Pulitzer's legacy

Tomorrow marks the centenary of Joseph Pulitzer's death. Below, Paul McElhinney looks at the life and legacy of the man who gave his name to journalism's most prestigious prize.

A century ago this month, a figure synonymous with journalism died aboard his yacht while moored in Charleston Harbour, South Carolina. While a major figure in journalism during his lifetime, Joseph Pulitzer is known less for his lifetime exploits as for the journalism prizes which bear his name.  

Winning the renowned Pulitzer Prize is the Holy Grail for working journalists, a symbol of excellence and achievement, standards that Pulitzer himself emulated and inspired in his long career as reporter, editor and proprietor. Carrying on Pulitzer’s torch further are the two schools of journalism he inspired and assisted in establishing, those at Columbia University and the University of Missouri - an impressive legacy by any standards.

Pulitzer’s background was Hungarian-Jewish, having emigrated from Budapest to the US in 1864.  He fought on the Union side in the US Civil War and after a variety of uneventful jobs, entered journalism as a reporter in 1868 with the Westliche Post in St. Louis. His later careers as an editor and proprietor involved his establishing the St. Louis Despatch and the New York World, the latter a racy and populist paper in the fold of what was then known as ‘yellow journalism’. Pulitzer himself pursued and inspired an avowedly populist editorial policy which often set him at odds with the sober-minded members of the US political establishment. Controversy, including famous libel trials, followed him throughout his career, something with which many current-day proprietors and editors could identify!

How would Pulitzer and his brand of journalism be regarded today?  Ironically, the person whose prizes are associated with the highest standards of journalism was also responsible for producing reportage at the decidedly low end of the market. While far from being a ‘gutter’ journalist, it could be said that Pulitzer was one of the ‘fathers of the tabloid’.  His focus was very much on empowering the ‘common man’ of his day through the provision of knowledge and information, but within a fixed set of standards. If he were alive today, he might not have been successful in making the shortlist for his own prizes!

Similarly, were he alive today, he would certainly have welcomed some developments in journalism and rejected others. The successes of the two schools of journalism at Columbia and Missouri which his munificence spawned he would undoubtedly have regarded with huge pride. On the other hand, much of modern tabloid journalism he would have surely regarded as a corruption of his original intention of making news more digestible and identifiable for the common man.

His ability to take on the great newspaper baron of the era, William Randolph Hearst, would surely have been replicated, if he felt that a current era equivalent warranted criticism. Being the energetic and innovative figure that he was, he would surely have welcomed the huge developments in technology that have taken place in the industry. His death shortly before World War One meant that he missed the huge changes in media reporting arising from the war and the subsequent circulation boosts of the 1920s.

Pulitzer was the perfect symbol of the ‘American Dream’.  Emigrating to the US from Hungary as a young man, he worked his way up from humble beginnings to the very top of his profession and of American society. His dedication, hard work, perseverance, knowledge of the market and some luck all worked in his favour. His strong support for the common man included a belief that the same heights could be aspired to by all Americans.

It is difficult to give an unequivocal assessment of Pulitzer and his legacy. The schools of journalism and the annual prizes are hugely positive contributions.  The latter in particular inspire and reward the highest of standards among working journalists. On the other hand, the brands of sensationalist tabloid journalism that developed out of the ‘yellow journalism’ practiced by Pulitzer and others, are hardly positive contributions to journalism. In his defence, however, it is hard to blame the excesses of the current tabloids on Pulitzer himself. In fairness to the tabloids too, they do meet a market need and serve a useful social purpose when reporting responsibly.

Pulitzer, like many of today’s media barons, was a larger than life figure Perhaps it is a sine qua non of the role. Examining the characters of Hearst, Beaverbrook, Harmsworth, Maxwell, Black and Murdoch over the years, there are no shrinking violets there. One hundred years after his death, the media has changed radically but owes its many successes, in part, to the pioneering work of people like Joseph Pulitzer. His name and contributions to journalism live on and are sure to continue doing so long after some of his more illustrious and powerful media counterparts fade from memory.