Leonard Quart | Letter From New York: Pulitzer critical to establishing journalism as a bulwark of freedom

Letter From New York

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NEW YORK — In the Donald Trump era, the press has been one of the few bold and constant voices to speak out against the world of lies, corruption, and the transgressive and near unconstitutional political behavior that relentlessly envelop our lives. Two great papers, The New York Times and The Washington Post, have bravely grasped the instant, printing story after story scrupulously unearthing the squalid details of the Trump cesspool — and gaining record readerships in the process. They have continued their trenchant reporting despite eliciting raging diatribes and tweets from Trump.

Their courage is probably what the framers of the Constitution had in mind when their First Amendment to the Constitution prevented Congress from prohibiting the abridging of the press. The amendment has allowed the press to act, albeit intermittently, as a bulwark of freedom throughout our history.

Of course today there are fewer newspapers, and many that exist lack sufficient resources to do investigative reporting on a national level. But two of the few that do, like The Times and The Post, have just won Pulitzer Prizes "for deeply sourced, relentlessly reported coverage in the public interest that dramatically furthered the nation's understanding of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and its connections to the Trump campaign, the president-elect's transition team and his eventual administration."


Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant who shaped American journalism in the late 19th century, established those prizes. Oren Rudavsky's documentary, "Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People," provides an excellent introduction to the man's unique contributions to journalism.

Pulitzer came to the U.S. to fight in the Civil War, taking the place of a rich American who bought his way out of serving. Pulitzer was an ambitious workaholic and in St. Louis amassed enough money by having a magical touch with investments to buy two newspapers and combine them into the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The paper was successful, its circulation and advertising booming, for Pulitzer had a gift for knowing just how to reach a mass readership, and understood that "to do its job, a newspaper had to make enemies." Provocatively, he always publicized his actions, like publishing the names of St. Louis's tax-dodging elites, which helped increase the paper's readership.

After making a pragmatic marriage to a woman of high social status, he was ready to take on New York, and bought The World in 1883. In the film, Rudavsky uses talking heads of American historians whose analysis deepens the narrative, a number of period photos, colorful graphics from the World, and a few generally flat dramatized scenes with Liev Schreiber offering accented voice-overs as Pulitzer. There is nothing stylistically adventurous about the film, but it succinctly conveys who Pulitzer was as a man and a journalist.

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Pulitzer's The World transformed journalism in a time when newspapers were the predominant form of mass communication, and people read more than one newspaper. He aimed the paper at immigrant and working class readers, whose champion he became during a time (the Gilded Age) when New York had great wealth and crushing poverty — not much different than today. He may have been immensely wealthy but believed in progressive ideals, taking the side of ordinary people against those who held power, and was uncompromising in his commitment to investigative reporting, publishing exposes of tenement abuses and other forms of corruption. He was progressive except when it came to the wages he paid children who hawked his newspapers on the streets.

He created a paper with stunning layouts that carried short stories, cartoons like The Yellow Kid,and sheet music to popular songs. It was also dedicated to visual journalism and was filled with richly illustrated information that served to educate its readers.


But he didn't neglect covering crime stories or at times sensationalizing the news. In fact, it was Pulitzer who founded "yellow journalism." The film recounts the ugly saga of his competition with William Randolph Hearst, another titan of yellow journalism, that had them both promoting the Spanish-American War with invented stories and selling a great many copies of their papers in the process. After the fact, Pulitzer admitted it was mistake, but Hearst never did. But Pulitzer did openly attack Theodore Roosevelt, calling his building of the Panama Canal a corrupt, colonialist power-grab. This aroused TR's ire, triggering a libel case that went to the Supreme Court — which Pulitzer won when the Court decreed no president was above the law. I have a feeling his victory over Roosevelt must have helped him expiate his guilt over the war of imperial conquest he helped manufacture.

Pulitzer was a journalistic genius, but he was a difficult and complex man. He was a driven micromanager who treated his wife and staff harshly. But the film doesn't offer any penetrating insight into the psyche of a man beset by illness, depression and blindness who spent his last years as a recluse, though still running his newspaper, much of the time from his yacht.

It's clear from the film that Pulitzer was one of the most significant figures in American journalism. He was a brilliant salesman as well as an innovative mind. Most importantly, he was believer in the freedom of the press and treated journalism as a calling whose prime function was "to watch over the safety and welfare of the people." The film concludes on that note with a powerful montage of images that express what journalism does when it's operating at its full potential.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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