An American Success Story
By Denis Brian
John Wiley & Sons
438 pages; $30
Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (firstname.lastname@example.org), AJR's senior editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
Like big stories, ambitious books often have bold nut graphs, and Denis
Brian unfurls his nut graph early: Joseph Pulitzer was "the Einstein,
Shakespeare, Churchill of journalists, and is still the greatest
newspaper editor of all time, at least in the English-speaking world."
This brash statement obliges Brian to achieve at least two goals. He
must defend the greatest-editor claim, and, more intriguingly, he must
dissect what makes a superior editor and how Pulitzer became one.
How well does he do? No more than medium well on either point. Brian's
book, it turns out, isn't very analytical and never develops an orderly,
convincing brief comparing Pulitzer to other editors or to whatever the
gold standard for editing might be. It leaves a trail of crumbs and
clues of insight into great editing, but readers must detect and
assemble the case on their own.
What Brian does succeed in, however, is exciting play-by-play. Pulitzer
may or may not be history's top editor, but he lived a fascinating,
action-packed life full of daring, drive and drama, and Brian delivers
an immensely readable story.
Pulitzer was born in 1847 in Hungary. Ungainly, nearsighted and
temperamental, he was spurned by the Austrian army and even the French
Foreign Legion. Despite speaking pitiful English, he sailed to America
to join the Union Army, leaping from the ship into Boston Harbor and
swimming the final yards to shore to collect a $300 enlistment bounty
that otherwise would have gone to his recruiter.
He fought without distinction in the Civil War, studied law but failed
to gain clients because of his scruffiness and lucked into a job for a
German-language newspaper. From there he soared.
"Pulitzer willingly worked nonstop all day and night...turned in reams
of good copy, covered breaking news and politics, showing...a mastery of
the job." Within four years, he had gotten himself elected to the
Missouri Senate (which he covered and served in simultaneously), shot a
lobbyist and been convicted of assault (for which he was fined $405),
and become a co-owner of the newspaper.
In 1878, he bought the St. Louis Dispatch for $2,500 at bankruptcy, and
he quickly resurrected it using what would become his signature formula:
"cater to the masses and earn their trust."
In 1883, he bought the ailing New York World, propelling himself into
the national limelight. Using the same populist formula that had worked
in St. Louis, Pulitzer upped the paper's circulation tenfold within two
years. Until his death in 1911 and despite being a "blind invalid for
the last 22 years of his life," Pulitzer was a larger-than-life media
He influenced the election of presidents, served briefly in Congress,
engaged in nonstop crusading, surrounded himself with some of the
foremost writers of the age (Nellie Bly and Theodore Dreiser, among
others), was unsuccessfully prosecuted for criminal libel by Theodore
Roosevelt, and raised the money that brought the Statue of Liberty to
New York. Forever straddling the line between public service and
sensationalism, he both endowed the nation's first school of journalism
and engaged in a gutter rivalry with William Randolph Hearst that
defined yellow journalism.
All this occurred as he deteriorated into what Brian calls "a physical
and mental wreck," suffering from blindness, insomnia, asthma, diabetes
and probably depression. Because of fragile arteries in his brain, he
never tied his own shoelaces after age 43. Beset by raging headaches, he
traveled the seas in a yacht or imprisoned himself in soundproof rooms,
attended by a brigade of secretaries and presiding over the paper
through cables and coded messages.
It is a life story of Dickensian peculiarity and proportion, but those
qualities don't necessarily confer greatness. What accounts for
Pulitzer's enduring legacy? What makes people celebrate an editor 100
Many potential answers present themselves. From the jump into Boston
Harbor to his refusal to bow to infirmity, Pulitzer's life was a
testament to the drive to succeed. He excelled in seeing both the big
picture and the devilish details. He recruited top people and challenged
them — sometimes ruthlessly.
More than anything else, Pulitzer's legacy derives from his special
ability to manage both ends of journalism's needs versus wants
continuum. He gleefully satisfied human interest, and he devotedly
served the public interest.
Pulitzer was a premier popularizer. He pushed for crime stories, sports
coverage (including cockfights), better illustrations, bigger headlines.
He took on infidelity by priests, disclosed urine tests of presidential
candidate James C. Blaine, and revealed the double life of John D.
Rockefeller's father, a bigamist whose unmarked grave was located by a
World reporter. He organized "an expedition...that rescued 24 white
slaves from bondage."
Pulitzer also was ahead of his time in covering international news and
women's issues. He took labor seriously. His investigators unearthed
unfair tax patterns, impurities in milk production — "maggoty milk
supply," the headline read — and the plight of the impoverished — "one of
the families subsisted for nearly a week upon the carcass of a big
He famously championed the motto, "Accuracy! Accuracy! Accuracy!"
"A newspaper should be scrupulously accurate, avoid everything salacious
or suggestive that could offend the good taste or lower the moral tone
of its readers," Pulitzer declared. But he added: "I do not mean the
good taste which is offended by every reference to the unpleasant things
of life.... I mean the kind of good taste which demands that frankness
should be linked with decency."
Perhaps more than any other editor, he showed that a paper could
simultaneously entertain and serve, and his pronouncements on that point
A journalist, he proclaimed, is "the lookout on the bridge of the ship
of state.... He is not thinking of his wages or of the profits of his
owners. He is there to watch over the safety and welfare of the people
who trust him."
Stepp, an AJR senior editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of
Journalism at the University of Maryland.###