Pulitzer- 5 things You Didn’t Know About the Man Behind the Prize

Pulitzer: A Life by Denis Brian; A fascinating biography.

Pulitzer: A Life by Denis Brian; A fascinating biography.

Before reading this book pretty much all I knew about Joseph Pulitzer I learned from Newseis. He was very short sighted with over sensitive hearing. His arch nemesis was William Randolph Hearst. He was tyrannical and given to manipulation and intimidation to get what he wanted.

That is all true but is only a fraction of the whole man.

It took me some time to realize the “baddy” from my favorite movie was THE Pulitzer as in the Pulitzer prize.  It was hard to reconcile the two, how could the originator of one of the most famous literary prizes possibly be this tyrannical, persecutor of newsboys?

Needless to say this book was full of surprises for an innocent 1880’s girl.

In short Joseph Pulitzer was a remarkable person, difficult to live or work with, explosive, obsessive, a workaholic driven by idealism. He possessed an intellectual capacity that we mere mortals can only dream of. Nearly every aspect of this man was a surprise and warrants further investigation.

To get you started here are 5 things I bet you didn’t know.

#1 He came to America to fight in the civil war

At 17 Pulitzer left home, sights set on a brilliant military career.

However due to his poor eyesight he was rejected by the Austrian army, in which his Uncles had distinguished themselves. Undeterred he volunteered to fight for the British in India and the French Foreign Legion in Mexico. Both rejected him. Finally the Americans  accepted him despite his poor eyesight because he could ride a horse and shoot.

He fought for the last six months of the Civil war.

The only person he harmed was a superior officer. He punched the officer for pulling his nose.

#2 He finished his law degree at age 21

From the time he landed in Maryland in 1864, speaking no English to when he was admitted to the bar was only 4 year.  FOUR years!! To learn a language, study law and pass his examinations.

I was not exaggerating his mental capacity.

#3 He was elected to congress

Pulitzer was a crusader for the poor, vigilante extraordinaire in attacking the ‘fat cats’ of New York, uncovering corruption and abuses of power.

He took his crusade all the way to Washington as an elected member of Congress but decided he could effect more change through The New York World than by wrestling with bureaucratic red tape.

He left after 3 months

#4 the St Louis Dispatch was his first Newspaper

If you are from St Louis or Missouri you might know this already but my Dad is from Missouri and it was news to me.

The World was the second paper he pulled from the ruins, the first was The St Louis Dispatch. .After purchasing the crumbling building and machinery of the Dispatch in December 1879,  he joined forces with the Evening Post and became the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

3 1/2 years later, in May 1883, he bought The New York World which was making a $40,000 a year loss. Not only did he successfully resurrect both newspapers but he maintained a tight reign on both papers writing editorials for both and successfully driving the staff in both cities to distraction.

#5 He payed men and Women the same salary

By Historical and Public Figures Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Nellie Bly dressed for her trip around the world .               By Historical and Public Figures Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pulitzer believed women doing the work of a man deserved equal pay, a standard many publishers today still struggle to implement. There were many women on his New York World staff including  journalists Nellie Bly (Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman) and Elizabeth Jordan.

Pulitzer was a man of extremes and contradictions in his personality and in his work. Even his enemies and rivals acknowledged and begrudgingly respected his abilities.

If you you want to know more about the man behind the prize I recommend you read Denis Bryan’s book Pulitzer: A Life, from which I have gleaned this information.

My favorite line from the book is:

“The phoenix had nothing on Pulitzer”

This could be said both about him personally, his struggle with chronic debilitating illness, and professionally, as seen in the fortune he amassed from the purchase of two ruined papers.

To read about Pulitzer and the advent of yellow journalism see: The Fathers of Yellow Journalism.



The Fathers of Yellow Journalism

Joseph Pulitzer

Joseph Pulitzer

William Randolph Hearst

William Randolph Hearst











I just love a good biased news article dont’ you?

It gives you something to disagree with and get indignant over.  Bias stimulates controversy and thus conversation and don’t forget it increases circulation.

Circulation figures for The World and The Journal shows that 19th century New Yorkers  definitely preferred a strong bias with plenty of salacious details. Pulitzer viewed biased reporting to be a duty.

“A newspaper should [do] more than . . . printing every day first-rate news and first-rate editorials. It should have hobbies, undertake reforms, lead crusades, and thereby establish a name for individuality and active public service.”

Joseph Pulitzer (1847–1911)

But when does bias become fiction?

Yellow Journalism-What is it?

The general consensus is that it is bad.

To accuse a paper or news source  of yellow journalism is to imply they are playing fast and loose with the facts, to doubt the integrity of their news or to accuse them of being unprofessional and generally disreputable.

Yellow journalism’s rise to stardom happened in New York city in the 1890’s, when William Randolph Hearst bought over The Journal with the express intention of out selling Joseph Pulitzer’s The World, unlike Pulitzer he made no claims to public service, had no agenda to better society, champion the down trodden or bring the corrupt to justice. He wanted circulation and would do anything to get it.

The most important components to 19th century yellow journalism were eye catching head lines, the more shocking the better, and pictures usually artists renderings of supposed events.

Such as this example from the front page of The New York Journal, 1898, under the banner:

does our flag shield women?

By Remington (Image:~SPAIN3.JPG) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Remington (Image:~SPAIN3.JPG) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In response to this picture and headline The World countered with this headline:

the unclothed women searched by men

was an invention of a new york newspaper

Hearsts report was shown to be manifestly untrue, in reality Senorita Clemencia Arango, a young Cuban, had been searched by female officers in a private cabin, never by men and certainly not in the open as implied by this artists representation.

But you see in yellow journalism they don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.  And they barred no punches in accusing each other, latching on to and publicizing each others mistakes or intentional fabrications.

It certainly made for exciting reading!

Why Yellow?

By Richard Felton Outcault [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Richard Felton Outcault [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Yellow Journalism got its name from the Yellow Kid named for his yellow nightshirt. The yellow kid first appeared in  The World’s  immensely popular “Hogan Alley” cartoons in 1895.   In 1896 Richard Felton Outcault went over to Hearst taking the yellow kid with him now  starring in The Journal’s  cartoon “Mc Fadden’s Row of Flats”.

So many subscribers followed their favorite spunky cartoon character over to The Journal that Pulitzer commissioned artist George Luks to create the Yellow Kid’s equally spunky twin to be continued in “Hogan Alley”.

To make sure deserting customers didn’t over look this fact billboards advertised the return of the Yellow Kid. And thus was the birth of Yellow Journalism.

In the spirit of biased reporting I will say the 1890’s were a particularly exciting and debased decade for journalism, where Pulitzer anxious to maintain his circulation allowed Hearst to pull him down into the mud with the result they both came out dirty.

The difference between Pulitzer and Hearst was that Pulitzer regretted his decent into the purely sensational while Hearst was completely unapologetic. Truth and betterment of society was never Hearst intentions, his mission was pure and simple: get the most subscribers, increase circulation, make money, beat Pulitzer, no matter how much it cost.

To finish off here is a gem of a cartoon with both Pulitzer and Hearst featured as the yellow kid:

By William Barrit [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By William Barrit [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons