By Jonah Raskin
March 15, 2010
James McGrath Morris sees parallels between Gilded Age media baron Joseph Pulitzer's time and ours, pointing out that when Pulitzer (1847-1911) began to shape "yellow journalism," newspapers were going out of business and readers were bemoaning the end of journalism as they knew it. Pulitzer charged ahead, boasting that the color pages of the New York World emerged from the state-of-the-art printing presses "like rainbow tints in the spray." Indeed, the World seemed like something entirely new in the staid universe of American newspapers, perhaps as revolutionary then as the Internet today and as provocative as the practitioners of advocacy journalism on Fox.
Morris' magisterial new biography, "Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power" (Harper: 560 pp., $29.99), is the first since W.A. Swanberg's 1967 work to reexamine the strange life of the man who was born to a prosperous Jewish family in Hungary and reinvented himself in the United States. He cut his eyeteeth as a cub reporter in St. Louis, and went on to buy one newspaper after another, each one bigger than the last.
Morris, who has had an interest in writing about Pulitzer since 1984, remembers the day that Jennifer Lee, a curator at Columbia University's Rare Book & Manuscript Library, tapped him on the shoulder and told him that another scholar was at work on Pulitzer. Was Morris interested in meeting him? Morris' first thought, he says from his home in the mountains of New Mexico, was "Oh, no, not competition. I don't need it." The competition turned out to be Nicholson Baker, the provocative novelist and ardent defender of print media, who was in the thick of the Pulitzer archives and eager to help Morris. He had just rescued a rare set of Pulitzer's flagship newspaper, the Sunday edition of the New York World, from the British Museum where it was slated for disposal, and he had come to the conclusion that Pulitzer "understood Sundays better than most people." His coffee-table book, "The World on Sunday" (2005), which he edited with his wife, Margaret Brentano, shows how sexy newspapers could be.
Indeed, the World published groundbreaking articles about the Mafia, "Health Hints," exposés about football injuries, delightful spoofs of Teddy Roosevelt and pieces by the likes of Mark Twain, who contributed "My First Lie and How I Got Out of It." The real glory of the World, as Baker quickly came to realize, was the artwork.
Though Baker had stolen some of his thunder, Morris persevered and unearthed an unpublished memoir by Joseph's brother and rival, Albert, who was also a reporter and editor and who had the gumption to sell his paper, the New York Journal, to a fledging newspaperman named William Randolph Hearst, who served, of course, as the model for Orson Welles' Charles Foster Kane and who became Pulitzer's fiercest competitor.
Morris' patrician ancestors, who took part in the American Revolution, probably would have disapproved of both Hearst and Pulitzer. Pulitzer tried out his sensational newspaper style in the provinces, at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, before bringing it to New York and shocking sedate readers. But Morris doesn't hold back his admiration for Pulitzer, or his wish that he might become better known as an editor and publisher than for the prizes that bear his name.
"Pulitzer had an uncanny ability to recognize and to harness the prodigious energies unleashed by the Industrial Revolution in 19th century America," Morris says. "He borrowed something from Dickens' genius, something from advertising, and something from the American love of spectacle. He put all those elements together in New York in a new form of journalism that delivered information and entertainment more quickly than ever before to the masses, especially to immigrants not unlike himself who were pouring into Brooklyn and Manhattan from all over Europe."
And Pulitzer certainly knew what his market wanted to read. "The World published articles and illustrations about ghetto dwellers in which they saw themselves and their own lives reflected with compassion and sympathy," Morris says.
His biography is not hagiography. He sees Pulitzer in all his complexity and with a sense of nuance. "Of course, Pulitzer also made a fortune and became a millionaire off their pennies and nickels. He ended his life defending law and order against striking workers, and he socialized with John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan. But he wasn't the warmonger that standard history books have made him out to be. Granted, he supported the U.S. invasion of Cuba in 1898; almost every newspaper did. When Venezuela and England were about to go to war, he urged diplomacy. The pen, he believed, was mightier than the sword."
An avid reader of newspapers as well as news and information on the Internet, Morris looks at the past through the lens of the present, and finds curious parallels. "Like Roger Ailes and Sarah Palin, Pulitzer believed in the power of the media to rally the troops," he says. "He wanted readers to turn from the front page to the editorial page, and he wanted to persuade readers to support his cause, whether it was for the 40-hour workweek, or Capt. Dreyfus, the French officer who was made a scapegoat for France's military defeat in the war against Prussia. Pulitzer believed that humor and sarcasm were more effective than heavy-handed prose. I think that if he were alive today he would skewer Palin and Ailes with panache, and a light touch."
Raskin is a professor in the communication studies department at Sonoma State University.
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