His dedication and intelligence allowed him to eventually become not simply passable in his English speaking skills, but a lawyer, a U.S. Congressman, one of the best journalists of his era (and, according to some biographers, of any era), and an incredibly eloquent (if somewhat bombastic) speaker and letter writer — not to mention one of the wealthiest men in the world, especially in the field of newspaper publishing (Brian; Seitz).
In 1878, not even fifteen years since his arrival in the country, Joseph Pulitzer bought his first newspaper company — the St. Louis Dispatch. The paper was in disarray, but fate intervened in the form of the Evening Post and its owner, John Alvarez Dillon. The two papers were combined and began issuing a joint newspaper that very same day, with Pulitzer immediately taking over the editorial page, which he was quick to put to use then and after (Brian 31-3; Seitz). Thus began Joseph Pulitzers rise to wealth and fame, his full scale entrance into politics as a voice of general criticism and choice endorsement, and through these other factors his emergence as a figure of supreme importance in history.
By the end of his life, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and his other larger newspaper, the New York World, were both still going strong. Pulitzer did not avoid sensationalism in order to sell newspapers, but — except for one dark period that he later regretted — he insisted on a high degree of integrity and truth in his newspapers, which might seem (or perhaps might not, given the spate of “creative journalism” over the past decade) a standard of the newspaper industry today, but was certainly not at the time he began his foray into the field (Seitz). When Pulitzer died in 1911 from an ongoing heart disease, one of the many ailments that plagued him in his later years, he left behind not only an enormous fortune (much of which went to public or semi-pubic use) but also a legacy of public stewardship and journalistic integrity hat continues to be associated with his name toady (Seitz).
Pulitzer, Hearst, and Yellow Journalism
Joseph Pulitzer was not the only man who made a fortune in the newspaper industry, nor was he in charge of the only major newspaper in New York City. William Randolph Hearst was his chief rival on both counts, and the battles for circulation and subscriber numbers that their papers (as well as others) engaged in led to a general degradation in the quality and integrity of journalism, and of the stories that were run in the papers (Campbell (b)). Beginning in the late 1890s and continuing well into the next century (without having disappeared entirely even now, according to some), the practice of making minor news seem more noteworthy through sensationalizing stories and headlines spread rapidly throughout the industry (Campbell (b)).
The origins of Yellow Journalism can be traced with some certainty to Hearsts entrance into the New York newspaper market. Having already worked for Pulitzer briefly as a young reporter, and with a virtually unlimited supply of cash from his wealthy parents, Hearst first built up the San Francisco Examiner, then used what he had learned to start the New York Journal, which he sold for half the price of Pulitzers World (Brian 197). He continued to use the World for inspiration, and after reading a sensationalistic account of a wealthy mans stag party, the era of Yellow Journalism was effectively born. Hearts began using the same type of sensationalism on a regular basis, and applying it to real news items as a way to boost circulation; Pulitzer had to follow suit in order to maintain his profit margins, and the race of Yellow Journalism was on (Brian 197-9).
This is not to say that good and even great journalism did not exist during the same period — Francis Churchs famous reply to a letter from young Virginia, an editorial entitled “Is There a Santa Claus?,” was printed in 1897, at the start of the Yellow Journalism fever, and other examples of integrity and fearless reporting of the truth also exist (Cambpell (a) 119-22). In general, however, the newspapers of the period were more concerned with stirring up ideological sentiment and backing handpicked politicians in an unabashedly biased and even mean-spirited way, while also making mountains out of molehills as a way of selling more papers and generating profits (Campbell (a)).
There is also an ongoing debate about the true political clout that Yellow Journalism was able to wield during its heyday, specifically in regards to the Spanish-American War. Many historians and scholars claim that the United States and the McKinley administration only became involved in the war to liberate Cuba from Spain because the yellow press made such sensationalist headlines regarding the injustices the Cuban people were facing (Campbell (b) 97). Especially after the destruction of the U.
S.S. Maine, the yellow press — especially Hearsts Journal — began clamoring for United States involvement in the ongoing struggle over Cuba (Campbell (b)). It is unlikely, however, that this was the primary or even a major cause of the decision to go to war; there is little evidence that newspapers outside of New York (where the intense competition that created Yellow Journalism was still young) picked up the call for war with nearly the same fervor as the papers within the city, and even less evidence to directly tie the pressures that Yellow Journalism exerted on public opinion to the governments decision (Campbell (b) 98-100). Still, it is clear that Pulitzer and the other newspapermen of the day had a great deal of influence on public opinion, if not on policy itself.
The Establishment of the Columbia School of Journalism
Pulitzers influence did not wane following his death, either, but in fact grew in many ways. In the last decade of his life, the newspaper magnate became enraptured with the idea of creating and endowed — and therefore largely independent — school of journalism. This was effected in a series of fits and starts during the last ten years or so of Pulitzers life, during which time he insisted on the schools independence and also tried to exert control over its formation (Boylan 13-21).
In fact, disagreements between Joseph Pulitzer and the President of Columbia University, Nicholas Murray Butler, and the rest of Columbias board delayed the signing of the project and its final approval for years. Chief among these debates was Pulitzers late and unexplained insistence that the presidents of Harvard and Yale also be involved as members of the new journalism schools advisory board, and though Butler generally agreed with Pulitzer on many points and tried to convince Columbias board to accept the proposal with greater alacrity than was being practiced, on this point he, like Pulitzer, refused to negotiate (Boylan 19). Pulitzer wanted the school to be as independent as possible, and though Butler agreed with this sentiment he did not feel that having competing schools involved in Columbia Universitys actions was either necessary or advisable.
Eventually, however, the Columbia School of Journalism was established, though Pulitzer had decided that the actual endowment and establishment of the school should wait until after his death (Boylan 22). The school began using the funds to carry out its and Pulitzers plans with almost indecent haste after the event of Pulitzers death; planning and meetings began immediately, and eleven months almost to the day after Pulitzers death, the Columbia School of Journalism opened its doors to its first class of students (Boylan 31). The Pulitzer Prizes wouldnt begin until 1917, two years after the school received a second million dollars from Pulitzers estate (as Pulitzer had mandated in his original plans for the school back in 1902), but this has become one of the most enduring legacies to Pulitzers name and stature in the newspaper industry (Boylan 29-30).
Recipients of the Pulitzer Prize
Over the years, the number and exact titles and categories of the Pulitzer Prizes have shown a fair amount of fluctuation. For instance, at the time of the Pulitzer Prizes first awarding in 1917, there was only one award give for reporting; by 1959, that number had grown to four different categories, and today there are fourteen separate categories for journalism awards given out every year (Hohenberg 14; Pulitzer.org). This is in addition to the other categories in the arts and non-journalistic publications that the Pulitzer Prize is also awarded, and some of the Pulitzers most famous recipients have hailed from the fields of novel or fiction writing, poetry, drama, and even music (Pulitzer.org). The Pulitzer Prizes are one of the primary ways that the principles of journalism are upheld.
Joseph Pulitzer would have especial reason to be proud of one of the more recent finalists of the prize for Breaking News Reporting, which is given to newspapers as a whole (or more accurately, their staffs as a whole) rather.