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The Man Behind the Prize –'Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People'
April 12, 2019  | By David Hinckley

Rich people sometimes keep their names alive by endowing institutions that remain prominent after their own demise.

In the process, they often leave an open question whether they earned this fame or they simply purchased it. A new documentary on Joseph Pulitzer, who endowed journalism’s Pulitzer Prizes, suggests he was worthy.

Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People, which premieres Friday at 9 p.m. ET in the PBS American Masters series (check local listings), argues that he was even more. One of the documentary’s many academic commentators calls Pulitzer the most creative mind in the history of American newspapers.  

Pulitzer’s New York World and his lesser-known but equally venerable St. Louis Post-Dispatch receive credit here for pursuing one of the highest paths of journalism: investigative reporting. Pulitzer is also credited with making the human interest story a central part of his papers, and in the broader sense, it’s argued here that the World, in particular, was pivotal in making the newspaper, for many decades, an integral part of almost every American’s daily life.

The press wasn’t doing its job, Pulitzer argued, if it wasn’t making enemies because that meant it was catering to the privileged and powerful rather than serving the voiceless. The Post-Dispatch published the names of wealthy citizens who declared, for tax purposes, that they had no assets. The World blasted President Theodore Roosevelt for Roosevelt’s proudest achievement, the Panama Canal, claiming it was an exercise in colonialism from which corporations and rich folks skimmed at least $40 million.

Roosevelt sued Pulitzer for libel in a case that went to the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously in Pulitzer’s favor. That ruling subsequently became a critical firewall in First Amendment and freedom-of-the-press protection.

Joseph Pulitzer emigrated from Hungary at 17, recruited by the Union Army to join a German-speaking regiment that helped win the American Civil War.

After the war, he took jobs typically filled at that time by immigrants like burying cholera victims, and he taught himself English by reading Charles Dickens. His enchantment with Dickens’ compelling, heart-wrenching human dramas helped lead him to journalism, and his workaholic personality made him successful enough that at the age of 29 he bought the Post-Dispatch.  

He remained a workaholic and micromanager there, gruff and demanding. It sounds like more fun to read his newspapers than work for them. But in his quest for those human dramas, he had his papers dig into stories everyone saw, and almost no one was reporting, like the squalor of tenement living, the horrors of “insane asylums” and the lack of the most basic safety protections in workplaces.

He said his goal was to speak for the voiceless in an age when the tiny percentage of very wealthy people ruled American life with virtually no restrictions, and it was considered God’s will that the poor and disenfranchised were left to suffer and die.

Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People acknowledges that in his pursuit of stories about human drama, he was at times accused of exaggerating the truth. The only case in which the documentary acknowledges his flagrant guilt on that count was the run-up to the Spanish-American War, in which Pulitzer and his rival William Randolph Hearst tried to top each other with the inflammatory stories that many feel triggered the war.

Director Oren Rudavsky, who also co-produced and co-wrote the show with Robert Seidman and Andrea Miller, softens that part of Pulitzer’s story as well, noting that Pulitzer – unlike Hearst – would later say he regretted that chapter.  

Pulitzer posted orders, guidelines, and pep talks on the walls of his newsroom, and those postings stressed, among other things, accuracy and credibility.

If he didn’t always meet that standard, the truth is that no newspaper does. By definition, newspapers can rely only on the information available at the moment the presses start to roll, and inevitably that will, at times, be incomplete or misleading.

That doesn’t make newspapers any less valuable, and arguably the newspaper was rarely more valuable than in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when there was no radio, television, Internet or other platforms through which people could obtain information.

Other historians have painted a less flattering portrait of Pulitzer than what we see here. That doesn’t mean Voice of the People underestimates his achievements or his impact.

As a symbol of the ideals toward which journalism can aspire on its best days, Pulitzer left a legacy worthy of a prize.

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