W. Joseph Campbell

Adulation for a tyrannical publisher: The Pulitzer documentary on PBS

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Reviews, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on April 14, 2019 at 1:07 pm

Pulitzer (Library of Congress)

Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper mogul who endowed the Pulitzer prizes, was the beneficiary of exceptionally generous biographers.

Now to that lineup of adulation, we can add the flattery of documentary-filmmakers.

PBS the other night aired an 83-minute, mostly hagiographic study of the Hungarian-born Pulitzer who, for a time in the late 19th century, was a dominant figure in New York City newspaper journalism. Pulitzer’s talents and commitments, according to the PBS treatment, were exceptional and endlessly laudatory.

At various points in the program we’re told that Pulitzer was an avid reader, an accomplished chess player, a polyglot, a natural reporter, an unstoppable workaholic who devoted day and night to the office. He possessed a Midas-like touch, an uncompromising commitment to investigative journalism, and a “lifelong passion for democratic idealism.” He was a quick study who, before coming to New York, established the most successful newspaper in St. Louis. He served briefly in Congress. He led the fund-raising campaign for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. He faced down criminal libel while taking on a U.S. president. He was a fearless crusader who gave voice to the voiceless. He was devoted to the interests of poor people, from whom he commanded unswerving loyalty.

Quite a guy, Joseph Pulitzer. Not even his shooting and wounding a building contractor in Missouri could derail his career.

The effect of all the gushing wasn’t exactly stirring or uplifting. It was misleading.

True, Pulitzer led a crowded, remarkable life. He did have a Midas-like touch — he became enormously wealthy as a newspaper champion of the poor, and his riches allowed him to buy opulent homes and live out his infirmity-wracked final years aboard a luxury yacht.

Pulitzer also was an irritable tyrant who routinely made enemies, who regularly upbraided subordinates, who didn’t think much of his four three sons, and whose wife worked like a slave to please him. This darker side to Pulitzer wasn’t entirely ignored in the program, which PBS titled “Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People.” It just wasn’t examined in much revealing depth. In the end Pulitzer’s failings, personal and journalistic, were mostly excused.

There was more complexity to Pulitzer’s career and character than PBS seemed inclined to investigate in a program that may have been intended  as a tonic and reminder to contemporary American journalism.

It was not made very clear, for example, that Pulitzer’s time in New York City journalism was relatively brief. He acquired the New York World in 1883, launched an evening edition in 1887, and left the city in 1890 when he was in his early 40s. Deteriorating health and failing eyesight forced him into absentee ownership until his death in 1911.

After 1890 Pulitzer pursued a peripatetic life, traveling constantly in search of relief as his health declined. He suffered nervous ailments and depression. He was acutely sensitive to noise. He went blind. Pulitzer seldom returned to the World.

And yet for years, he tried to run the newspaper by remote control. From retreats in Maine, Georgia, and Europe, Pulitzer fired off a steady stream of  telegrams and letters of instruction, guidance, and reproach to his editors and managers. The correspondence reveals a harsh, bullying, and dictatorial side to Pulitzer.

The documentary-makers might have plumbed that correspondence for its insights. They might have considered how effectively, or poorly, Pulitzer ran his newspapers from afar, in a fin-de-siècle experiment in mobile, long-distance executive management.

But the effects and implications of Pulitzer’s long absences, infirmities, and distant management were not much explored. The topic is not unimportant because the closing years of the 19th century gave rise to one of the most controversial and poorly understood periods in American media history — the rise of yellow journalism and the at-times exaggerated reporting of the Spanish-American War and its antecedent events.

Among the antecedents was the emergence in New York City journalism of William Randolph Hearst, a wealthy miner’s son who was just 32-years-old in 1895 when he bought the moribund New York Journal and promptly challenged Pulitzer’s dominant but declining World.

Hearst’s arrival, as I discussed in my book, 1897: The Year that Defined American Journalism, was “a seismic event in the city’s journalism.”

The impression left by PBS was that Hearst came to New York from newspapering success in San Francisco to take on Pulitzer, mano-a-mano. But that was more effect than guiding objective. As Kenneth Whyte made clear in his outstanding biography, The Uncrowned King, Hearst recognized that success in New York was vital to his establishing and securing a media empire. His interests went beyond besting Pulitzer and the World.

Hearst, under the pen of Homer Davenport

Hearst, as drawn by Homer Davenport

Pulitzer’s correspondence showed that he was well aware of Hearst and his Journal, which offered aggressive, colorful journalism for a penny. The World sold for two cents.

While the PBS documentary makes no mention of this, the challenge of Hearst’s Journal prompted Pulitzer to halve the price of the World — an ill-advised move that disrupted the newspaper‘s revenue stream.

By 1897, Pulitzer was remotely ordering up staff reductions and cost-cutting measures. In May that year, for example, Pulitzer told the World’s general manager:

“I want a radical reduction of expenses from beginning to end of every department, wherever it is reasonable and feasable[sic]. … Retrenchment should be based upon the idea of absolute necessity. Unless you do something neither morning nor the evening [editions] can pay expenses the next three months. … There is a lot of deadwood on the payroll anyhow.”

War with Spain further battered the newspaper’s bottom line. That conflict was brief but enormously expensive to cover. While readership surged, advertising revenues dropped off, and newsprint prices climbed. (Hearst’s Journal figured its war-reporting expenses exceeded $750,000 — the equivalent today of almost $23 million. The World‘s expenses were likely less than that, but were substantial in any case.)

PBS seemed keen to excuse Pulitzer for the newspaper’s overheated coverage of the runup to the war, especially its graphic and at times exaggerated reporting of the destruction of the USS Maine.

For reasons that remain disputed, the Maine blew up in Havana harbor in mid-February 1898, killing 266 American sailors. It was a triggering event for the Spanish-American War, which was waged in theaters in the Caribbean and in Asia and ended Spain’s harsh colonial rule of Cuba and the Philippines.

To his “great credit,” we’re told by one of the experts PBS interviewed, Pulitzer “later regretted his role in that episode.” Hearst, we’re also told, entertained no second thoughts. The apologia was emblematic of the program’s eagerness to look beyond Pulitzer’s failings and flaws.

Commendably, the treatment of the Spanish-American War veered clear of the hoary media myth that sensational newspaper reporting whipped up public opinion to such an extent that the conflict became inevitable.

But the documentary did present a clichéd description of “yellow journalism,” calling it “overheated, entertaining, and often inaccurate news reporting.”

In fact, “yellow journalism” was a genre of urban American journalism characterized by bold typography, frequent use of multicolumn headlines, generous use of illustrations, a keen taste for self-promotion, and an inclination to take an activist role in news reporting.

Shorthand for sensationalism “yellow journalism” was not.

WJC

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