JOSEPH PULITZER, 1847–1911
John Singer Sargent's portrait
of Joseph Pulitzer
Joseph Pulitzer was born in Mako, Hungary on April 10, 1847, the son of a wealthy grain merchant of Magyar-Jewish origin and a German mother who was a devout Roman Catholic. His younger brother, Albert, was trained for the priesthood but never attained it. The elder Pulitzer retired in Budapest and Joseph grew up and was educated there in private schools and by tutors. Restive at the age of seventeen, the gangling 6'2" youth decided to become a soldier and tried in turn to enlist in the Austrian Army, Napoleon's Foreign Legion for duty in Mexico, and the British Army for service in India. He was rebuffed because of weak eyesight and frail health, which were to plague him for the rest of his life. However, in Hamburg, Germany, he encountered a bounty recruiter for the U.S. Union Army and contracted to enlist as a substitute for a draftee, a procedure permitted under the Civil War draft system. At Boston he jumped ship and, as the legend goes, swam to shore, determined to keep the enlistment bounty for himself rather than leave it to the agent. Pulitzer collected the bounty by enlisting for a year in the Lincoln Cavalry, which suited him since there were many Germans in the unit. He was fluent in German and French but spoke very little English. Later, he worked his way to St. Louis. While doing odd jobs there, such as muleteer, baggage handler, and waiter, he immersed himself in the city's Mercantile Library, studying English and the law. His great career opportunity came in a unique manner in the library's chess room. Observing the game of two habitues, he astutely critiqued a move and the players, impressed, engaged Pulitzer in conversation. The players were editors of the leading German language daily, Westliche Post, and a job offer followed. Four years later, in 1872, the young Pulitzer, who had built a reputation as a tireless enterprising journalist, was offered a controlling interest in the paper by the nearly bankrupt owners. At age 25, Pulitzer became a publisher and there followed a series of shrewd business deals from which he emerged in 1878 as the owner of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and a rising figure on the journalistic scene.
Earlier in the same year, he and Kate Davis, a socially prominent Washingtonian woman, were married in the Protestant Episcopal Church. The Hungarian immigrant youth - once a vagrant on the slum streets of St. Louis and taunted as "Joey the Jew" - had been transformed. Now he was an American citizen and as speaker, writer, and editor had mastered English extraordinarily well. Elegantly dressed, wearing a handsome, reddish-brown beard and pince-nez glasses, he mixed easily with the social elite of St. Louis, enjoying dancing at fancy parties and horseback riding in the park. This lifestyle was abandoned abruptly when he came into the ownership of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. James Wyman Barrett, the last city editor of The New York World, records in his biography Joseph Pulitzer and His World how Pulitzer, in taking hold of the Post-Dispatch, "worked at his desk from early morning until midnight or later, interesting himself in every detail of the paper." Appealing to the public to accept that his paper was their champion, Pulitzer splashed investigative articles and editorials assailing government corruption, wealthy tax-dodgers, and gamblers. This populist appeal was effective, circulation mounted, and the paper prospered. Pulitzer would have been pleased to know that in the conduct of the Pulitzer Prize system which he later established, more awards in journalism would go to exposure of corruption than to any other subject.
Pulitzer paid a price for his unsparingly rigorous work at his newspaper. His health was undermined and, with his eyes failing, Pulitzer and his wife set out in 1883 for New York to board a ship on a doctor-ordered European vacation. Stubbornly, instead of boarding the steamer in New York, he met with Jay Gould, the financier, and negotiated the purchase of The New York World, which was in financial straits. Putting aside his serious health concerns, Pulitzer immersed himself in its direction, bringing about what Barrett describes as a "one-man revolution" in the editorial policy, content, and format of The World. He employed some of the same techniques that had built up the circulation of the Post-Dispatch. He crusaded against public and private corruption, filled the news columns with a spate of sensationalized features, made the first extensive use of illustrations, and staged news stunts. In one of the most successful promotions, The World raised public subscriptions for the building of a pedestal at the entrance to the New York harbor so that the Statue of Liberty, which was stranded in France awaiting shipment, could be emplaced.
The formula worked so well that in the next decade the circulation of The World in all its editions climbed to more than 600,000, and it reigned as the largest circulating newspaper in the country. But unexpectedly Pulitzer himself became a victim of the battle for circulation when Charles Anderson Dana, publisher of The Sun, frustrated by the success of The World launched vicious personal attacks on him as "the Jew who had denied his race and religion." The unrelenting campaign was designed to alienate New York's Jewish community from The World. Pulitzer's health was fractured further during this ordeal and in 1890, at the age of 43, he withdrew from the editorship of The World and never returned to its newsroom. Virtually blind, having in his severe depression succumbed also to an illness that made him excruciatingly sensitive to noise, Pulitzer went abroad frantically seeking cures. He failed to find them, and the next two decades of his life he spent largely in soundproofed "vaults," as he referred to them, aboard his yacht, Liberty, in the "Tower of Silence" at his vacation retreat in Bar Harbor Maine, and at his New York mansion. During those years, although he traveled very frequently, Pulitzer managed, nevertheless, to maintain the closest editorial and business direction of his newspapers. To ensure secrecy in his communications he relied on a code that filled a book containing some 20,000 names and terms. During the years 1896 to 1898 Pulitzer was drawn into a bitter circulation battle with William Randolph Hearst's Journal in which there were no apparent restraints on sensationalism or fabrication of news. When the Cubans rebelled against Spanish rule, Pulitzer and Hearst sought to outdo each other in whipping up outrage against the Spanish. Both called for war against Spain after the U.S. battleship Maine mysteriously blew up and sank in Havana harbor on February 16, 1898. Congress reacted to the outcry with a war resolution. After the four-month war, Pulitzer withdrew from what had become known as "yellow journalism." The World became more restrained and served as the influential editorial voice on many issues of the Democratic Party. In the view of historians, Pulitzer's lapse into "yellow journalism" was outweighed by his public service achievements. He waged courageous and often successful crusades against corrupt practices in government and business. He was responsible to a large extent for passage of antitrust legislation and regulation of the insurance industry. In 1909, The World exposed a fraudulent payment of $40 million by the United States to the French Panama Canal Company. The federal government lashed back at The World by indicting Pulitzer for criminally libeling President Theodore Roosevelt and the banker J.P. Morgan, among others. Pulitzer refused to retreat, and The World persisted in its investigation. When the courts dismissed the indictments, Pulitzer was applauded for a crucial victory on behalf of freedom of the press. In May 1904, writing in The North American Review in support of his proposal for the founding of a school of journalism, Pulitzer summarized his credo: "Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mould the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations."
In 1912, one year after Pulitzer's death aboard his yacht, the Columbia School of Journalism was founded, and the first Pulitzer Prizes were awarded in 1917 under the supervision of the advisory board to which he had entrusted his mandate. Pulitzer envisioned an advisory board composed principally of newspaper publishers. Others would include the president of ColumbiaUniversity and scholars, and "persons of distinction who are not journalists or editors." Today, the 19-member board is composed mainly of leading editors or news executives. Four academics also serve, including the president of Columbia University and the dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. The dean and the administrator of the prizes are nonvoting members. The chair rotates annually to the most senior member. The board is self-perpetuating in the election of members. Voting members may serve three terms of three years. In the selection of the members of the board and of the juries, close attention is given to professional excellence and affiliation, as well as diversity in terms of gender, ethnic background, geographical distribution and size of newspaper.