the facts had to be right.”
Third, the news is more than the accumulation of facts strung together. Good writing matters. Journalists, then and today, talk about writing “stories.” Most of the time, however, journalists disseminate boringly constructed articles or reports. A compelling story has a beginning, middle and end, tension and resolution. Morris explains that Pulitzer knew about effective storytelling. “He pushed his writers to think like [Charles] Dickens, who wove fiction from the sad tales of urban Victorian London, to create compelling entertainment from the drama of the modern city. To the upper classes, it was sensationalism. To the lower and working classes, it was their life. When they looked at the World [newspaper], they found stories about their world.”
The dramatic, unusual story of Pulitzer’s own life should not be completely lost amid the lessons. Morris shows how Pulitzer’s imperiousness nearly cost him a remarkable wife as well as their children’s respect and love. In addition, Morris shows how Pulitzer’s mid-life blindness, sensitivity to even the slightest noise, insomnia, and acute fear of his own death led to a hermit-like lifestyle rivaling that of Howard Hughes, a next-generation tycoon.
Sometimes history is interesting but seemingly irrelevant. Other times, the past is prologue. Pulitzer’s reign as press baron is of pressing interest to the fate of mass media within a democratic society as the centenary of his death approaches.
The author of six books, Steve Weinberg is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and teaches investigative journalism at the University of Missouri Journalism School. He lives in Columbia, Missouri.