New Biography Looks at the Man Behind the Pulitzer Legacy
Most of us have heard of the Pulitzer Prize, the annual awards honoring excellence in journalism. But what about the men behind it? Joseph Pulitzer was a penniless immigrant who arrived in the United States 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.
Pulitzer’s story is told in the new biography, “Pulitzer: a Life in Politics, Print, and Power.” I recently spoke to its author, James McGrath Morris, who reckons that today “Pulitzer would be Twittering.”
A transcript is after the jump.
JEFFREY BROWN: Many know the prize, but what of the men 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: Thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: You say right at the beginning of this book that Joseph Pulitzer was “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 gifts that Pulitzer gave to us and changed America and politics.
JEFFREY BROWN: 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 St. Louis because he spoke German and St. Louis was a German city. Got involved in immigrant politics, but at that point of the 19th century, journalism and politics were two sides of the same coin.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah, very tied together right.
JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: The two main papers in St. 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: He started in St. Louis both in journalism and politics as a kind of reformer.
JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: Very much so.
JEFFREY BROWN: Very passionate about the things he wanted to change at the local level.
JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: Particularly corruption. St. 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 publically available information. For instance, he published the tax returns, which was then public information, of the richest people in St. Louis, revealing that they claimed they had no money. And that’s very much the kind of thing that Pulitzer would do, created journalism that was talked about, instigate reform and then cover the reform.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now to fast forward, he moves to New York and takes over the New York World. It’s hard almost to fathom how influential and important that became. 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 want to be comparably influential in circulation alone, it would have to increase its circulation by 300 percent.
JEFFREY BROWN: 300 percent. And it’s pretty influential as it is.
JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: It’s very much so. Well, I’ll 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 others states. So it had tremendous influence. In fact probably likely, at the 1884 election of Cleveland, the World was responsible for that one election.
JEFFREY BROWN: And how did he build it into that? Because it was not that when he took over, but there became a kind of style, signature, whatever, formula. What was it?
JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: 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 interest. Before his time, newspapers were boring. You had to read the entire letter from London to find out the Crimean War was over. And when you picked up a Pulitzer paper it had, you know, huge headlines, dynamic story of interest, something that — Pulitzer’s message to his reporters was always, give me something that everybody will be talking about that night at the dinner 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 this 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 St. Louis and then New York to what we all now know as yellow journalism, right? And that’s part of the legacy as well.
JEFFREY BROWN: It’s part of the legacy. It’s somewhat an unfair rap on Pulitzer, but it is true that he and Hearst in this incredible circulation war, their papers engaged in sensationalism and fabrication of all kinds and sort. And that may be, you know, the hidden motive and why endowed the Columbia Journalism School and the Pulitzer Prize, in an attempt to cleanse himself. 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. 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. You just spent six years with this fellow Pulitzer. What insight from him and his time or lessons 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 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. And he noticed the invention of the Victorian internet, the telegraph. So he could publish news in the afternoon in St. 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 medium is not the message. It’s what’s in it. And if you read the journalism he inspired, it never lost track of the fact that its basis is a story, much like the Dickens of his world 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.