I recently completed a review of Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, & Power, a forthcoming biography of Joseph Pulitzer, who is routinely—but undeservedly—regarded as an iconic figure in American journalism.
The new biography, by James McGrath Morris, indulges in the cliché of Pulitzer the great innovator. The author calls him the “midwife to the birth of the modern mass media.”
My review, written for the peer-reviewed quarterly journal American Journalism, notes that the book contains ample material for what could have been a long-overdue reinterpretation of Pulitzer, one that would take him down several pegs.
“All the elements are there,” I write, “to depict Pulitzer not as innovator but as a cruel, ruthless, self-absorbed newspaper owner who became a millionaire championing the cause of the dispossessed while eager to rub elbows with the moneyed classes.”
Pulitzer was a hypocrite and an absentee publisher. But the opportunity for a much-needed reinterpretation was missed.
Pulitzer’s correspondence, which Morris tapped extensively, certainly encourages revisionist treatment. As I noted in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism:
“Pulitzer’s mean-spirited letters to senior managers do little to support the reputation historians have accorded him, that of a heroic and innovative journalistic icon.”
The new biography also indulges in a media myth in describing William Randolph Hearst, Pulitzer’s rival in New York City journalism in mid- and late 1890s, as an imitator of Pulitzer’s flagship newspaper, the New York World.
It’s quite conventional to make such a claim.
And misleading, too.
Hearst’s significant model was a British journalist named William T. Stead, who in the mid-1880s offered a vision of “government by journalism.” Stead argued that the journalist was “the ultimate depository of power in modern democracy.”
Hearst clearly borrowed from Stead in developing his model of the “journalism of action,” which sought to do much more than gathering, printing, and commenting on the news. As Hearst’s New York Journal put it in 1897, the “journalism of action” obliged a newspaper to inject itself conspicuously and often into public life, to “fitly render any public service within its power.”
It was a breathtaking model of activism that went well beyond the stunt journalism of Pulitzer’s World.
Oddly, the new biography fails to acknowledge Pulitzer’s nod to Hearst’s success with the Journal.
As infirm and disagreeable as Pulitzer had become by 1897, he was not without moments of keen insight. In a letter late that year to his business manager, Pulitzer invoked “Geranium,” his code name for Hearst’s Journal, and declared:
“I personally think Geranium a wonderfully able & attractive and popular paper, perhaps the ablest in the one vital sense, of managing to be talked about; of attracting attention; of constantly furnishing something which will compel people wherever they meet, whether in the drawing room, or in the poor house, elevated car or dinner table, to talk about something in that paper. That is the sort of brains the World needs. Pardon me for saying also, that with all its faults, which I should not like to copy—though they have been exaggerated—it is a newspaper.”