advertisement

A new biography on Pulitzer explores publisher and politician

Monday, March 22, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — High in the state Capitol dome, 180 feet from the ground floor, the name "Pulitzer" is enshrined in stained glass along with the names of 11 other famous Missourians.

There's also a small exhibit in the Capitol's museum dedicated to the journalistic prowess of Joseph Pulitzer, who is best known today for the most coveted prizes in journalism and letters that are awarded in his name each year. But before Pulitzer (pronounced Pull It Sir) became a publishing baron who revolutionized mass-circulation newspapers, he was a zealous, party-switching Missouri politician.

Although underage, Pulitzer served as a Republican member of the Missouri House of Representatives and once shot and wounded a lobbyist in a Jefferson City hotel lobby. Convicted of that crime, Pulitzer still managed to become a member of the St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners. He was an elected delegate who helped rewrite Missouri's Constitution in 1875 and later served as a Democrat in Congress.

Although his ownership of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the New York World made him fabulously wealthy, Pulitzer relished even more the political power the newspapers gave him.

"I hate the idea of passing away known only as the proprietor of the paper," Pulitzer wrote shortly before he died. "Not property but politics was my passion, and not politics even in a general, selfish sense, but politics in the sense of liberty and freedom and ideals of justice."

James McGrath Morris, who early in his career worked as a broadcast reporter in Jefferson City, has thoroughly documented Pulitzer's stormy political career in a new biography, "Pulitzer, A Life in Politics, Print, and Power," published in March by Harper Collins. Since his death in 1911, four serious biographies of Joseph Pulitzer have been published, with W.A. Swanberg's "Pulitzer" in 1967 perhaps the most notable.

But Morris has enlarged upon the remarkable story of the impoverished Hungarian immigrant who came to America in 1864 and within a few years was amassing political power as well as enormous wealth. Morris took about five years to research and write the new biography and in the process was able to gain access to previously undisclosed documents.

They include the unpublished manuscript of a memoir written by Pulitzer's younger brother Albert, who established a newspaper of his own in New York. Albert Pulitzer's newspaper, the Journal, later fell under the ownership of William Randolph Hearst, whose rivalry with Joseph Pulitzer's New York World introduced the term "yellow journalism" to the American lexicon.

The discovery of Albert Pulitzer's memoir in the possession of a descendant in Paris "was the closest thing to an Indiana Jones discovery in my business," Morris said in a recent telephone interview. "It allowed me to bring up a perspective that hadn't been shown before, the tragedy of his childhood."

Childhood diseases had ravaged the Pulitzer family in Hungary. Joseph and Albert were the only survivors of nine children born to their parents.

In stark contrast to the state of the industry today, in Pulitzer's time newspapers had muscle. Under Pulitzer, the New York World raised the money to build the Statue of Liberty pedestal, had the resources to investigate the corruption of Wall Streets tycoons and even challenged a popular president, Theodore Roosevelt. Pulitzer refused to back down when Roosevelt attempted to use the U.S. Department of Justice to bring criminal libel charges against the publisher for reports of a Panama Canal scandal.

Morris said he could think of only one or two newspapers today that had the capacity to mount a similar investigation.

And as the Internet has undermined the value of news, Morris said a question he frequently asks himself is what Pulitzer would have done if confronted by a Web-like competitor.

"The first thing he'd focus on is the message being more important than the medium," Morris said. "When he was in a circulation war, he never lost sight of the fact that they had to have income to make journalism. Newspapers have made a fatal mistake in giving away what they do, and now they have to persuade readers to pay for it."

Morris believes Pulitzer would not object to the consideration of an entry from the National Enquirer for the journalism prize that bears his name. But he also suspects Pulitzer would not value journalistically the story of John Edwards and his sexual affair with a campaign staff member.

"He had this extraordinary Victorian discomfort with things that relate to sex," Morris said.

Still, Morris' Pulitzer biography contains some of it. Assembling clues from archival file folders, Morris uncovered a love affair that apparently took place between Pulitzer's wife, Kate, and Arthur Brisbane, an editor at the World before leaving to work for Hearst.

Steve Weinberg, a University of Missouri journalism professor, author and book critic, has sometimes panned writers for not explaining why another biography of a famous person's life was necessary.

"I thought he did a really good job of explaining why he undertook the task and what he found that was new and different," Weinberg said. "I thought he handled it very clearly and responsibly."

After a stint with MissouriNet, a statewide radio network, Morris worked as a news stringer in Washington, D.C., and as a newspaper reporter in upstate New York. He taught high school for 10 years and wrote a biography, "The Rose Man of Sing Sing: a true tale of life, murder and redemption," which was selected as a Washington Post Best Book of the Year for 2004.

Morris applied a journalist's investigative skills to his Pulitzer research. In the transcripts of the debate over the Missouri Constitution, he found Pulitzer believed newspapers of the time had sufficient protections against libel suits. It was an interesting position for a future publisher who would keep lawyers busy defending his papers from lawsuits.

The Pulitzer that emerges from Morris' work is a brilliant and energetic entrepreneur who becomes tormented and irascible when detached retinas in both eyes cast him into blindness. Pulitzer is never happy with his wife or children and frequently second-guesses his newspaper staff.

Early in his career, Pulitzer used his newspapers as instruments of reform. He believed the influence of the wealthy in government decisions would undermine democracy.

But later comforted by vast riches and limited by blindness, Pulitzer lost his bearings. For example, when he learned that his newspaper's editorial page had sided with striking steelworkers in Pennsylvania, he was furious.

Morris writes: "The Pulitzer who had built up the Post-Dispatch and the World as voices for the disinherited was gone. The bitter darkness into which he had fallen and the cocoon of wealth that surrounded him had destroyed Pulitzer's empathy. When it came to supporting reform and political and social change, property was now the trump card in Pulitzer's deck."

As if to redeem himself near the end of his life, Pulitzer in 1903 revealed a plan for using his wealth to create a school to train journalists. Years before, Morris informs us, while running the Post-Dispatch, Pulitzer had poked fun at Missouri publishers meeting in Columbia for wanting to create a professorship of journalism.

Later, he changed his mind.

"Better trained journalists would make for better newspaper that would better serve the public good," Pulitzer said. "Our republic and its press will rise or fall together."

He endowed Columbia University in New York with money to finance prizes for good journalism and to create a school to train journalists. The money became available after Pulitzer's death in 1911, three years after Walter Williams started the world's first school of journalism at the University of Missouri.

 


Like what you see here? Become a member.


Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Comments

Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.

advertisements