The man who made headlines
Joseph Pulitzer's towering presence in the American newspaper industry was not only because of his passionate patronage of investigative journalism and journalistic excellence but also because he understood, before anyone else did, that the newspaper business was exactly that a business. RATNA RAJAIAH writes.
Celebrating journalistic excellence ... " Children racing alongside a freight train in Mexico" was a picture that bagged Don Bartletti of the L.A. Times this year's Pulitzer for best feature photography.
WE live in uncertain times, when much seems to be coming tumbling down around us and amongst the rubble, we see the remains of so many heroes, so many broken shards of impeccable reputations ... .
In recent weeks, journalistic probity has come under fire inside what has long been considered one the bastions of journalistic excellence the New York Times. Apart from one reporter being caught plagiarising or fabricating stories, the other shocker was of that Rick Bragg, one of the paper's Pulitzer winning feature writer who filed a story in his name that was widely known to be the work of some other writer. Fortunately for everyone around, that wasn't the story that Bragg won the Pulitzer for. Which makes this as good a time as any to make acquaintance with the man in whose name that award is given.
For a man considered as American as the Star Spangled Banner, there was very little American about Joseph Pulitzer. A Budapest boy who came to America because he heard the U.S. Army was recruiting. Somehow he thought Uncle Sam would give him the chance that three European armies had denied him. It did and Pulitzer stayed on to enlist in the Lincoln cavalry. But for all his un-American origins, there was one thing wholeheartedly American about Pulitzer. The unabashed enthusiasm with which he grasped the slimmest of chances that life offered him, assuming as all Americans must do, that the universe was created purely to be their playing field!
And why not? Only America would allow a scrawny, 17-year-old, penniless Hungarian Jew with weak eyesight who barely knew any English to work his way through as a waiter, baggage handler, muleteer, grave digger and a reporter in a German language newspaper to become one of the most enduring symbols of excellence in American journalism.
But Pulitzer's towering presence in the American newspaper industry is not only because of his passionate patronage of investigative journalism and journalistic excellence but also because he understood, before anyone else did, that the newspaper business was exactly that a business. That newspapers didn't sell only on the basis of journalistic quality and content. That in a free market, you had to try as hard to catch the consumer's eye, whether he was spending his two cents on a newspaper or on a Dunkin' Donut.
In 1883, when Pulitzer, already a moneyed man at 36, bought the New York World, it was a mediocre, $40,000-a-year loss-making nobody. But that didn't faze Pulitzer who had his own ideas about running a newspaper, all of them radical and path breaking. Naturally, when he implemented them, there was much outrage at the defiling of kosher journalism.
For example, Pulitzer considered the front page of the newspaper his show window where he strutted the stuff that would lure, hook and ultimately sell. So one of the first things he did was to put large, eye-catching visuals on the front page that dramatically "pointed" to the lead story. Then he transformed headlines for lengthy, verbose things into instant attention-grabbers by making them terse, provoking attention grabbers, short enough to span large and bold across the page.
Pulitzer then shrewdly factored in mass appeal, making room for what was then considered journalistic "fluff" stories which many dismissed as scandal and sensation-mongering, women's issues and fashion, agony aunts and romantic fiction; things which no "serious" newspaper worth its weight in newsprint would stoop to. He was the first to give sport coverage its due, devoting an entire section to it. Today, a newspaper without the sports section is unthinkable.
Pulitzer also pioneered the daily comic strip. It was in his paper that Richard Outcault's hugely popular "Hogan's Alley", based on life in New York slums, made its debut. The main character was the "Yellow Kid", thus labelled for his bright yellow night shirt, a colour that would come to haunt Pulitzer later on ... .
And so the front page of the very first edition of the New York World after Pulitzer took over looked like this ... .
The headline screamed "The Deadly Lightning!" above a truly scary description of a New Jersey thunderstorm. Also featured was the "tragic" story of a bankrupt California millionaire; a violent revolt in Haiti, where 400 victims allegedly were dynamited; and the gruesome execution of a Sing Sing inmate who, having refused to see a priest, went to his death shouting, "I'm not a Catholic! I'm a Democrat!"
It was no wonder then that, Pulitzer's brand of journalism was seen by many of his contemporaries as the worst form of journalistic sensationalism.
But it didn't bother Pulitzer. He knew he had his winning formula and he moved full steam ahead, introducing more new ideas. Like the political cartoon, which he used as a powerful motor of public opinion. In 1884, the New York World carried a cartoon by Walt McDougall about a dinner to honour Republican presidential candidate James G. Blaine. The cartoon "The Royal Feast of Belshazzar Blaine and the Money Kings" a searing indictment of Blaine's questionable methods of campaign fund-raising contributed to Blaine's defeat in the election five days later.
That Pulitzer rocked the world of American journalism there was no doubt. But did his maverick formula work commercially?
Dear me, yes.
Just five years after he bought the New York World from financier Jay Gould, the circulation of the paper had rocketed from 15,000 to 150,000 and Pulitzer was a media mogul in the truest sense of the word! By 1890, that figure had climbed to 6,00,000. Small wonder then that it caught the equally opportunistic eye of Randolf Hearst who launched the New York Journal in an attempt to chomp of a chunk of this very lucrative pie!
So was Pultizer just another savvy, opportunistic American businessman with an eye on the main chance? Was the success of his newspaper just a function of him shrewdly exploiting mass opinion and tastes? And did he use his millions to buy himself respectability by instituting awards?
Not at all. Investigative, crusading journalism found its true champion in Pulitzer. He battled relentlessly for the average New Yorker, the first generation immigrant who lived and worked in the most appalling conditions in slums and sweat shops a creature that Pulitzer knew so very well because he never forgot "Joey The Jew", the homeless New York slum rat who became the oh-so respectable Joseph Pulitzer.
... and Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer A. Scott Berg remembers Katharine Hepburn.
Of all his crusades, one of the most famous is how the Statue of Liberty finally came to rest on the New York harbour ... .
Two years after France officially presented it to the United States in 1884, the statue continued to languish in France, because New York city had run out of funds to complete the massive pedestal on which she would stand. Pulitzer launched an emotionally charged campaign in his paper to collect the money. Penny donations poured in, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain donated original manuscripts to the fund-raising auction, the pedestal was completed and soon New York joyously brought its First Lady home. Inscribed on the pedestal on is a poem by Emma Lazarus's.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Perhaps just what Pulitzer wanted his fellow New Yorkers to remember him as.
Pulitzer gave one more legacy to the journalistic world. The phrase "yellow journalism". At the time, a not-so-complimentary reference to the aggressive, competitive, no-holds-barred journalism that spawned when Hearst pitted his New York Journal against Pulitzer's paper. It peaked during the Spanish American War, often referred to as the world's first "media war", when stories from the war zone were sensationalised sometimes even manufactured by both papers to turn the tide of public opinion against Spain and for American intervention on behalf of Cuba's freedom struggle. So why the word "yellow"? One theory suggests that it refers to the Yellow Kid in Hogan's Alley. One of the Hearst's first broadsides against Pulitzer was to pinch Richard Outcault, the Yellow Kid's creator.
Ironic, is it not that the man who today represents journalistic excellence was, during his own lifetime, considered by many as a sensationalist who would do anything to up those circulation figures? Yellow journalism has come to mean something much more virulent today journalistic malpractice. But the question that comes up is do the ends justify the means? Pulitzer bent many of what were at the time sacred rules of journalism. But to him and his admirers, he did it only to fuel the crusade that he led against injustice, corruption, poverty and suppression of basic human rights.
To this end, he shouted, cajoled, sensationalised, exaggerated, twisted arms and sometimes the truth. But to many, it was okay because he achieved his aim of making the lot of the New Yorker a far better one.
So, if Jason Blair, had, for example, cooked up the story of a fictitious young drug addict only to shock New York to doing something about the drug racket or if Rick Bragg had plagiarised the story about Florida oysterman only to save them from fading into penniless oblivion, would we have forgiven them? More importantly, would Joseph Pulitzer have?
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