In 1847 a boy was born in Mako, Hungary who
would grow up to change the world and challenge the President of the United
States. His name was Joseph Pulitzer. His father died when he was eleven. Seven
of his eight siblings died. The one that survived, his younger brother Albert,
would become one of his greatest competitors.
At seventeen years of age, in 1864, the
ambitious, multi-lingual Pulitzer left Hungary dreaming of becoming a soldier.
Recruited in Europe, Pulitzer enlisted in the Union Army and was assigned to a
German speaking regiment, The Lincoln Calvary.
Flat broke at the end of the Civil War he
made his way west. His first paying job was shoveling coal on a barge to St.
Louis. His next job required him to bury the bodies of cholera victims. In St.
Louis he tended ornery mules, of which he said: "The man who has not
cared for 60 mules doesn't know what work and troubles are."
At the Mercantile Library, over a chess
match, he met newspaper publisher Carl Schurz. Schurz was a leader in the
German revolution of 1848 and a Civil War general who eventually became a U.S.
Senator and then Secretary of the Interior under Rutherford B. Hayes. It was
Schurz who gave Joseph Pulitzer his first job in the newspaper business, at the
Westliche Post, a German language newspaper.
Pulitzer studied law. He shined as an
investigative reporter. He got elected to the Missouri State Assembly. He wrote
stories exposing St. Louis corruption. When attacked by an irate, corrupt
lobbyist who confronted Pulitzer in his hotel, Pulitzer pulled his pistol and
shot, grazing the lobbyist's calf. Instead of ending his political career, the
incident motivated the governor to appoint Pulitzer Police Commissioner of St.
He sold his share of the Westliche Post for
five times what he paid for it and bought, at a bankruptcy auction, the failing
St. Louis Dispatch. He merged it with the Post and within three years the St.
Louis Post-Dispatch became the largest selling newspaper in St. Louis.
Called "sensationalist" by his
critics, Joseph Pulitzer recreated what newspapers were and would later become.
He wrote for his audience. He remembered what it was like to not read English
well and made sure stories were "short and smart and snappy. They
should have style and be readable."
Pulitzer published the names of'Tax Dodgers,' wealthy citizens who claimed
they had no money in the bank. He stood up for the ideals of democracy, for
fair treatment of the populace. His newspaper's circulation soared. The upshot?
He created financial independence and power for his newspaper.
The desire to reach a national audience drove
Pulitzer to purchase The New York World in 1883. The cost? An astounding
$400,000. "I sense a grand opportunity in New York. All the city needs
to set its capacious glands awash is a daily dose of tingling sensations as
plentiful as mushrooms." Joseph was now about to go into direct
competition with his younger brother, Albert, who was publishing The Morning
Journal. When Albert refused to merge the two papers, Joseph lured away three
of his best reporters.
Now called The World, Pulitzer took the paper
to new levels. Readership grew. The pages were full of energy and excitement.
The visual presentation of news also changed. Journalism was unrecognizable
from what had existed before.
The time was ripe in the America of the late
19th century for newspapers growth. The expansion of cities, especially New
York, caused the growth of the populace who commuted to work. And, what better
way to pass the time commuting on the trolley than to read the newspaper?
Pulitzer realized that what his audience
wanted more than NEWS was STORIES. Stories about life in New York. Things his
readers could identify with instead of just read. News was now about what
happened to ordinary people; people just like you. "Always fight for
progress and reform. Never tolerate injustice or corruption. Always oppose
privileged classes and public plunder. Never lack sympathy for the poor, never
be afraid to attack Rome. Always be drastically independent." Pulitzer
stuck up for those people who didn't have a champion.
He opposed the one penny toll for pedestrians
on the newly built Brooklyn Bridge. He railed against Congress when they were
uninterested in funding a pedestal for that new gift from France, The Statue of
Liberty. Pulitzer's The World took on
the challenge. "Unless the Statue of Liberty goes to the bottom of the
ocean it is safe to predict that it will eventually stand on an American
pedestal and be referred to for a very long time with more sentiment than we
can now dream of." The World's readership funded the pedestal.
Fate dealt a number of strange dichotomies to
Joseph Pulitzer. This man who served in the Union Army married a distant cousin
of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, Kate Davis.
In 1908 This former Police Commissioner of
St. Louis butted heads with another former Police Commissioner, President
Theodore Roosevelt, over the Panama Canal. The World called the Panama Canal
'An act of Colonial Aggression.' The paper wanted the Government to account for
the $40 million dollars Roosevelt ordered the U. S. pay to acquire the assets
of 'The New Panama Canal Company' and claimed the money went to line rich men's
Roosevelt, who was in the last days of his
term, demanded that Congress sue Pulitzer for libel and threatened to put him
in jail saying; "It is a high national duty to bring to justice this
vilifier of the American People." Pulitzer fought the accusations as
an attack on freedom of the press and democracy itself.In 1911, just before Pulitzer passed away on
his yacht, the U. S. Supreme Court handed down their judgment.
Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People, produced for the PBS American Masters series, is a timely look at
what is and what isn't fake news and can be viewed as a moral for those in
power who feel they can push against the Constitutional guarantee of a free
press. It is a very well made, engrossing story about how a penniless Jew from
Hungary rose to become one of the most powerful men in the United States.
Written by Robert Seidman and Oren Rudavshy, directed by Rudavshy, all the bases
covered in this biodoc. Narrated by Adam Driver and featuring the voices of
Liev Schreiber as Joseph Pulitzer, Lauren Ambrose as Kate Davis, Rachel
Brosnahan as Nellie Bly and Tim Blake Nelson as Theodore Roosevelt, Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the Peopleis as
informative and entertaining a documentary one could hope for.
Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People opens March 1 in New
York at the Quad Cinema and in Los Angeles on March 8 at the Laemmle