Skip to comments.The Hungarian gift to US news
Posted on 09/04/2003 10:11:50 AM PDT by Prodigal Son
ONE hundred years ago this month Joseph Pulitzer, who emigrated to the United States from Hungary as a young man, gave $1 million dollars to Columbia University. The gift would lead to the Pulitzer prizes, the most prestigious awards in American journalism.
In 1903 Pulitzer was a powerful, wealthy publisher, praised for bringing newspapers to the masses and for calling attention to their concerns.
He was also criticized for sensationalism and condemned for the role he played in the lead-up to the Spanish American War.
The endowment to Columbia would serve its purpose - to carry the Pulitzer name into history with enormous prestige attached and scrubbed of criticism.
Joseph Pulitzer was born in Makó in 1847 and grew up there and in Budapest. He had a thirst for glory, and after being rejected by the Austrian army for his poor eyesight, tried unsuccessfully to enlist in the French Foreign Legion and in the British army. He finally embarked for the United States to fight for the Union army in the Civil War.
After the war he kicked around New York and then St Louis, searching for a direction for his ambition and drive.
He studied law, but had trouble getting clients. He tried politics, and was elected to office as a Republican and then as a Democrat.
He took a job at a German-language newspaper, and found his calling.
He worked nearly non-stop at the paper, and soon became a co-owner. He saved enough money to buy a dying paper, the St Louis Dispatch, and merged it with a small newsletter, the Post. He built St Louis's largest paper, the Post-Dispatch, using the formula that would become a motto, "Cater to the masses and earn their trust." Seeking a bigger stage he bought the New York World, and increased its circulation 10-fold in two years.
Newspapers had previously been somewhat staid, directed at the middle and upper classes.
Pages were crowded with small type, and if headlines were sometimes sensational, they were also small, stacked one line atop another in a single column. Pulitzer opened up the page, spread headlines over several columns, and added graphics and pictures to pull readers in.
He created a sports section to attract men and brought in women with gossip and advice columns and romantic fiction.
But it wasn't just an innovative lay-out and entertaining features that drew large numbers of new readers. Pulitzer devoted his papers to the interests of the working class. He ran stories and editorials on a particular issue for days at a time, attacking wealthy tax evaders, slumlords, an impure milk supply and disease-carrying sewers.
He believed that the editorial page was the heart of a newspaper and its sacred trust, but he knew that people didn't buy papers for their editorial pages. And numbers were important: healthy profits could ensure the independent press that is so necessary to democracy.
"You must go for your million circulation and, when you have got it, turn the minds and the votes of your readers one way or the other at critical moments," he said.
Pulitzer used his circulation success to gain new political power for his readers.
In Pulitzer's day cities often had several papers. But when one paper dominates circulation, it will draw the majority of a city's advertisers and drive out weaker competitors.
Pulitzer's papers made him wealthy, but most modern papers depend on advertising revenue just to survive. Few American cities now have more than one major daily.
"Circulation means advertising, and advertising means money, and money means independence." Pulitzer grasped this reality, but he failed to foresee that one paper's circulation success can lead to the demise of other papers, with a docile press the result.
The World became New York's best-selling newspaper, but its position was soon challenged by a wealthy young Californian.
William Randolph Hearst was working according to Pulitzer's template - he had made a success of a San Francisco paper, but now he wanted a spot on the country's biggest stage.
He bought the New York Journal and set about out-sensationalizing the World. The contest between the two papers reached a peak during Cuba's insurrection against Spain and the war between Spain and the United States that followed.
The United States had coveted Cuba for years. Spain refused to grant independence to Cuba or to sell the island to the States. In 1898, the American battleship Maine, docked in Havana on friendly visit, was destroyed by an explosion.
There was no evidence that the ship had been attacked by Spain, and the American government's response was at first restrained. But the papers of Hearst and Pulitzer jumped at the opportunity the disaster presented. Before long the population was in full-blown war fever. Not incidentally, within days of the disaster the World claimed a circulation of five million copies.
The US didn't need much provocation to do what it wanted to do anyway and fought a "splendid little war", taking Cuba from Spain and ending Cuba's effort to gain independence.
The episode was an embarrassment to Pulitzer. The two papers, battling to print the latest news from Cuba, resorted to stealing one another's stories. Pulitzer later regretted the excesses of his fight with Hearst, and the guilt he felt for the rest of his life likely played a part in the Columbia bequest.
Pulitzer would make his papers renowned for their commitment to accuracy. His reporters learned to stick to the facts, but Pulitzer himself continued to sacrifice principle for profit. His son Joseph, working at the Post Dispatch, became concerned by the blatantly misleading medical claims made in some ads. He spent years trying to persuade his father that a paper truly concerned with its readers' interests should refuse these ads. The elder Pulitzer was unyielding, and he was made so angry by his eldest son's criticism that he refused to leave him his prize newspaper, the World.
In his later years Pulitzer was physically and mentally a wreck - a blind, paranoid insomniac.
He suffered severe headaches and was unable to bear noise. He spent most of his time on his yacht, being cared for by a small army of assistants, sailing from one of his homes to another.
Pulitzer built circulation by covering his readers' interests, important and frivolous, and at times by pandering to their baser instincts. But he used the power the circulation numbers gave him to give his readers real political influence, and left a legacy that honors the best in journalism.
The Pulitzer prizes reward news stories that serve the public, break news, and are captivatingly written - the kind of journalism Pulitzer relished.
I didn't either.