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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: Joseph Pulitzer

The Man Behind The Prizes

By Tom Morrow

Most people today have heard of the coveted “Pulitzer Prizes,” but few know what they are or for whom they are named.

The Prizes are named for Joseph Pulitzer, who was born in 1847 in Hungary. He became one of America’s most famous and successful newspaper publisher, starting with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and later the New York World.

In the 1890’s, the fierce competition between The New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal caused both to use caustic editorializing, known as “yellow journalism.” Pulitzer opened the way to mass-circulation newspapers that appealed to readers by offering a multiple taste in news, entertainment and advertising.

Pulitzer joined the Republican Party through which he was able to land a reporting job for the St. Louis Westliche Post.

When GOP leaders needed a candidate to fill a vacancy in the State Legislature, they settled on Pulitzer, forgetting he was only 22 — three years under the minimum age. However, his chief Democratic opponent was ineligible because he had served in the Confederate army. Pulitzer won by a 209-147 vote.

His age was not made an issue and was seated as a Missouri state representative beginning in 1870. Pulitzer lived in Jefferson City for only two years, all while keeping his reporting job for the Westliche Post.

In 1872, Pulitzer was a delegate to the Cincinnati convention of the Liberal Republican Party which nominated Horace Greeley for the presidency. However, the attempt at electing Greeley as president failed, the party collapsed, and Pulitzer, disillusioned with the corruption in the Republican Party, switched to the Democratic Party. In 1880, he was a delegate to the Democratic national convention and a member of its platform committee from Missouri.

In 1883, Pulitzer, by now a wealthy man, purchased the New York World from Jay Gould for $346,000, and began emphasizing human-interest stories, scandal, and sensationalism.

In 1895 Pulitzer introduced the popular Yellow Kid comic strip, the first to be printed in color, which was used for editorial comment instead of mere humor.

In 1895, Hearst purchased the rival New York Journal from Pulitzer’s brother, Albert, then the two embarked on a circulation war. This competition with Hearst, particularly the coverage before and during the Spanish-American War, linked Pulitzer’s name with “yellow journalism” because of the caustic editorializing in the Yellow Kid comic strip. Historians point to the combative journalism between Hearst and Pulitzer, arguably, as one of the primary causes for the Spanish-American War.

The two publishers prodded President McKinley toward war and when the USS Maine was sunk in Havana Harbor, Hearst and Pulitzer started a war of words and pictures of their own.

Pulitzer put great stock in his reporting staff. He was once asked “… why it is that you always speak so kindly of reporters and so severely of all editors?”

“Well”, Pulitzer replied, “I suppose it is because every reporter is a hope, and every editor is a disappointment.”

Today, his name is kept alive with the Pulitzer Prizes, which were established in 1917, through a grant to Columbia University. The prizes are given annually to award achievements in journalism and photography, as well as literature, history, poetry, music and drama.

Right before he died in 1911, Pulitzer founded the Columbia School of Journalism with a philanthropic bequest, which was opened in 1912.

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