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Joseph Pulitzer: Biography Tracks Rise of Media Empire

February 24, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown talks to biographer James McGrath Morris about his new biography on Joseph Pulitzer, the media baron who helped shape the news business.
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MARGARET WARNER: Next: the Hungarian who transformed American journalism.

Jeffrey Brown has our book conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Many know the prize, but what of the man behind it. Joseph Pulitzer was a penniless immigrant who arrived in the U.S. in 1864 speaking no English. He became a reporter, a politician, and, most of all, a media baron who helped shape the history of the news business.

His story is told in a new biography, “Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power.”

Author James McGrath Morris joins me now.

Welcome to you.

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS, author, “Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: You say right at the beginning of this book that Joseph Pulitzer was — quote — “the midwife to the birth of the modern mass media.”

What does that mean?

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: Well, I struggled with that word, because I think of the comparison that Picasso wasn’t the only cubist, yet he was the central one.

Pulitzer was the central man who reshaped the American media. Others were involved in that, Hearst, his great imitator. But Pulitzer changed journalism entirely, in a way that all of our news consumption habits today, the very idea of purchasing news, the way it’s written, the style it’s written, the basis of a story being part of news are all gifts that Pulitzer gave to us and changed America and politics.

JEFFREY BROWN: He — he was in some ways an unlikely figure for this role.

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: Very unlikely. I mean, he came here not speaking any English. He moved to Saint Louis because he spoke German, and Saint Louis was a German city.

He got involved in immigrant politics. But, at point in the 19th century, journalism and politics were two sides of the same coin.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, very tied together, right?

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: The two main papers in Saint Louis were The Missouri Democrat and The Missouri Republican. And those papers were sponsored and paid for. And this was the beginning of the independent press movement, the notion of a newspaper that was sustained by means other than political contributions and that, in a sense, represented the people.

And that’s why we got this whole new style of journalism. The notion of objectivity, of reporting, the very notion of journalism as a public service are all legacies of Pulitzer.

JEFFREY BROWN: But he started in Saint Louis…

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: … both in journalism and politics as a kind of reformer…

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: Very much so.

JEFFREY BROWN: … and very passionate about the things he wanted to change at the local level.

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: Particularly corruption. Saint Louis, like most major American cities at that time, the county government was incredibly corrupt.

And Pulitzer saw journalism as a means to reform — it was an extension of politics — by — in a sense, shining the light on the dark recesses of government and exposing what was going on was a means of reform.

Some of his greatest journalistic coups were, much like I.F. Stone in the 1950s, all he was doing was publishing publicly available information. For instance, he published the tax returns, which were then public information, of the richest people in Saint Louis, revealing that they claimed they had no money.

And that’s very much the kind of thing that Pulitzer would do, create a journalism that was talked about, instigate reform, and then cover the reform.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, to fast-forward…

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: Please, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: … he moves to New York and takes over the New York world. It’s hard almost to fathom how influential and important that became.

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: You used some examples there, but give us a sense.

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: Well, I did a little math recently, and if The New York Times wanted to be comparably influential in circulation alone, it would have to increase its circulation by 300 percent.

JEFFREY BROWN: Three hundred percent?

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: I…

JEFFREY BROWN: And it’s pretty influential as it is, right?

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: It’s very much so.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: Well, I will give you another example.

I found in the archives letters from candidates for governor from states like Oregon applying to Pulitzer’s New York paper for an endorsement. No one would do that today. No one — The New York Times is a national paper, but it doesn’t endorse governors, candidates in other states.

So, it had tremendous influence. In fact, we’re probably likely that the 1894 election of Cleveland was responsible — the world was responsible for that one…

JEFFREY BROWN: And how did he build it into that? Because it wasn’t that when he took over.

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: No.

JEFFREY BROWN: But there became a kind of style, signature, whatever, a formula.

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What was it?

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: The — the Pulitzer magic was to begin to write about the urban world, particularly its lower class and its middle class, in a way that represented the interests.

Before his time, newspapers were boring. You had to read the entire letter from London to find out the Crimean War was over.

JEFFREY BROWN: And when you picked up a Pulitzer paper, it had, you know, huge headlines, a dynamic story of interest, something that — Pulitzer’s message to his reporters always is, give me something that everybody will be talking about that night at the dining room table.

So, what he did is, he began to cover the lives of these immigrants coming to New York. And, you know, if you go into anybody’s house today and go to their refrigerator, what are you going to find? A clipping of their son’s achievement, their daughter’s achievement.

The achievement existed, but the clipping gives it a verisimilitude, a kind of reality. Well, Pulitzer was dignifying the lives of these people. And they saw in that paper something for them. So, there was a symbiotic relationship. He wrote about them, and then took their pennies to make his fortunes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, yet, the arc here is from this kind of passionate reformer against corruption in Saint Louis and then New York to what we all now know as yellow journalism, right?

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: Certainly.

JEFFREY BROWN: And — and that’s part of the legacy as well.

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: It’s part of the legacy. It’s somewhat an unfair rap on Pulitzer, but it is true that he — he and Hearst, in this — this incredible circulation war that papers engaged in sensationalism and fabrication of all kinds of sort.

And that may be, you know, the hidden motive and why he endowed the Columbia Journalism School and the Pulitzer Prize, in an attempt to cleanse himself. I used to — I like to think of them, Pulitzer and Hearst, very much like Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty involved in that struggle in the final chapter, where they both go off the cliff together.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mm-hmm.

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: Pulitzer is wrapped up in the sensationalistic charge, but, in some ways, it’s misplaced. Really, Hearst — if there is a villain, Hearst is the one who outdoes Pulitzer on this score.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, here we are at another time of enormous change, right, in the newspaper and the world of journalism.

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: Certainly.

JEFFREY BROWN: You — you just spent six years with this fellow, Pulitzer. What do you — what insight from him and his time and — or lessons do you — do you take to ours?

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: Well, as a passionate consumer of journalism, I worry about this all the time. I jokingly say that Pulitzer would be Twittering.

And what I mean by that is that Pulitzer was not an Edison. He didn’t invent things. He had this clear sense of trends, things that were going on. When he bought his first newspaper, he bought an afternoon paper. He noticed that people were — had gaslight, electric light. They were beginning to read in the evening.

He noticed that workers were coming off the farms and riding trolleys and needing something.

JEFFREY BROWN: Commuting.

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: Commuting, yes.

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: And he noticed the invention of the Victorian Internet, the telegraph. So he could publish news in the afternoon in Saint Louis of what happened in Congress that morning, meaning the next day’s paper had yesterday’s news. And that’s one of the kinds of things.

And the thing he kept telling his reporters was to pay attention to content. The — the medium is not the message. It’s what’s in it. And if you read the journalism he inspired, it — it never lost track of the fact that at its basis is a story.

Much like the Dickens of his world, he — everything had to have that narrative drive, that kind of colorful adjectives that drove people to read it.

And I think that, in some ways, was the magic. He kept getting back to the story. And I think, in some ways, with the cacophony of sound we now have in multimedia presentations, we’re losing that narrative thread that is what drives us to listen and read stories.

JEFFREY BROWN: But story is still the key?

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: Exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is “Pulitzer.”

James McGrath Morris, nice to talk to you.

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: Pleasure. Thank you.