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Joseph Pulitzer's populist newspapers in St. Louis and New York in the late 1800s and early 1900s took on government corruption. Pulitzer was locked in a battle for readers with William Randolph Hearst, who published the New York Journal. Their rivalry led to sensationalism that came to be known as "yellow journalism." However, the Supreme Court rejected a criminal libel indictment against Pulitzer for his reporting on the Theodore Roosevelt administration, upholding press freedom against the idea that government can prosecute people for provoking dissatisfaction with government. (Photo of Joseph Pulitzer, public domain)

Joseph Pulitzer came to the United States in 1864 as a restless Jewish immigrant from Hungary. He knew little English. Despite poor health and weak eyesight, he had contracted with a bounty hunter in Germany to be paid to fight for the North in the Civil War as a substitute for a draftee – something allowed by the law at the time. 

From those modest beginnings, he became one of the most influential figures in the history of American journalism.

Here are four reasons why:

  • He owned newspapers in St. Louis and New York that grew dramatically and thrived financially by exposing corruption and standing up for everyday people very much in the First Amendment tradition. His papers also introduced popular features such as comics and detailed sports coverage to print.
  • Although he championed the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of the press throughout his professional life and was a passionate advocate for accuracy in reporting, he is perhaps best known for going to journalistic extremes. His newspaper, the New York World, played a major role in starting the Spanish-American War, using sensation-seeking methods that foreshadowed the excesses of some news outlets today.
  •  The World’s investigative reporting involving the Panama Canal led to a battle with President Theodore Roosevelt and a groundbreaking U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1911 that blocked the government from suppressing freedom of the press by pursuing criminal charges for libel.
  • After his death in 1911, his endowment to Columbia University established the school’s renowned Graduate School of Journalism, followed in 1917 by the first Pulitzer Prizes for journalistic and literary excellence that continue to this day.

Pulitzer's St. Louis and New York papers had populist appeal

Pulitzer took ownership of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1878 at age 28 after arriving in St. Louis on a freight-train boxcar. After a series of odd jobs and an immersion into the study of English and the law, he found a calling in journalism and began writing for a local German-language newspaper. His rapid ascension after arriving in America was a remarkable confluence of skill, passion and relentless, hard work. (Pulitzer was described as a workaholic despite his frail health.) He also landed in the right place at the right time with supportive mentors.

The Post-Dispatch’s circulation grew rapidly as he focused on populist appeal, assailing government corruption in news stories and editorials. 

 In 1883, Pulitzer met with Jay Gould, the legendary New York financier, to negotiate the purchase of the World, which was struggling financially, just as the Post-Dispatch had been when Pulitzer purchased it. He purchased the World. Circulation climbed to 600,000 per day using the same formula of aggressive, populist journalism that worked in St. Louis.

Rivalry between Pulitzer and Hearst papers led to 'yellow journalism'

The World’s rivalry with publisher William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal led to a bitter battle for readers that culminated in a form of journalism with “no restraints on sensationalism or fabrication,” as described by the late New York Times managing editor Seymour Topping in his  overview of Pulitzer’s life written for the Pulitzer Prize website. (Topping also served as administrator of the prizes.) 

The rivalry in the period between 1896 and 1898 culminated in breathless reporting that blamed Spain for the explosion and sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana’s harbor in February 1898. As “Remember the Maine” became a battle cry for action fueled by the over-the-top reporting, Congress followed with a war resolution and America’s four-month intervention in the Cuban battle for independence. Spain ultimately ceded control of Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines to the U.S. The actual cause of the sinking, whether from an external attack or internal cause such as a coal fire, remains a subject of debate.

The fierce rivalry also gave birth to the term “yellow journalism” to describe journalism in which facts and events are taken out of context, exaggerated, or even falsified for financial or other types of advantages.


Reporting on Roosevelt led to criminal libel claim against Pulitzer

After the Spanish-American War, Pulitzer’s newspapers returned to a more restrained approach and continued to crusade against corrupt practices. Nearly blind and dealing with depression and a debilitating sensitivity to noise, Pulitzer still maintained oversight of his newspapers.

By 1909, the United States was involved in the building of the Panama Canal as the French were unable to complete the project. The World reported on an allegedly fraudulent payment of $40 million to the French Panama Canal Co., raising questions of whether President Roosevelt personally benefited as the stories disclosed that a syndicate of wealthy Republicans behind the New Panama Canal Co. had received half the $40 million that the U.S. government was reportedly paying France. Pulitzer, who reflected the views of Roosevelt’s foes in the Democratic Party, wouldn’t retreat, resulting in an indictment claiming that Pulitzer and other publishers had criminally libeled President Roosevelt and the prominent banker J.P. Morgan.

Supreme Court overturns criminal libel indictment

The Supreme Court decision in United States v. Press Publishing Co. overturned the indictments, in part on jurisdictional grounds but also reinforcing that there should be no such thing as seditious libel in America – the notion that the government can’t prosecute people criminally just for publishing content to provoke dissatisfaction with the government with the publisher unable to even use truth as a defense.

Perhaps contemplating his legacy, Pulitzer authored an article in May 1904 for the literary journal “The North American Review” in which he proposed to raise journalism standards by providing better education and training for aspiring reporters. 

“Our republic and its press will rise or fall together,” he wrote in an oft-quoted statement. “An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mold the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalism of future generations.”

The Pulitzer Prizes, established through his will, honor excellence in journalism, literature, and music. These prestigious awards continue to recognize outstanding contributions to public discourse.

"More than any other media mogul, Pulitzer has had a continuing legacy of inspiring and elevating the practice of journalism,” Chris Daly, a journalism professor at Boston University, said in an article about a PBS profile of Pulitzer for the network’s “American Masters” series.

This article was written by Dennis Hetzel. Hetzel was a reporter, editor, newspaper publisher and journalism professor before becoming executive director of the Ohio News Media Association and president of the Ohio Coalition for Open Government where he worked extensively on open government and First Amendment legal issues. 

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