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Introduction 

The award endowed by Joseph Pulitzer in 1911 has come to represent the ultimate recognition in American journalism. Today, the Prize ensures that quality newspapers of all sizes and circulations will receive praise from circles within, as well as outside, the writing profession. Pulitzer's legacy has even saved entire newspapers from going under by simply citing them for an award.

Ironically, many historians today consider the man who endowed the most prestigious honor in the journalism profession a sensationalist and opportunist. Pulitzer himself claimed to have the highest standard of ethics for his newspapers: "When you go to New York, ask any of the [reporters] . . . and you will see that accuracy, accuracy, accuracy, is the first, the most constant demand I have made on them." 1 

Somewhere between these two views lies the truth about Pulitzer. This paper will seek to interpret his life and writings to define his values in their context.

 

Background

Pulitzer was born to a wealthy family in Hungary on April 10, 1847. 2  He received a quality education and sought adventure in the army as a teenager. The Hungarian army rejected him because of his poor eyesight and frail body. After two other European armies declined to admit him, Pulitzer resolved to join the American Union army, which was soliciting in Hungary at the time. He emigrated to the United States in 1864 and fought without distinction until the end of the war. 3 

After the war, Pulitzer travelled to St. Louis, which had a large German-speaking population. There he worked odd jobs, including a lucrative position burying the dead during a cholera outbreak in 1866. He caught the attention of a local German-language newspaper editor in the chess room of the Mercantile Library. Pulitzer's quick mind and perseverance prompted Carl Schurz of the Westliche Post to hire him as a reporter. While working on the paper, Pulitzer got his first taste of politics, which would obsess him the rest of his life. He competed in a special election in 1869 to fill a seat in the lower house of the state legislature and won as a Republican.

As a legislator, he fought corruption within the city government. One day, Captain Edward Augustine, a lobbyist who disagreed with Pulitzer, publicly called him a "damned liar." Pulitzer adjourned to his room a short distance away and returned in ten minutes brandishing a pistol. In the melée that ensued, Pulitzer fired two shots as Augustine charged him. One of the bullets went stray, and one lodged itself in the lobbyist's leg. Accounts differ as to whether Augustine had a pistol himself, although Pulitzer claimed he had received a large gash on his head from being clubbed with a gun.

Pulitzer lost much credibility in the legislature even though guns were common accessories at the time. However, he was not heavily sanctioned by the courts. He paid a $100 fine for his misconduct and had to compensate the court $300. He borrowed the money from friends. An unsigned account of Pulitzer's life which declared it was "AN INTIMATE NARRATIVE" analyzed the implications of the affair. "If Mr. Pulitzer ever afterward formed any murderous purposes he failed to develop the courage of his convictions. He henceforward attacked character and reputation only." 4 

After earning money at minor political appointments and in law, Pulitzer continued to work on the Westliche Post and acquired a controlling interest from Schurz in 1872. He would later sell the paper back to its original proprietor for a $30,000 profit. Pulitzer continued to quietly invest in lagging newspapers and make money. By age 31, he had acquired a small nest egg and married Kate Davis, an intelligent, compassionate woman of high social standing.

After returning from the honeymoon in Europe, he purchased the St. Louis Dispatch in a manner similar to the other newspaper deals. He paid about $3,000 for the lagging daily through a secret bidder at an auction. After merging with the Post, he laid the foundation for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which would prosper under his leadership and make him an early fortune.

In 1883, he yearned for a larger audience and bought the New York World from financier Jay Gould for $346,000. He moved with his family to New York, retaining ownership of and control over the Post-Dispatch. Pulitzer would continue to correspond daily with the St. Louis office until his death, but he devoted most of his energy to the World, which would become larger and more influential with time. In 1883, however, the World was a small fish in a sea of New York journals. Pulitzer turned the mediocre daily into one of the premier papers in the city, and the world. His changes in style and content increased the World's circulation ten times in five years, from 15,000 to 150,000. 5 

 

Changing the Look of the Front Page

Pulitzer's keen instincts told him that newspapers did not sell solely because of their reputations, their political affiliations or their actual content. He understood one of the key tenets of modern salesmanship: presentation is everything. He had the expertise and confidence to apply this to his newly-acquired paper, and the front pages of newspapers everywhere never looked the same again.

One simple but effective change instituted by Pulitzer was the use of graphic element to attract attention from potential readers. Within two weeks of acquiring the World, Pulitzer placed an illustration of the newly-constructed Brooklyn Bridge on the front page. 6  (See appendix for comparison of new and old Worlds.) Illustrations had been used in newspapers before, but new technology made the process more simple and cost effective.

Before the advent of the stereotype rotary press, printing machines would press a blank page against a flat bed of type to get a printed page. Placing a rule between every column bound the type together when the press was running. Large graphic elements, such as woodcuts and multi-column headlines, did not bind the type as well and often required some adjustment during a press run. The stereotype rotary press used the bed of type to create a mold. Molten metal was poured over the mold, and the resulting metal plate was bent into a cylinder. The sturdy cylinder was able to withstand the stresses associated with the printing process without falling apart. 7 

Graphic elements allowed Pulitzer to denote importance to certain stories with a large picture or headline, creating a hierarchy on the page. He had the foresight to know that readers responded to "eye candy." He revealed his true motives for using pictures to a group of visiting reporters:

I had a small paper which had been dead for years, and I was trying in every way I could think of to build up its circulation. . . . What could I use for bait? A picture, of course. . . . On page one, in a position that would make the World stand out as the paper lay folded on the newsstand. . . ." 8 

Long before marketing executives at USA Today discovered the multi-color pie chart, Pulitzer understood the value of packaging in selling a product.

Using illustrations was not the only innovation the newsman made. As soon as he took over the editorship of the World, he changed the boring masthead to an interesting Oxford-style typeset. He removed the words "New York" from the masthead and replaced them with a line drawing of a world map centered on a printing press which emanated rays of light.

Over a period of time, Pulitzer transferred the lead story from its traditional place at the top left side of the front page to the top right. The crafty editor experimented and came to the conclusion that people do not read newspapers and books in the same manner. Without the use of focus groups or market analysts, he instituted a policy which soon became standard good practice.

Multi-column headlines were another Pulitzer innovation. Previously in the 19th century, editors denoted important stories by stacking numerous one-line headlines on top of the text. A particularly significant story would sometimes have headlines continuing down half of the first column. The following headlines described a Cincinnati riot in an 1884 World Extra:

A NIGHT OF TERROR

CINCINNATI IN THE HANDS

OF A MOB.

THE BATTLE RENEWED.

ARMED WITH DYNAMITE THE MOB RETURNS

AND FIRES THE COURT HOUSE.

BERNER RE-ARRESTED.

THE MILITIA AGAIN FIRE ON THE

MADDENED RIOTERS.

BLOODY MIDNIGHT WORK.

ARMORY HALL ON FIRE - COL. HUNT'S HOTEL

THREATENED - A REGION OF TERROR. 9 

Pulitzer, in his quest to make the World's front page as appealing as possible, abandoned confusing one-column headlines in favor of a single headline extending over more than one column. The large, single headline was another graphic element, in addition to the illustration, which Pulitzer used to draw the reader's eye.

Eventually, he made use of the space on either side of the masthead by proclaiming the paper's virtues in small, square boxes. The test in these "ears" varied, but the following is a typical example: "READ THE SIXTH PAGE / CIRCULATION OVER / 100,000 EVERY DAY / ADVERTISE YOUR WANTS. / CHEAPEST RATES IN THE CITY." 10  Today, newspapers commonly use this space for weather capsules or their mottoes, such as The New York Times' "All the News That's Fit to Print."

Pulitzer was never shy about publishing his circulation in order to attract advertisers. During his tenure at the World, advertising would become a more important source of revenue for newspapers. In 1880, big city journals received about sixty-five percent of their revenue from reader purchases, and thirty-five percent came from advertising. By 1900, the statistic had flip-flopped, with advertisers paying fifty-five percent of the cost of the newspapers. This trend continued, and people who buy newspapers today pay only twenty percent of the true cost, while advertisers pick up the rest of the tab. 11 

The advent of large department stores such as A.T. Stewart's began this trend. These stores had large advertising budgets, but they had to attract many patrons to ensure the success of their capital-intensive ventures. To get the most value for their advertising dollar, department stores would only advertise in newspapers with the highest circulations. 12 

Pulitzer understood the dynamic. He lowered the World's price February 10, 1896 to one cent to compete with Hearst's Journal and continued to innovate in ways that drew readers. Unfortunately for other publishers, running a traditional newspaper and retaining a small group of loyal subscribers did not appeal to advertisers. This often sounded the death knell for papers which came in second or third in the race for circulation. Today, the industry still suffers from its dependence on advertising, and some cities have lost all their journals but one.

Shortly before his death, Pulitzer defended his obsession with increasing readership:

If a newspaper is to be of real service to the public, it must have a big circulation . . . because circulation means advertising, and advertising means money, and money means independence. 13 

Some critics charge that Pulitzer is partly responsible for perpetuating a system which benefitted newspapers with the highest circulations. They say the lofty ideals purported in his Pulitzer Prize simply disguised his true desire to create a memorial to himself. "After all, if he felt the news media had become too commercial, he was in a perfect position to develop a strategy for making them less so. . . . 14 

 

A Paper for the People

Pulitzer's innovative use of graphic elements was one strategy that helped him garner more readers and advertising. However, he also drew people in by emphasizing coverage of new types of stories. Some of the changes gave human interest stories, gossip and even scandal prominent coverage simply because they fascinated readers. Pulitzer always stated that a paper could entertain readers and draw them in through its front page. The fourth page, which contained editorials, would educate.

He sought to make his journal appeal to the lowest common denominator, readers who did not consider themselves upper class literati. Immigrants, workingmen, and women were among the groups that often suffered from little or no education at the time; these were the groups Joseph Pulitzer sought out.

These groups flocked to the World because the paper took the "frivolous" interests of the masses seriously. Pulitzer urged his editors to locate articles of like interest on the same page. During the 1890s, the World developed a page consisting exclusively of sports, and another of "women's news." The sports page recognized, for the first time, that readers had an insatiable interest in the subject and demanded quality coverage. The World's women's page covered topics such as fashion, the feminist movement and morality (ostensibly only a women's issue at the time). 15 

The World did not strive for radicalism in its portrayal of the feminist movement. The paper publicized news about the movement, but declined to advocate specific goals like suffrage and equal education. By including short fiction in the Sunday edition, the World encouraged its women patrons to expand their reading. 16  However, the advice columns seldom recommended that a woman complete her schooling and seek to enter the professions. Pulitzer knew that his readers did not belong to the middle class, the chief proponent of the women's movement at the time. Many of the World's women readers were immigrants who had to work to support the family but had traditional ideas about their role in the home. His newspaper managed to treat this sensitive issue with care.

 

Opinions and Hard News

Pulitzer used another strategy to attract readers in addition to introducing new sections that dealt with women and sports. He knew that no newspaper was worth its salt unless it got patrons to care about serious issues. After reading a lengthy World article detailing fraud in the Equitable insurance company, Pulitzer advised head editor Don Seitz that the paper should be also fun to read: 17 

Following so long, and so very serious and article, comes immediately a dissertation on the tariff. . . . After the Equitable article should have come something lighter in touch and topics. . . ." 18 

Pulitzer probably found the March 15, 1909 editorial page to his liking. The lead editorial at the top left of the page did focus on the tariff, but the article underneath carried a trivial piece with the headline, "THE NORMAL WAIST." After announcing that men did not have to worry about their belt line, but a woman's waist offers "an intimate question in aesthetics," the World editors used fanciful phrases to ponder aloud when obesity is considered obscene.

After a rousing performance of verbal gymnastics, the editors ended the article with no real conclusion, saying: "Perhaps, after all, the normal waist is one concerning which Nature proposes and Fashion has no audacity to dispose." 19  The next article described the murder in Italy of a New York detective who had investigated the mob. By 1909, the editors of the World had mastered the art of guiding the reader's eye through a page in order to educate and entertain.

 

A Democratic Paper

On the opinions pages, Pulitzer concentrated on issues that interested the marginalized groups of immigrants, women and workingmen. Both of his newspapers, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the World, strongly supported the Democratic party. The editorial pages often carried censorious tales of graft and corruption committed by Republican office holders. Pulitzer even turned the presidential election of 1884 on its ear by exploiting a mistake made by the Republican candidate, James G. Blaine. Polls still favored the Republican stalwart at the end of October.

Grover Cleveland, the Democratic candidate, was struggling with scandal surrounding his illegitimate child. Republican supporters penned a popular refrain to describe their opponent: "Ma! Ma! Where's my pa? Gone to the White House, Ha! Ha! Ha!" 20  Pulitzer accepted the fact that Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock before his marriage, but he considered Blaine's transgressions a greater threat to the presidency.

As a congressman during the '70s, Blaine had received thousands of dollars from a railroad company over which he had regulatory supervision. By securing the incriminating documents from his secretary and through some amount of luck, Blaine avoided being prosecuted for his graft. However, during the 1884 election, the secretary disclosed some letters which Blaine had neglected to obtain. One message with the words, "Burn this letter," cemented in Democrats' minds the chant, "Blaine, Blaine, the liar from Maine." 21 

This election turned into one of the most sensational in U.S. history, with voters undecided between two men with very obvious flaws. One could not brush the bribing hand of industry away from his pocket; the other could not keep his own hands under control. Pulitzer saw the issue as clear-cut. Cleveland had erred in private life, while Blaine had betrayed the public trust. However, no Democratic paper was able to convince the public until Pulitzer published a front-page account of a little-noticed Republican fundraiser in New York.

The event was not out of the ordinary for an election year. Blaine met with financiers including William H. Vanderbilt, Jay Gould and Andrew Carnegie at the upscale Delmonico's restaurant to secure their support. However, the World described the affair as "THE ROYAL FEAST OF BALSHAZZAR BLAINE AND THE MONEY KINGS" in a seven-column headline. 22  The coverage, as well as a half-page cartoon depicting the candidate eating "lobby pudding" and "monopoly soup," focused the public on Blaine's shady financial deals. No other newspaper, whether Democratic or Republican, had published a detailed account of the fundraiser the day after it happened. But they all covered the event after the World's story made its splash. (See appendix for October 30 front page.)

 

Defining "Yellow Journalism":

Competition with Hearst

The Pulitzer name remains popular today because it is associated with the most prestigious award in American journalism. Yet many historians revile the award's benefactor with charges of irresponsible reporting and sensationalism. The Pulitzer name is most often linked in textbooks with that of William Randolph Hearst, a Californian who assumed control of the Journal in 1895.

Hearst burst onto Park Row, the New York street lined with newspaper buildings, and immediately began to shake things up. The ironic and tragic elements of the story cannot be ignored. The Journal was founded in 1882 by Albert Pulitzer, Joseph's brother. Albert sold the paper at a profit, and it continued with a modest circulation until Hearst moved to New York and purchased it. Surely, Hearst would have bought another paper had the Journal not been for sale, but Joseph had to live with the fact that the newspaper which became his chief competitor had originated within his own family. The two brothers became estranged over time, as Joseph considered his sibling rash and frivolous.

The irony does not end there; both Joseph Pulitzer and Hearst were outsiders when they came to New York. Their papers appealed to the same elements of the city that had previously been ignored by the press. Women, labor leaders, Democrats, immigrants and the poor found articles that held their interest and represented their political views.

Hearst's purchase of the Journal began one of the most dramatic periods of competition in journalistic history. He did not spare any expense in reaching his goal of increased circulation. He lowered the Journal's price to one cent, expanded the number of pages, and then dipped into his family's finances to support his bold moves. Much of his success came by imitation of Pulitzer. Hearst took the striking headlines of the World and made them larger and bolder. Trivial stories which compelled suspense and interest not only appeared on the front page of the Journal, they dominated it.

Early in 1896, Pulitzer began to pay serious attention to the newcomer. In January, Hearst enticed Richard Felton Outcault, the artist who drew the popular comic strip, "The Yellow Kid," to move to the Journal. The strip was named for the main character's colorful robes. Pulitzer's use of a color comic strip in the Sunday World was an innovation at the time. In addition to stealing Felton, Hearst managed in the same month to convince Pulitzer's entire Sunday staff to work for the Journal.

This constituted a coup on Park Row, and a dash of poetic justice. Pulitzer, although he was an established veteran in 1886, had originally stolen many of his staff members from other papers when he came to New York. His code name for the audacious publisher, "Gush," only begins to describe the animosity he felt toward the upstart. Hearst, at thirty-three, almost seemed a younger version of the forty-eight year-old Pulitzer. However, Pulitzer was never a man to resign in defeat. He hired George B. Luks to continue producing "The Yellow Kid" at the World even though its creator had left. The competition between Pulitzer and Hearst, each with his own brightly-colored comic strip, sealed their fates together and provided future historians with the convenient title of "yellow journalism."

Rivalry in the newspaper business generally results in a more informed public. Editors are compelled to become more innovative, and reporters must perform more research to scoop their competitors. Unfortunately, the financial and emotional stakes were too high in 1896 for Pulitzer or Hearst to consider losing. Both men had to contend with their tremendous egos and a public whose appetite had been whetted for sensation. Newspaper readers were begging for a scandal, regardless of the consequences, and that is what the World and the Journal delivered.

The Cuban insurrection would become the event that lowered the World's reputation forever as it sunk to compete with Hearst's Journal. The Journal fervently declared its support for the local revolutionaries against the tyranny of their Spanish rulers. Hearst even refused to carry news from Spanish sources, declaring only rebel informants could be trusted. Such a basic breach of journalistic objectivity offended the more conservative newspapers, but it made for exciting reading. People flocked to the newsstands to read the Journal's rebel accounts, which described the conflict in the simple language of the Spanish villain and the Cuban hero. 23 

The World could have acted responsibly and depicted the clash accurately for its readers. However, the rising circulation rates of both the World and the Journal during this period of jingoism show that the drama made money for these newspapers, and the competition was too tight to throw the money away. Both papers lowered their standards so much that they routinely carried news items directly off the pages of their rivals.

Using an old journalistic trick, Hearst caught the World in the act. An article appeared in the Journal in 1898 describing the death of Colonel Reflipe W. Thenuz, whose name was a refashioning of the phrase, "We pilfer the news." The next day, Pulitzer's paper carried the item, being bold enough to add specific dateline information to make the story appear authentic. 24  The Journal celebrated the gaffe for over a month while the World maintained a "pained silence" on its blunder. 25 

The explosion of the American battleship Maine in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, ensured that the U.S. would not be content to watch the Cuban spectacle from the bleacher seats any more. Two hundred and sixty crew members died in the blast, and a Navy board of inquiry examined the cause of the explosion. Many New York newspapers, including the Times, Tribune, Herald and Evening Post, counseled patience and peace for the time being. However, both the World and the Journal jumped on the jingo bandwagon, concurrently publishing a "suppressed cable" that said the explosion was not an accident. 26  The cable was later discovered to have been manufactured. 27 

The effect of the rabble rousing by the two largest newspapers in New York cannot be underestimated. The World claimed to have sold five million copies the week after the Maine disaster. 28  The public clamor for President McKinley to declare war was enormous as a result of the tainted reports in the papers. And though the Spanish-American War proved "splendid" from a military standpoint, it did not hold up to contemporary moral scrutiny.

Unfortunately, the World would be linked forever in history with Hearst's Journal under the banner of "yellow journalism" for the role it played in exacerbating the conflict. However, the conscious disregard for the facts was an aberration for Pulitzer, and his later correspondence revealed that the episode haunted him for the rest of his life. (See appendix for Hearst photo and example of sensational World front page.)

Other examples of the World's conduct reveal the paper did not always appeal to the lowest denominator. In a case similar to Cuba, a situation in South America threatened to turn into an international war. The discovery of gold in a disputed border area between Venezuela and British Guiana in 1895 prompted the Venezuelan president to appeal to President Cleveland on the basis of the Monroe Doctrine. Many Americans resented the evidence of British imperialism, especially in the Western hemisphere. Cleveland delivered a fiery message to Congress denouncing the British policy and practically demanded that the U.S. be involved in the arbitration process.

Instead of blindly supporting Cleveland, for whom he had fought so diligently in the 1884 election, Pulitzer instructed his editors to write balanced accounts of the situation. In one editorial, the World questioned the words of the President directly:

Is the integrity of Venezuela 'essential to the integrity of our free institutions?' . . . There is no menace to the boundary line. It is not our frontier. It is none of our business 29 

Pulitzer proved his genius for influencing the popular mood in a feat he dreamed up for the Christmas issue of the World. In an effort to quell the fighting mood in the U.S., he had the World office send hundreds of telegrams to British leaders asking them to cable collect with their statements of peaceful intent.

The responses ran on the front page. Portraits of the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York accompanied a reproduction of their joint cable, which said in part, "[We] earnestly trust . . . the present crisis will be arranged in a manner satisfactory to both countries. . . ." The Christmas World included all the elements of a classic Pulitzer appeal to the masses. It grabbed readers' attention, educated them and then appealed to their emotions. The headline over the story read "PEACE AND GOOD WILL." 30 

 

Crusades

Pulitzer was always invigorated by the idea of influencing public opinion. He thought the most effective way to accomplish this was to embark on journalistic crusades. A Pulitzer crusade involved weeks upon weeks of news stories and editorial comment devoted to one subject in order to bring about change. The drive to get Cleveland elected and the appeal to avoid war in Venezuela can both be classified as crusades. Even the World's irresponsible support of militarism against Spain in 1898 can be considered a crusade, although Pulitzer was compelled by his cynical, frenzied competition to take this stance.

The campaigns with the most journalistic integrity--those that might have won a prize for journalism, if one had existed--changed the public mood or exposed a previously unknown case of corruption. Four examples of crusades on typical topics follow: the bond issue of 1896, the impure milk scandal of the early 1880s, the Statue of Liberty fund drive and the Panama exposé in 1908.

The World's coverage of a proposed government bond issue provides a fine illustration of the newspaper at its activist best. In 1896, President Cleveland had floated government bond issues and had lost the country tremendous amounts of money because investors were not interested. When bonds failed to sell in the past, he had personally asked rich financiers to accept the bonds at a lower price. Pulitzer learned of another such bond issue which J.P. Morgan, James Woodward of Hanover Bank and James Stillman of National City Bank were seeking to buy at a discount rate. Forever distrustful of back room deals between government and the rich, he ordered the World staff to work on a solution. 31 

The editors sent 10,370 telegrams to banks and financiers to secure guarantees that they would buy the bonds at their true market value. Over half of them replied, pledging $235 million even though $100 million worth of bonds were available. The following appeared on the World editorial page on January 3:

[The World] asks you [Cleveland] to save the country from the mischief, the wrong and the scandal of the pending bond deal. . . . Secrecy of negotiation . . . awakens, unjustly, suspicions against the honor of the Government itself. . . . Trust the people, Mr. Cleveland! You can get all the gold you need . . . without paying any premium at all. So sure are we of this that The World now offers to head the list with a subscription of one million dollars on its own account. 32 

The above episode became an especially effective crusade, since within a few days the bond issue sold publicly to overwhelming demand. Pulitzer was caught in the awkward position of profiting $50,000 from a purchase he had intended as a public service. He kept the money.

While the rich were often a target of World crusades, the poor often benefitted from them. The numerous articles on milk prices during the early 1880s provides an example of how Pulitzer, an immensely successful beneficiary of the capitalist system, fought for the less fortunate. Milk dealers routinely blended water and solids like borax and soda into their product. In 1884, a witness before the State Dairy Commissioner said the fraud was necessary to satisfy public demand for cheap milk. Children of the poor suffered most from the corruption, and many grew sick or died from vitamin deficiencies.

Pulitzer knew that someone was skimming profits; he ordered the World chase after the story. Reporters discovered that the price of milk doubled and sometimes tripled from the farmers' hands to those of the city distributors. The blame lay with the railroad companies, which charged higher rates to transport milk than other products of similar weight and bulk. The World pilloried those at fault: "Every family man who pays eight or ten cents a quart for milk has the satisfaction of knowing that a good portion of that sum is unjustly extorted by the railroad companies, and that . . . his children [are] stinted in their natural and most healthful food." 33 

The World editorial suggested that more regulation would permanently improve milk quality. Pulitzer's recommendation preceded the Food and Drug Administration by twenty years. He proved himself a visionary, advocating reforms for the poor even before the extravagant Gilded Age had ended.

The bond issue and milk crusades proved that Pulitzer amounted to more than a sensationalist. Unlike some of his competitors, notably Hearst, who bit into scandal with the feeble manner of a hyena picking over a carcass, Pulitzer never succumbed to cynicism. In most cases, he offered his readers hope by discovering problems and then devising solutions.

The World's drive to bring the Statue of Liberty to the U.S. became a literal monument to Pulitzer's idealism. An immigrant himself, Pulitzer identified with the cause and also knew the World's many foreign-born readers would approve of the paper's efforts. He had the World embark on a fundraiser to pay for the Statue pedestal. To incite enthusiasm, the editorial page lectured on the subject: "It would be an irrevocable disgrace to New York City and the American Republic to have France send us this splendid gift without our having provided even so much as a landing space for it. . . . The World is a people's paper, and it now appeals to the people to come forward and raise this money." 34 

The paper constantly lambasted the more wealthy members of society for not contributing to the fund. 35  The final sum amounted to $101,091, and over 120,000 people had donated. These figures are a testament to the masses of people who gave what they could, and to the persistence of the World. A poem by Emma Lazarus won a contest in the newspaper and has adorned the pedestal ever since. Its first line, "Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor," could almost serve as a motto for the World newspaper, which provided many immigrants with their first taste of American journalism.

Later in his life, Pulitzer got drawn into another adventure which did not have the patriotic appearance of the Statue of Liberty fundraiser. President Theodore Roosevelt attempted to have the government sue the World proprietor for libel in 1908. The lawsuits came on the heels of a scathing editorial which said the President had knowingly lied about the Panamanian revolution. Roosevelt, who was pleased at the results of the revolution but privately unhappy that the U.S. had to send warships to encourage it, became incensed at the newspaper's impertinence. And he considered Joseph Pulitzer responsible.

The publisher, ironically, had no knowledge of the editorial when it first printed. He had been yachting off the coast of South Carolina when his aide read to him the headline, "WHO GOT THE MONEY?" The article charged that Roosevelt had known the $40 million disbursement for rights to the canal was not paid directly to the French government, as had been claimed. The World said a U.S. syndicate was involved in the deal, and some money had been given to American individuals with the President's knowledge. 36 

On December 15, Roosevelt decided to speak to Congress on the subject of libel. That day, he walked quietly and then publicly thrashed Pulitzer with his big stick: "It is . . . a high national duty to bring to justice this vilifier of the American people, this man who wantonly and wickedly and without one shadow of justification seeks to blacken the character of reputable private citizens and to convict the Government of his own country. . . ." 37 

Pulitzer must have been horrified, but he reacted bravely in the face of despair. He dictated an editorial which printed the next day: "Mr. Roosevelt is mistaken. He cannot muzzle The World. . . . [Congress] should make a thorough investigation of the whole Panama transaction, that the full truth may be known to the American people." 38  After pursuing suits in federal and state courts, Roosevelt finally succeeded in indicting Pulitzer and other journalists for libel in the District of Columbia. The judgement was moot, since none of the offenders could be arrested unless they entered the city. The World trumpeted victory, proclaiming, "Mr. Roosevelt is an episode. The World is an institution." 39 

The Panamanian scandal was one crusade that Pulitzer did not win. The might of the government officials and financiers ensured that the path of clues became too treacherous for other journalists to follow. Pulitzer stood alone, loudly declaring that the government had wronged its people, but failed to bring public clamor for an investigation.

 

Wasting of the Body

Inventing and coordinating the massive efforts of the World and the Post-Dispatch would have put a strain on any person. Pulitzer, who had never been known for a strong constitution, suffered under the job-related stress. One day in 1887, he walked into the World offices and picked up an article to edit. After he realized that he could hardly see the page, he went home and consulted an oculist. The doctor diagnosed him with a broken blood vessel in one eye and deterioration in the other. Pulitzer was advised to remain in a dark room for six weeks to have some chance at saving his sight. He followed these instructions, and it must have taken its toll on the previously active man and his family. 40 

In addition to his poor eyesight, Pulitzer suffered from asthma, weak lungs, diabetes and exhaustion. His hearing grew more acute as his eyes weakened. By the time he moved into a new mansion after losing his eyesight, he was not able to sleep in the main part of the building. He had an annex built for his sleeping quarters, and the floor of the passage to the main house rested on rollers to minimize creaking.

After fighting his illness and exacerbating it through stress encountered because of the newspaper, he had to leave the head post. An editorial in the October 16, 1890 issue stated: "Yielding to the advice of his physicians, Mr. Joseph Pulitzer has withdrawn entirely from the editorship of the World. . . ." 41  Following his abdication of the throne of supreme influence over New York's opinions, Pulitzer embarked on an around-the-world yachting journey, again on doctors' orders.

Physicians instructed him to avoid distress, especially that which would ensue from contact with the office. Despite the new editors' assertions that their former boss had "withdrawn entirely" from office politics, this was far from the case. Pulitzer left intimate instructions for his brother-in-law, William H. Davis, upon leaving for the trip. The former editor demanded that "nothing disagreeable or annoying unless of REAL IMPORTANCE" reach him during his voyage. Still, he left detailed directions for sending mail at each location of the journey 42 

Pulitzer would never run the World from behind a desk in the office as he had in the past. However, through frequent telegrams and conferences, he managed to use a hands-on approach from great distances. Pulitzer would continue to retire in the future, most notably on his sixtieth birthday, April 10, 1907. He hosted two grand dinners to commemorate the occasion and ran them in the same manner he managed his newspapers--he was present at neither party. Members of the Post-Dispatch staff, prominent lawyers, officials and others made up the gathering of sixty at the banqueting hall of the Southern hotel in St. Louis. Another gathering of sixty men took place simultaneously in New York at Delmonico's, the same posh restaurant which Pulitzer had pilloried James Blaine for patronizing.

Pulitzer directed the affair from Cap Martin, France, sending self-congratulatory cables to both assemblies. The one addressed to the St. Louis gathering read in part: "In retiring from the presidency [of the World] in favor of my son, Ralph, I want to express to you . . . my sincere appreciation for the integrity and ability with which the Post-Dispatch has been so successfully conducted. 43 

 

Working for Pulitzer

Working for a man as relentless as Pulitzer could be an alternately rewarding and terrifying experience. His many telegrams and letters to subordinates reveal that he was quick to offer both sanction and praise, depending on his quick judgement. When someone performed poorly in the office, the publisher did not waste time improving his organization. Henry W. Moore sent correspondence notifying Pulitzer that his wishes had been followed regarding one employee. "I have written Austin and he will cease his connection with the P-D on the 28th." 44 

To motivate editors, he often assigned two competent men to positions with overlapping authority. He often asked the men to report on each other in writing. Pulitzer tried not to encourage backbiting, but he did insist on accuracy. If one employee complained harshly of another's performance, he would forward the report to the offending loafer. He sent the following letter to editor Don Seitz a few days after the Maine disaster:

"[B]e kind enough to tell me exactly who of the Big Four--the two Merrils, Norris, & yourself--was at the office Sunday and Monday--and at what hours-- Another test of headship--and heartship--I don't remember two days of greater importance." 45 

The letter reveals the publisher's ambivalence about revealing his motives. He readily admitted that he thought employees worked more efficiently in a competitive atmosphere. Also, most of his employees knew that they were expected to spy on one another. Pulitzer thought the system worked, but over the years he lost many competent editors who disagreed with his methods.

Another way the publisher sought to make his newspapers stronger was by encouraging thrift. John A. Cockerill, Managing Editor at the World, wrote Pulitzer on many subjects regarding the office in June 1885. Cockerill explained why the paper was suffering from poor print quality: "The types are absolutely worn out." 46 

Although Pulitzer sometimes skimped on materials and supplies, he never tried to save money on salaries. In December 1884, Ignaz Kapper, Business Manager of the Post-Dispatch, wrote to confirm that he had followed the boss's orders: "I have paid Mr. Moore $300 and . . . I have given Mr. Taylor $100 with your compliments. Both will write you, I suppose, but they also desire me to express their thanks." Moore did write back thanking Pulitzer and wished him a happy New Year. 47 

 

Leaving an Endowment

As his ability to watchdog over his paper declined during the 1890s, Pulitzer began to look for ways to ensure his work would be reflected in the future. In 1892, he approached Seth Low, President of Columbia University, with a plan for a school of journalism. Low presented the plan to the school's trustees, but they declined Pulitzer's money.

In the summer of 1902 at his expansive Chatwold estate in Bar Harbor, Maine, Pulitzer dictated a rough plan for endowing a school of journalism to Columbia University. "My idea," he stated, "is to recognize that journalism is, or ought to be, one of the great and intellectual professions. . . ." 48  That year, he re-opened negotiations with the school, which had appointed a new president in the interim. Nicolas Murray Butler received the plan more warmly, even though he must have worried that a journalism school would adversely affect Columbia's reputation.

Pulitzer's 1902 outline for the journalism school included a provision for "annual prizes to particular journalists or writers for various accomplishments, achievements, and forms of excellence." 49  He realized in 1904 that he would put off the execution of his plan until after his death to avoid squabbling over details with Butler, whose strong will matched his own. Pulitzer also decided that the prizes would not be awarded until the journalism school was up and running successfully for three years. Thus, the Columbia School of Journalism opened in 1912, one year following the death of its benefactor. The first prizes were awarded in 1917.

Pulitzer's belief in a newspaper's independence has been reflected in his prize ever since. Seventy-six of the awards in journalism have gone to articles which exposed government graft and corruption, and articles on civil liberties abuses have garnered thirty-six awards. 50 

A typical award-winning article contains the classic elements of a World crusade. It is fascinating, it educates readers and, most of all, it is a scoop. 51  It exemplifies the type of news reporting Pulitzer loved. "I hate the idea of passing away known only as the proprietor of a paper," the publisher wrote to his doctor and personal friend, George Hosmer. 52 

No one would have forgotten the man who revolutionized the newspaper industry at the turn of the century, regardless of what he endowed. But Pulitzer, who had bought and sold so many newspapers to get his start in St. Louis, knew that he had staked his claim in a transient business. His will put his son, Ralph, in charge of the World. By 1931, the newspaper was bought by the Scripps-Howard chain and turned into the World-Telegram. The formidable World building, which at the time of its construction had been the tallest structure in New York, was razed in 1955 to make room for a new approach to the Brooklyn Bridge. 53 

The Post-Dispatch, which Pulitzer had tried to sell so many times, has lasted to the present day. Friends in St. Louis approached possible buyers in his stead as early as 1885. Charles Gibson wrote, "I had a business talk yesterday with [George W.] Fishback concerning the purchase of the Post-Dispatch . . . . I said it was useless to talk to you about any price less than $500,000." 54  Pulitzer's son, Joseph, served as an able proprietor of the Post-Dispatch following his father's death. The newspaper, the Pulitzer Prize and the Columbia School of Journalism reflect the values of the man who wrote the words, "Accuracy, Accuracy, Accuracy" on the newsroom wall.


Cite This Site
Page 1     Page 2     Notes     Endnotes     Full Document    

1. Introduction to the paper 2. Background on J.P. 3. Changing the look of the front page 4. A paper for the people
5. Opinions and hard news 6. A Democratic paper 7. Defining "Yellow Journalism": Competition with Hearst 8. Crusades
9. Wasting of the body 10. Working for Pulitzer 11. Leaving an endowment

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